It was a great Thanksgiving. My wife ordered a whole turkey from a butcher on Rechov Emeq Refaim, one of Jerusalem's nicer shopping and restaurant streets, several weeks ago. Turkey is common in Israel; whole turkeys are not. She bought cranberry sauce and all the other traditional accompaniments.
We also bought some challahs that formed the basis of a very tasty stuffing after they became stale. (I have no clue how that works.) My wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law spent a good amount of time cooking and talking about cooking some great food.
With a little help from my imagination, and with a good bit of nostalgia, it felt like Thanksgiving--crisp air, colors changing a bit, anticipation. Our middle son--in from D.C.-- and I went to Mehane Yehuda, the busy outdoor market, on Wednesday afternoon . Since the market was filled with its usual commotion, it felt like everyone was preparing for a holiday.
The Friday morning after the holiday we continued the festive feeling when we met some family friends for a brunch in downtown Jerusalem. Since many Israelis are off on Fridays and go out for brunch, shopping, errands, and the like, it felt much like the day after Thanksgiving. The family friends are native Israelis doing what they often do on their Friday off. Little did they know that they were playing a key role in making our annual Thanksgiving weekend feel much like the ones we have in the U.S.
Thanks to cable TV, our sons were able to watch just about all the football that they wanted to, albeit at some very different hours of the day. The 49'ers, the team we root for, were on at 3:30 a.m. That takes some real commitment to both Zionism and the team.
Even though they were extremely short-handed, our sons went out and tossed the football around. It was not the usual uncle and cousins game. But, then, the usual game does not take place where this game of catch occurred: first on the street in front of Beit Hannassi, the Israeli President's residence, with time for an explanation of Thanksgiving and the integral part football plays in it to an Ethiopian Israeli soldier guarding the residence; then in the side yard of the consulate of a Latin American country. No one in the consulate seemed to mind.
We certainly missed the traditional Thanksgiving get-together with extended family at our sister-in-law's home. But we did do a pretty good job of importing the food, the feeling, and the football. We ate just as much and we talked just as loudly.
While a little different, it did not feel odd at all to be celebrating the most inclusive and typically American holiday in Israel. Indeed, being abroad and living at least part-time in our ancestral homeland, with its many problems and challenges, and with people in neighboring countries all around us pleading and often dying for the freedoms that we are privileged to have, put into bright profile all that we Americans have to be thankful for.
All in all, with all the food, football, talk, and friends, Thanksgiving here in Israel felt just like "home."
As a matter of fact, it is home. Or, at least, it is another home. After several years of visiting for longer and longer periods, my wife and I joined our daughter and made Aliyah (became citizens) this year. For me, it was the culmination of a long-held dream to live in the home of our ancestors and to be part of the rebuilding of the Jewish people's home.
For my wife, it is a little more practical: after spending so much time here and intending to spend more, after making friends and becoming part of a community, and always mindful of that great motivator in today's modern society--the need for health insurance--declaring Aliyah and becoming citizens felt like the right thing to do.
On the ground, not all that much will change for us. We will continue our practice of splitting our time between Israel and the U.S. Moreover, making Aliyah in your late 50's does not present the same challenges as it does for those doing it at a younger age: no careers to start or re-start, no kids to get settled into school and to get acculturated and comfortable, no stresses and strains of taking care of all of the things that need to be taken care of before and after work or on lunch breaks.
Still, there are adjustments. New friends and a new community, a much smaller living space, buying a car, getting drivers' licenses, finding doctors. All of the things one might do when one moves to another city or state, but in a very different culture with its own rules, customs, and expectations. And, while many in Israel speak English and often like to do so, busy bureaucrats often do not or do not want to, and recorded phone announcements definitely do not.
Learning a new language is never easy, at least if you are older than five or six. Doing it at a relatively older age is a challenge. Ironically, one of the factors that makes it more difficult is not needing it to make a living as well as the fact that one can get by without learning the language. Motivation can be tough to summon up.
Why am I motivated to become a citizen of another country, and to live a good part of the year there, when I come from the greatest country in history, with freedoms and opportunities most people only dream of, and possibly from the most beautiful and fun state, California, in that country?
My desire to become a citizen of Israel and to live here a good part of the time certainly does not result from a sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction with the U.S. The U.S. is probably the greatest combination of idea and reality ever created. Rather, it is from a sense of belonging, a potential for fulfillment, and from a desire to be just a tiny part of history.
Assuming the world still exists and humans still live a thousand years from now, all of the problems facing Israel today will be mere blips on the Jewish people's historical screen. This period will be looked back upon as the period during which the Jewish people reestablished their nation in their land.
One need not take every word of the Bible literally, and one need not be oblivious to the narrative of others, to be awed by the uniqueness and majesty of this re-creation of the Jewish people in our homeland. I always wanted to be a part of this moment in history and to perhaps make a small contribution to it.
It's arguable just how much of a contribution one can make after already living a good part of one's life elsewhere. However, it is often said that just living here is a contribution in and of itself. I would amend that saying to say living here and putting up with the driving and the interminable horn-honking.
It admittedly sounds romantic. Modern day Israel is not the "land of milk and honey," although it is still the embodiment of the national aspirations of a people dedicated to an ethical and just way of life, and its national debates often reflect a continuing desire to fulfill those aspirations.
When I share these feelings with friends and acquaintances who have been here for 35 years, many say that is why they lived their lives here. And they seem satisfied and proud that they did make lives here.
Of course, not all people who immigrated to Israel are still so captivated by the mission and the ideal. Many came simply because it was the refuge available to them. Others have faced difficulties that have understandably chipped away at the idealism that once motivated them.
But many of the people with whom we have grown close still seem to feel some of the dream and the sense of being part of one of history's great endeavors. Perhaps that is why they have welcomed and supported us.
While all of these problems and more are serious and deserving of attention, it seems that the world's media often gives them more coverage than they deserve, considering Israel is a tiny country with just seven million people. While I have not conducted a survey, my guess is that the N.Y. Times runs as many op-eds and editorials annually on Israel as it does on India with its 1.3 billion people.
The latest problem area is the efforts by some in Israeli political life to, in the eyes of others, stifle free expression and influence the composition of the Supreme Court. While this debate is important, the efforts do not constitute the grave threat to democracy that some in Israel, the world media, and the American Jewish community seem to believe. Moreover, as is appropriate in a democracy, Israelis are having a vigorous and open debate about the issue and virtually every bill proposed on the subject has been defeated or substantially modified.
Every democracy deals with this tug-of-war between free expression and political debate and efforts to curtail such freedoms in the ostensible interest of security and unity. Israel does have several parties that are nationalistic and do not appear to have a good grasp of the essentials of a real democracy.
This problem, along with many others that often garner the attention of the media and offend the sensibilities of some American Jews, would be favorably influenced if about one million American Jews moved to Israel. The one million Russians who immigrated to Israel in the last 30 years had a huge impact on the society. They brought more symphony, dance, science, organized crime, pork, and nationalistic tendencies. Set down one million Americans here and they would have as much if not more of an impact. Just dreaming.