Thanksgiving couldn’t be more timely for our family this year. We’ve gotten so bogged down with so many things and it’s easy to lose sight of being grateful for what we have. Thanksgiving in Alaska comes during the deepening darkness leading up to the winter solstice, a time that can seem particularly dark even as our neighbors begin to hang their holiday lights.
Our family has a weekly Shabbos table tradition of each of us saying 3 things that we are grateful for from the week we just finished. Bonus points are given if the person who just answered manages to ask the next person just as they begin to eat a bite of food and sometimes it’s easy to come up with three things and other times it’s a little more challenging. It always helps us begin our Shabbos meal in the right spirit, though. In some ways, I feel like Thanksgiving is a great holiday to break up the beginning of winter and remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.
I’ve been particularly in need of a reminder to look more at the positive. Work has been challenging, the kids have needed a lot of help with school work, I’ve been stressed about getting the house whipped into shape for sale, and I’ve just been kind of down overall, only seeing the challenges and negatives. As I contemplate sides that go with turkey, I’m also thinking about how I can focus more on all the places we have been so fortunate and deepen my trust that everything is going to work out for the best.
Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday for Orthodox Jews. Some choose not to celebrate it, seeing it as being more of a Christian or non-Jewish tradition. Some kosher keeping Jews also don’t eat turkey since there is no tradition of Jews eating the bird in the past and kosher laws can be a little tricky with birds. Our family still eats turkey and we still celebrate Thanksgiving, albeit with kosher recipes. When it comes to the meal, the turkey is the star of the show and for us that means a fleishig meal, meaning a meal that has meat in it and therefore no dairy.
In Alaska, that means ordering a kosher turkey (or two) ahead of time at a pretty steep cost and then rejoicing when you’re able to find them. Our two birds each cost about $60 a piece and weigh in around 12-15 lbs, but they’re all ours and we’re grateful to have them at all. The rest of the year, the only turkey available to us is frozen ground turkey.
Over the years, I’ve found ways to prepare sides without any dairy or using dairy substitutes. Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, even the ubiquitous green bean casserole can all be made pareve. This year, I’m also trying out a pumpkin challah and a pareve pumpkin pie. There are so many recipes now with so many people cutting dairy from their diet that it’s not hard to pull together a pretty nice Thanksgiving spread.
In many ways, cooking Shabbos each week makes cooking Thanksgiving a lot less daunting. You become used to pulling together a formal dinner every week, so what’s one more? Besides, you can COOK on Thanksgiving!!!! To me, that makes Thanksgiving positively relaxing after all the Yom Tovim of the High Holiday season. I love having the kids in the kitchen, helping out with their favorite dishes, music playing, and the familiar smells and tastes of my childhood. With so many other holiday traditions that needed to get the boot when I chose to convert, it’s wonderful to have one holiday that still translates.
At first, I initially wrestled with whether or not we should keep Thanksgiving, since it isn’t really Jewish. In my mind, though, the more I thought about it, the more I found it fit. What’s more Jewish than a meal that brings family together to focus on all that Hashem has given them? We wash our hands and say brachas rather than grace and we bench after the meal (benching is the blessing for after a meal with bread), but the desire to take time out of our busy lives to thank our creator for a successful harvest and all that we’ve been granted, I think, is a deeply human desire.
I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate. If not, it’s not that long until another warm Shabbos! This week, with the temperatures outside dipping into the negative F, we’re planning to spend a warm Shabbos at home, resting up to return to the Shabbat RV and the cold next week!