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Jewish Book Month'I'm a New Yorker. I couldn't imagine a live turkey on the subway'

Gobble up this real-life Jewish Thanksgiving story

In her debut children’s book, Times of Israel writer Jessica Steinberg celebrates identity, diversity and the immigrant experience through the lens of one of America’s most beloved holidays

Jessica Steinberg reads 'Not This Turkey' to her kids. (Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)
Jessica Steinberg reads 'Not This Turkey' to her kids. (Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)

BOSTON — In her newspaper writing, Jessica Steinberg explores Israel, sharing off-the-beaten-track stories with her readers about everything from tapestry artists, the latest trends in video games, and multicultural music making.

A seasoned journalist, Steinberg’s beats have included everything from business to real estate, travel and fashion. The American-born writer, who has lived in Israel for the last 16 years, has been the culture writer for The Times of Israel since it launched in 2012.

One subject she hasn’t written about? Turkeys. Until now.

A life-long lover of all things Thanksgiving, Steinberg has penned her first children’s book, “Not This Turkey.” Illustrated by Amanda Pike the book is published in time for the beloved American harvest holiday on Thursday, November 24. Its publication also coincides with Jewish Book Month, a celebration of Jewish literature founded by the Jewish Book Council and held annually during the month before Hanukkah.

Steinberg’s delightful book is a lively mashup of a Jewish immigrant family’s travails to adopt American customs and a page-turning tale that will get kids and adult readers giggling.

Set in New York City, the story is told through the eyes of a young school boy whose immigrant father takes the J train each day to his job at a pocketbook factory in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The caper takes flight when his dad wins a turkey in the factory’s Thanksgiving raffle.

The big surprise? The turkey is an enormous live bird who briefly escapes while exiting the elevated subway. Once home, of course, the young boy takes a liking to the turkey, named Indik, and is relieved when the kosher butcher declares that Indik is too old and big for cooking and agrees to keep Indik in the shop’s back yard.

Cover of 'Not This Turkey,' by Jessica Steinberg. (Courtesy)
Cover of ‘Not This Turkey,’ by Jessica Steinberg. (Courtesy)

But oy, vey! Mama has invited all the family for their first traditional American Thanksgiving and is at a loss of what to serve. Can they eat familiar Jewish foods like noodle kugel and Aunt Shaindel’s stuffed cabbage on Thanksgiving? The heartwarming ending celebrates the true meaning of the holiday, gratitude for being together.

Steinberg hits all the right notes in her first outing as a children’s author: a terrific, well-paced story that conveys day-to-day family life and sparkles with a charming, fantastical tone.

Amanda Pike captures the scene and the riotous moments with her whimsical illustrations that are a perfect match to the story — such as when a bewildered Papa chases his hat and the runaway turkey at the same time. Story and art bring to life the hustle and bustle of city living, with street scenes featuring a melting pot teeming with Jewish and multi-ethnic shops.

Kids will get a kick knowing that the hard-to-believe fictional book is based on a real life story that really happened to the Silberklang family — friends of Steinberg and her husband.

In a Skype conversation from her home in Jerusalem, Steinberg said she recalls sitting around a Rosh Hashanah dinner table nearly a decade ago when one of the Silberklangs relayed his family’s first-ever Thanksgiving dinner adventure.

“I’m a New Yorker. I couldn’t imagine a live turkey on the subway. He [their father] shlepped it home and it slept in their apartment for a few nights,” she said.

‘I could see it on the page; the imagery was immediately there’

As a writer, she immediately pictured the scene.

“I could see it on the page; the imagery was immediately there,” she recalled.

While Steinberg took a stab at a first draft right away, she quickly learned how difficult it is to write a children’s book.

“Every word counts,” she observed.

The book was on the shelf for a few years while she became a mother and raised her two sons, who are now in second grade.

But getting back to the book was never far from her mind. Steinberg feels fortunate to have had the guidance of her cousin, Deborah Brodie, the influential and revered children’s book editor who reviewed early drafts. When Brodie became ill, Steinberg felt a renewed sense of urgency to finish the book. Throughout Steinberg’s life, the families were close and celebrated Thanksgiving together.

Journalist-turned-children's author Jessica Steinberg. (Courtesy)
Journalist-turned-children’s author Jessica Steinberg. (Courtesy)

“To be able to work with her on this story made it very special,” she said.

Brodie died in June 2012.

Even in Israel, Thanksgiving has not lost its appeal for Steinberg, who celebrates the American holiday in a very dedicated way, ordering a turkey and gathering decorations when she visits the US. She’s been known to ask friends traveling from the States to bring fresh cranberries, hard to find in Israeli markets.

Steinberg has heard that wild turkeys are commonly spotted across American neighborhoods, from suburbs to city streets. She finds the idea shocking.

“It’s been such a part of my imagination. To see a wild turkey on your lawn, it’s so bizarre,” she said with a laugh.

‘It’s been such a part of my imagination. To see a wild turkey on your lawn, it’s so bizarre’

As she gets ready for a small book tour in the Northeast US, including talks in several schools, Steinberg says she will also echo the book’s theme about immigration.

“It’s something that resonates,” she said.

She herself emigrated from the US to Israel, but her own Israeli kids are growing up with the holiday — much like the immigrant families who made tremendous shifts in their lives when they uprooted their families and became Americans. Today, immigration is a worldwide issue.

Steinberg includes a recipe for a cranberry apple noodle kugel at the back of the book.

“A holiday like Thanksgiving offers a great opportunity to understand the traditions and customs of where you’re living, but doing it in your way,” she said.

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