New Year's Eve: Should Jews party like the rest of the world?

Israel is ironically among the few countries that name the occasion after known anti-Semite, Pope Sylvester.

New Year's fioreworks 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
New Year's fioreworks 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As people all over the world are getting ready to celebrate New Year's Eve, so too are some of the Israeli population gearing up for what they call "Sylvester." The hype, though, is by no means comparable to that in the diaspora, particularly since New Year's Day is not a public holiday in Israel. Sylvester was a fourth-century pope of the Catholic Church and a saint, who died on December 31, which is why many European countries adopted this name to mark the day of the Feast of the Pope, instead of New Year's Eve. The name reached Israel, seemingly due to the Ashkenazi influence, which is rather ironic since Sylvester is also known to have been viciously anti-Semitic; and according to the Jewish literacy website, January 1st was a day on which thousands of Jews were murdered. Which begs the question: should Jews be celebrating a day dedicated to an anti-Semite, as well as marking the turning of the Christian calendar?
The Jerusalem Post discussed the matter with Jewish community leaders as well as members of Jewish Israeli society to get a feel for the general consensus. Rabbi Benny Lau, activist and nephew of former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, says the key lies in the name: if we call it New Year's Eve like the majority of the world, then no problem. "Personally, before the army, I didn't know the regular calendar; I only used the Hebrew calendar. In the dati (religious) society, the Hebrew calendar is the only one," he tells the Post. "But for regular people, using the regular calendar is obvious - it's nothing to do with Christianity, it's not a question of religion, it's a question of being part of the regular world."
"To send a card with 'happy new year' or to tell your colleagues or partners that hopefully we will have a  better year, I cannot see any problem with that."
But, he says, to celebrate Sylvester is completely different. "Because you take the religious part of this day - it's nothing to do with that. It is a big mistake and it's a shame because it means you don't feel proud enough with your own religion."
He adds that according to halachic values, it’s forbidden to celebrate "Sylvester." But it does allow for celebrating New Years's Eve. "I ask all Israelis why they can’t do the same event but use the regular name?" Addressing steps taken by the Chief Rabbinate in previous years, when they have made clear that mashgichim would not supervise Sylvester events held as hotels and restaurants thus taking away their Kashrut, Lau says he doesn't believe the new rabbinate will deal with this. "It's a situation that was in the past and I believe it won’t happen in the present," he opines. "It's not a real question because a restaurant or hotel can do a party for the new year; the name is just a big mistake."
"We use the calendar and we appreciate it; we are part of the western world - we move from page to page," he says matter-of-factly.
An opportunity to take stock of life
Writer and educator Izzy Greenberg takes a more spiritual take on the matter: "For me, the issue of commemorating non-Jewish holidays brings up some profound and soul-searching questions. On the one hand, I want to connect with and experience the world and all it has to offer. But on an historical-ethical level, do I want to be celebrating holidays that were often used as excuses to persecute and murder my people? On a spiritual level, do I want to tap into the energy of a celebration that has a dark or dubious origin, bringing that darkness into my life?"
He explains that from a Jewish perspective, there are three categories of non-Jewish holidays. The first, non-Jewish holidays that have a secular origin, such as the Fourth of July, in his opinion, "seem fine to celebrate." But holidays that have a pagan origin that continues to be expressed in the contemporary celebration, such as Halloween, he describes as being "not in the spirit of unity espoused by Judaism."
"Then there is this middle ground where there is a pagan origin to the holiday, but the pagan origin has become obfuscated by the contemporary rationale for the celebration to the extent that it has become completely lost. In this case it seems fine to commemorate it," he says, purporting that New Year's falls into this third, grey category. He agrees with Lau that the name used in Israel should be replaced with the secular term "New Year's."
Moreover, Greenberg says: "the rationale and values of New Year’s on the meaningful side -- rather than the drunken stupor excuse to party side -- is an opportunity to take stock of my life and make positive resolutions — very cool, very spiritual, and very Jewish. My preference? I would commemorate New Year’s in a private, reflective way or intimate gathering, but not through overt or public partying. If you are going to party, do not bow down to the ball when it is being dropped. And please drink responsibly."
'If you want to celebrate - enjoy!'Meanwhile Ilan, 47, from Mazkeret Batya says he doesn't celebrate the holiday and thinks that Jews have enough of their own holidays, but he doesn't have a problem with people who do. "If we were Chinese, who only have one festival, then maybe we would need to adopt other peoples' festivals."
"I don't celebrate it because it celebrates the anti-Semitic pope Sylvester, and I don't take it for granted that I live in the state of Israel, and there are always in the corner of our minds, memories of Jews who suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism, and who still do," he notes.
Sharon Berkley, 31, a British olah living in Tel Aviv, however, says that Jews too often find themselves isolated and so should join in festivities that connect them to the outside world. Yael Migdal, 27, from Ra'anana also doesn't see a problem with celebrating the end and beginning of a new year, particularly since we run our daily lives according to that calendar. She agrees with Lau and Greenberg that Israel's chosen name for the occasion is problematic, but views the day as an opportunity to stop and ponder about the past year, and to lay down aspirations for the new one. She takes the common Israel nonchalance to the occasion saying: "if there is a cool party I will go, but if not, it won't bother me too much."
Danielle Klinger, an Orthodox Jewish British olah living in Moshav Azriel shares her indifference. She says she didn't grow up celebrating but was neither encouraged not discouraged to, and now a mother of four children, she doesn't have the time or inclination. However, she doesn't see an issue from a Jewish perspective, comparing it to a non-religious holiday such as Thanksgiving, and describing it as a celebration of the passing of time. "So if you want to celebrate - enjoy!" she says, and with those simple words she captures the recurring sentiment towards the day.