City Front: On the first day of Chrismukka…

Russian expatriates are not ashamed to celebrate a variety of holidays.

xmas 298.88 (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
xmas 298.88
(photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
Although the last Hanukka candle has already burned out and the last doughnut has been eaten, a festive atmosphere still fills the Danilov living room. The beautiful hanukkia, still standing by the window, has not yet been stored in the closet and there are plenty of colored boxes, bows, garlands and toys spread around the room. There are still a few days left till New Year's Eve but the holiday preparations always begin early, says the mother, Galina. There are still quite a few chores that need to be carried out before the end of the year - a Christmas tree must be bought and decorated, someone will have to drive downtown to one of the Russian delis to buy the traditional caviar, shproti (smoked sardines) and the Soviet champagne - symbols of the New Year to thousands of expatriates from the former Soviet Union - and there are, of course, the presents. Evgeni, a 44-year-old engineer who moved to Israel from Kiev with his family 15 years ago, says that he and his friends and relatives wait almost the entire year for this holiday. "When we first came to Israel in 1991, it seemed strange that no one celebrates New Year's Eve here," he explains. "After all, we all use this calendar and live by it, so why can't we say farewell to the outgoing year and greet the coming one in a festive way?" Galina adds that the first time she had heard the word "Sylvester" (the term used in Israel for the New Year holiday) was in Jerusalem. "I'm surprised by the fact that the native-born Israelis think there is some kind of Christian connotation to this wonderful holiday. We have never celebrated Christmas, whereas New Year's Eve is a totally secular holiday for us." Evgeni and Galina say that they do not see any contradiction between observing Jewish holidays such as Pessah, Rosh Hashana and Hanukka, and celebrating New Year's Eve or decorating the house with a Christmas tree and Santa stockings. "There is no use explaining to Israelis that for us, people who were born and raised into the Soviet culture, the Christmas tree and Santa Claus (whom we actually call Grandpa Frost) don't have anything to do with Christianity," says Arkadi Frenklakh, the owner of Mercury bookshop near Talitha Kumi square in the city center. Sitting inside his shop, Frenklakh points out the many pink piggies that are snapped up by the customers. "According to the Chinese calendar, the symbol of this year is a pig, so many want to buy these toy-piggies to put them under the tree, or just to give as a present, wishing each other a good and successful year. It doesn't mean that we suddenly became Buddhists or something - it's just a nice tradition that we cherish and love," says Frenklakh. According to him, almost all of his customers do not see this holiday as a religious holiday, and very few actually look for Christian symbolism. "There are some Christian nuns who come to buy the presents, but in fact they prefer to purchase these goods in the Old City, since they are more suitable for them. When we just started selling New Year's decorations six or seven years ago, we used to buy from one Israeli company and from Christian Arabs. Now we bring out goods from Ukraine and Byelorussia." Just a few steps away from Mercury there is a deli, Gastronom, where sales have risen almost 30 percent 10 days ahead of the holiday. "Naturally, we expect a peak of customer activity on December 31. But already people come to buy champagne, special chocolates we bring from Russia and Ukraine, bread and sweets," says Marik Yitzhakov, the deli's manager. Seventy-five-year-old Ludmila, who moved to Israel seven years ago from the city of Irkutsk, says that for her this is the taste of nostalgia. "Of course I will celebrate New Year's Eve. We usually celebrated at home, with our loved ones, watch some special shows on Russian TV-channels, buy each other presents and toast with champagne at midnight." Ludmila says she also lit Hanukka candles, which made her feel very proud - "this is our Jewish holiday and I'm so happy that I can do that without fear." According to Yitzhakov and Frenklakh, each year they witness more and more native-born Israelis who also come to shop for Ukrainian-made holiday decorations and the special deli food. "Just yesterday we had some customers, who have lived in Israel more then 30 years, and they brought along their granddaughter who doesn't speak Russian at all - they bought a tree and a bunch of decorations. Also, sometimes we have native-born Israelis, mostly with origins in European countries, who come to buy our goods." Arkadi points out the glass snowballs and says that those have been extremely popular this year - not for New Year's, but for Hanukka festivities. He says that despite the confusion around the Russian-style New Year, he has hardly ever experienced any animosity or rage. "Interestingly enough, those are the newcomers from the FSU who embraced Judaism and the religious way of life, who come and verbally attack us... But thank God, they do not bother us so much, and of course they are not able to interfere with our holiday spirit," he says, smiling. "What's important really, is that the year of 2007, no matter what kind of symbols are attached to it, will bring us all peace, prosperity and a lot of happiness," says one of the customers in the shop and adds "S'novim Godom!" (Happy New Year).