Talk Turkey

This year’s Thanksgiving will certainly be different than that of years past. Our meals will be smaller, our gatherings migrated to Zoom and other video chat platforms. And yet we still come together to give thanks for what we have and the blessings that fill our lives.

Over the years I have pointed out the Jewish connections to Thanksgiving. One of my favorites is the name of the holiday. In Hebrew the bird we call turkey is known as hodu, but it also means “give thanks”, which means that the Hebrew for Thanksgiving, Yom Hodu, is particularly apt.

In an even weirder twist, the word hodu also means India in Hebrew, while in English Turkey is a separate country. It seems that the names for the bird come from misunderstandings about its place of origin. While the turkey originated in North America (that’s why we eat it on Thanksgiving after all), Europeans first encountered the bird through intermediary countries.

One point of origin was Turkey and so in English it was known as the “Turkey fowl”, while other languages, including Hebrew, connect it with India (“Indian fowl”), either because of Christopher Columbus’ mistaken belief that he had reached India when he came to North America, or because they imported the birds from that country.

There is a final, amusing legend that connects the turkey, Columbus, and the Jewish people, but is almost certainly just a myth. The first Jew to reach the New World may have been a man named Luis de Torres, a translator in service to Columbus, who expected that he would find the lost tribes of Israel on his journey. He needed someone who could speak Semitic languages so he purportedly employed a Spanish converso who had been born Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri.

De Torres stayed on Hispaniola after Columbus left and his fate is unknown, but he was probably killed by the natives. He and another explorer were the first to encounter tobacco, and legend has it that de Torres gave the turkey its name when he mistook the bird for a parrot, which is called tukki in Hebrew. This is story is almost certainly false since turkeys don’t really look like parrots, and the origin of the word through the importation of the birds through Turkey is fairly clear.

No matter what you call it, this year our turkeys are going to be smaller with fewer mouths to feed around the holiday table. As we partake of our meal, let’s take a moment to contemplate hodu: to give thanks for all that we have, and also consider the strange and wonderful journey of language through human history.

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