Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner

Our Thanksgiving dinner was interesting, to say the least. Thanksgiving is one of the most traditional holidays celebrated in American culture. Anything stemming from these traditions is, well, just not tradition anymore. I have to give the organizers props for trying their best, but it was still not the same as gathering around the table back home, where close friends and family can feast together on a delicious meal that had been prepared for days in advance. 

In Israel, we had two Thanksgiving options (besides going to one of the many pricey restaurants in town that catered to Americans and had a special Thanksgiving menu). Either we could attend an endowed event hosted by Hebrew University's on-campus Hillel which advertised an evening full of food and festivities at a minimal fee (40 NIS or approximately $11 US per person) or we could opt for a dinner event hosted by the AACI (Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel) that was certain to have the full trimmings and at a steeper price (140 NIS or $38 US per person). We chose the former based on price and based on the fact that it supposedly catered to our age group. 

So, on Thanksgiving evening, we were picked up by buses in front of Hebrew University which  ushered us (and nearly 100 other Americans) to the Jerusalem Park Hotel:

I couldn't help but feel like I was back in college, sitting on a party bus filled with fraternity and sorority students on their way to a local hotel or bar for that evening's mixer. After all, the chitchat I heard in the background centered around, "Will there be an open bar?", "God, I hope there will be an open bar!", "Are we there yet? I need a drink!" Rafi and I looked at each other wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Regardless, it was Thanksgiving and no one was going to stop me from enjoying some sort of element of tradition. When we did eventually arrive at the hotel after a short ride, dozens of eager Americans piled out of the bus and lined up outside the entrance to the festivities. In a few minutes, we were welcomed into the event's foyer, and this is what greeted us, or I should say 'who', greeted us:

Weird man on stilts handing out roses
Another weird man on stilts, dressed as a woman and blowing bubbles
Exactly what you would expect to see on every Thanksgiving, right? We were surely entertained. At least they meant well. For the first hour, we were in this foyer, feasting on hors d'oeuvres and a taco bar, baffling at the variety of clown-like men on stilts and those dressed up in turkey costumes and yes, enjoying an open bar.  We started to think that this was the main event and became dismayed that we had chosen this circus for Thanksgiving. Not too long later, the doors opened up into the main ballroom:

After securing a seat at a 'non-VIP' table (oops!), we found our menus and agendas for the evening. On the list of events were: 1) Greetings, 2) 1st course, 3) Fire Show (yes, you read that right), 4) Free Dance Time (I can't remember how it was phrased in Hebrew), 5) 2nd course/main course, 6) Group Project (what??!) 7) Free Dance Time, and finally,  8) Dessert & After-Party. Upon sitting down, we were already full from appetizers and found a full Israeli spread on each table prior to having our meals served. After touching greetings by the Israeli hosts and hostesses who express genuine care about the American people (it is extremely empowering to hear the love, appreciation and respect that Israelis in general feel towards unknowing Americans; they tearfully claim that they fight not only for Israelis but for Americans as well), we downed our 1st course of a delicious white fish smothered in a delicate pesto sauce. Then it was time for the fire show, because you always need a fire show at Thanksgiving:

After the unexpected, yet still fascinating, fire show, it was time for some "free style dancing". Just a way to burn off the calories before being served the next portion. There was a lot of good, old American 50's tunes (I think that's the Israeli's attempt to play "authentic" American music, which I guess it is....but not very Thanksgiving-ish) and then there was a lot of "simi-tov and mazal-tov" and celebratory hora dancing, which Rafi annoyingly and nationalistically describes as "an American's attempt to be like Israelis" (which I think is funny coming from a Colombian):

After the brief dancing stint, it was on to the 2nd course, the main event. Here was the big test. Would they be able to pull it off? My taste buds would have to decide for themselves. Served buffet style, we had mostly all of the necessary trimmings, including plump turkey and cranberry sauce, candied yams with marshmallow topping, scalloped potatoes, green beans, chicken, beef, salad and corn bread. It almost sounded too good to be true. Wait, something was not right. There was something missing here. And I knew exactly what it was:

Thanksgiving Stuffing
As my mom would say, "close cigar, but no madam".  They almost had it, they were so close! But how can you have a Thanksgiving meal without stuffing? The answer: you can't! So, my taste buds were still unsatisfied for the moment, craving my traditional servings from back home. Luckily, right about that time, my friend Miriam from San Diego showed up for the remainder of the evening. She is actually also living in Jerusalem and I am so happy that she is here! We met almost 6 years ago when I was teaching Kindergarten students and she was a high school senior on the same campus. She is a bright light of positive energy and I was eager to bemuse her with the remainder of the odd festivities there were to come that night, including the 2nd round of mid-dinner free dancing and the "group project" which sent one individual from each table up on stage to discuss what we were thankful for based on a series of pictures left on each table that were meant to inspire us. I felt like we were in school, as the organizers walked around pressuring us to "do the project!" and asking us, "who's going up on stage to talk?" We nominated an energetic male at our table, and opted instead for a few photos:

Miriam and her personal bottle of red wine ;)
Following the group assignment, we had a plethora of dessert options, including wannabe pumpkin cake, and some more free dance time. With stomachs full and eyes heavy, it was time to head back. All in all, it was a successful event that, despite being uniquely entertaining, left a little something lacking in terms of tradition. Regardless, I was happy to be able to celebrate one my favorite holidays with a roomful of fellow Americans who could appreciate the genuine sentiment coming from a group of Israeli foreigners who wanted nothing more than to give us all a night to remember. Additionally, it made me smile. Thanks to the organizers for your efforts! For only the equivalent of $11 US, I would say we got what we paid for - and more! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, I hope it was a wonderful one that left your tummies full of delicious food and your hearts happy.  

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