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A Jewish Thanksgiving? That’s No Jive Turkey

Is it just me, or does anyone else out there feel the stress of you-know-what around the corner? It seems to me that the winter holiday season, also known as Hanukkah hysteria or December dilemma, sneaks up on us earlier each year, like before I even have a chance to polish off my kids stale tootsie rolls. No sooner than I unplug the electric jack-o-lantern from the outdoor extension cord does our gentile society suck us into their world…Santas at every shopping mall, Jingle Bells on every radio station, and gigantic wreaths and red velvet ribbons tied around every light post in town. No wonder I find myself singing Winter Wonderland in the shower.

My point here is that even though I fully participate in all sorts of merriment, including decking my own halls with festive blue and white lights (that’s another column), I try not to get too carried away until at least after Thanksgiving. This favorite American celebration, which honors the feast shared by Native Americans and English settlers in the Massachusetts colony so long ago, deserves its full day of glory without any other holiday distractions.

So, on that note, let’s talk turkey. Even though Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday, Jews love it because we get to eat all day and give thanks without even having to go to temple. Actually, Thanksgiving might as well be a Jewish holiday because of the similar themes. In Deuteronomy, we are told, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks.” Also, the Israelites suffered famine and hardships, just as the earliest pioneers, only the Jews reaped their bounty in the Land of Milk and Honey long before the Wampanoag Indian tribe landed on Plymouth Rock.

Jewish people even have a prayer for Thanksgiving. The birkat ha-mazon (the blessing for providing food) is one of the most important prayers and one of the very few that the Bible commands us to say. However, the birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals, is never recited in synagogue. The birkat ha-mazon, which thanks God for giving food to the world, is commonly referred to as bentsch, from the Yiddish word meaning to bless.

In part, it says: “Blessed are You, Adonoy our God, King of the Universe, who nourishes the entire world with His goodness, with favor, with kindness, and with mercy. He provides food for all flesh, for his kindness endures forever. And through His great goodness, we have never lacked and we will not lack food forever and ever, for the sake of His great Name…”

With the focus on delicious food, there’s many ways to bring out the Jewish flavor of Thanksgiving. In fact, in addition to a kosher turkey, other Jewish cuisine easily adapts to the feast. My Aunt Syl, who is my mom’s younger sister, used to make an old-fashioned challah stuffing that disappeared from the table as fast as a chicken with its head cut off. Not until years later did I learn why this favorite dish tasted so uniquely rich. Even though the recipe is now barely readable on a torn, yellowish piece of paper from a 50-year-old Jewish cookbook, my aunt vividly recalls how the night before Thanksgiving she laid out challah slices on her dining room table. The next day, she toasted both sides of the bread directly on the oven rack and broke the crispy challah into pieces. Some of the main ingredients are the same as in modern recipes and include chicken broth, eggs, celery, onion, salt, pepper, and paprika. Plus, my aunt added a grated potato to her signature casserole, and instead of using healthy vegetable oil, she went for the cholesterol-laden good stuff—schmaltz and gribenis. The Yiddish word, gribenis, is chicken skin that is rendered in a sauce pan until it’s crispy, then seasoned with salt and pepper and mixed with chopped onions.

Another Jewish cuisine that is perfect for Thanksgiving is tzimmes, which is a saucy combination of carrots and pineapple that introduces dried cranberries in place of the usual prunes.

Tradition is an essential ingredient in all Jewish holidays, and the Thanksgiving meal is no exception. When it comes to making a turkey, in fact, no one has a better shtik than my hilarious father-in-law Norman, who actually massages and sings to “Tom the Turkey” before sliding the 22-pound bird into the oven. With his grandchildren as his audience, he really puts on a show. He belts out his best Yiddish opera voice and massages the outside and inside of the turkey with a secret mixture that includes olive oil, minced garlic, salt, garlic salt, and pepper. Then, he stuffs the turkey with carrots, onions, celery and sometimes throws in an apple, orange or other citrus fruit for a zesty flavor.

A Jewish twist makes any holiday more meaningful. In between bites of candied sweet potatoes, you can share stories about how different family members at your table found freedom in America, going back to the earliest generations. Also, since it’s a mitzvah to feed others, invite someone far from home to share Thanksgiving with you. Other ways for Jews to show their thanks is to serve food at a community Thanksgiving dinner for the needy, deliver meals to shut-ins, or donate money to an organization that fights hunger.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.