Novy God is no longer a holiday for the few

Novy God was an integral part of my Jewish childhood.

WELCOMING THE new year.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The story of Israel’s relationship with Novy God,  the Russian name for New Year’s Eve celebrations, is complex. An obscure ethnic holiday in the beginning – many Russian-speaking Israelis remember being shamed for celebrating it – Novy God has in past few years taken center stage in Israeli public life, with politicians offering greetings to the public, and with December 31st being recognized as a day off for those who celebrate. As many Russian-speaking Israeli families are preparing for the festivities, I reflect on the way the holiday reflects my personal growth and stages of integration into Israeli society.
I was born to a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad, today St. Petersburg. Novy God was my favorite holiday growing up. It was the only holiday we celebrated that had no ideological underpinnings whatsoever. During the holiday season, our communal apartment shared by several families (by order, not by choice) was always full of people. Smells of traditional foods, salads, mandarins, and of course the yolka, the decorated fir-tree wafted from room to room. One year my classmates went from one apartment to another taking the families by surprise and filming preparations for New Year’s Eve. As such, Novy God was an integral part of my Jewish childhood.
I immigrated to Israel when I was 17, on my own. I was a Zionist, a Bnei Akiva activist in my hometown, and I wanted to build my life in my homeland. New Year celebrations were not part of this plan. However, when my mom moved to Israel a few years later, there was no choice. For her it was a given that the family should celebrate the holiday together. New Year’s Eve became an event for close family only, something one didn’t really talk about for fear of being shamed. For years, New Year’s Eve was celebrated in the Israeli underground. It existed inside the closed doors of the houses, paradoxically, as in the early, austere years of the Soviet Regime when it was banned as a “bourgeois holiday.”
Fast forward a couple dozen years, and more than a million Jews who moved to Israel from the USSR in the 1990s now constitute a significant political power on the Israeli scene. Politicians on the Right and Left now use Novy God to rally potential voters. Our prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, publicly explains that Novy God is not “Sylvester,” a name previously used by Israelis to describe the December 31st festivities. A leading politician on the Left, Zehava Gal-On, speaks Russian to appeal to Russian-speaking Israelis during the election season.  Like myself, a new immigrant once, Novy God has integrated well into Israeli political life.
What about me, then?
My personal story follows the same vector. Once a newcomer in Israel, I now find myself and my work closely connected to the Jewish State, with my Russian Jewish identity informing all I do. After graduating from the Hebrew University law school and building my career as a lawyer, I worked on finding a place in the world of Jewish education where my work and identity would matter. In 2018, I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.
For my graduate thesis, I researched the relationship between Novy God and Halacha, and in doing so closed a circle of my identity. Novy God is historically a holiday that comes from the people, and the people will decide whether to keep it or not, and adapt the celebration to reflect their complex identities. There are numerous traditions in Judaism that come from other cultures, and are seen now as fully kosher. As we celebrate Hanukkah, with its amazing transformation from the time of the Talmud into what it is now, few would remember that it started as the holiday of light with strong Zoroastrian influences. I spent the last couple of days of Hanukkah in Odessa, where I lit Hanukkah candles,chanted the blessings and taught Torah. Over Shabbat, I led services at the only Conservative community here (one of four in Ukraine).
Now, I am back in Tel Aviv – home. It is here that I will chop the ingredients for the traditional “Olivier” salad served on New Year’s Eve, and will sit down with my husband and three Israeli-born children in order to celebrate. On December 31st, as the clock strikes midnight, we will drink cava to the past year, and will welcome the new one – as Jews and Israelis, proud in our identity and looking forward to many Israelis joining us in celebrating Novy God this year.
The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. She works at the Schechter Institute directing Midreshet Schechter, a program offering bet midrash study to the general public in Israel and Midreshet Yerushalayim, a network of Jewish educational programs, camps and communities in Ukraine.