Shalom Aleichem, the legendary Yiddish writer, may not have been the first who used the phrase shver tsu zayn a yid, it’s hard to be a Jew, but he was certainly the one who best captured the idea. He was referring to the complex and often dangerous relationships Jews had with their gentile neighbors in the Russian Empire, and while that empire may have come to an end, the sentiment of Shalom’s pithy observation lives on. Without, needless to say, a definitive answer as to why this is so. Ask a dozen Jews throughout the world and you’ll get thirteen different perfectly valid reasons as to what makes being a Jew difficult.
If you ask me, for instance, my vote would be the confusion of having to live within the time frames of two different calendars – the Gregorian one and the Hebrew one. I doubt very much that there is any other religious or ethnic group that has two calendars hanging on their refrigerator> Or has to swivel from one to the other in order to keep up with the schedule of the civil holidays of the country they reside in and those that are part of the Jewish annual cycle.
In Israel, of course, the problem is somewhat less troublesome since there are no holidays that are celebrated on the basis of the Gregorian calendar. All our celebratory days are observed in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, which, given that Israel is a Jewish state, makes perfectly good sense. And yet, something seems a bit off.
You have to wonder what God’s intent was when he identified and distributed the holidays throughout the year. Those days on which the entire country has the obligation, or opportunity, to celebrate or observe are bunched into two broad periods. There are, first, five holidays during the late summer/early fall four-week New Year season that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. And then there are four holidays celebrated during the seven-week period in Spring that is kicked off with Passover and culminates 50 days later with Shavuot. Between the day on which we joyously complete the annual reading of the Torah and the one on which we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian slavery there are no other days that the country, well, closes down.
No, I haven’t forgotten Hanukkah, Tu Bishvat and Purim. But those are festivals – albeit, important and joyful ones – in which only schools and, in some cases, banks and government offices shutter up. For corporate and industrial activities, it’s business as usual. Any time off for these special days is usually deducted from an individual’s personal or vacation days.
Perhaps it’s time to give some thought to introducing a new, mid-winter holiday, one that is not defined or restricted by time, ritual or food, and that both the religious and secular communities can mutually enjoy and even participate in together.
Here, though, we have to resort to the Gregorian calendar, for our day-to-day lives and schedules are based on a January-December framework, not the one that begins in Tishrei and ends in Elul. Real estate leases and contracts, utility bills, financial statements and the like all reference the 12-month Gregorian year, and while it may be perfectly acceptable to date legal documents using the Hebrew calendar, I would suspect that very few do.
If, for example, you were to ask ten randomly selected individuals what today’s Hebrew date is, I’d be surprised if more than one or two would be able to answer. Those from the observant community might struggle less at coming up with the date since the first day of the month is incorporated as part of the daily prayers, both in the synagogue as well as at home. But by the middle of the month, some mental acrobatics will most surely be required to identify the current Hebrew date.
The nature of the day selected for the holiday, in addition, must obviously have some significance. David Ben-Gurion’s birthday might have been appropriate had he not been born in October. And, unfortunately, the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was approved on November 29 – not that long after the New Year’s holidays – instead of December 29, so that date cannot be a contender. We’re left, then, with what is certainly the most obvious day for Israel to call a national holiday; high time, I’d say, to bring Israel into sync with just about the rest of the world and take an objective look at making January 1 an official day of rest.
I’m not unaware that there are religious, non-Jewish aspects associated with January 1, but the day, for the most part, is universally recognized as the start of a new calendar year with no specific reference or sanctity related to Christianity. And Israel is no exception.
Locally, the week numbering will restart to 1, a new tax year will kick off, and retailers will declare the value of their inventory as Year 2022 gets underway. In fact, pundits – in all modes of media – have begun to bid farewell to Year 2021 with opinions on Person of the Year, Event of the Year, Movie of the Year, Book of the Year and even Antisemite of the Year. And, similarly, predictions about the pandemic, Iran, the coalition and Netanyahu will start rolling in, with projections on what might be expected this time next year.
As far as the Torah is concerned, we’re in the middle of Year 5782, but for the better part of our daily lives, we’re about to bid welcome to Year 2022.
Considering the stress that Israel and the world has been under for the last two years, a bit of breathing room from the daily routine is by no means unwarranted. And I am not, by the way, suggesting that we embrace the day with New Year’s Eve celebrations or wish each other a Happy New Year. Such celebratory sentiments are reserved for the Jewish New Year. Rather, the day simply provides an opportunity for some much-needed recreation or quality family time.
It’s not, moreover, like we’re unaccustomed to this break in the action. For the last several years the country was, at least annually, put on hold as repeated attempts were made to vote into office a stable government. Considering the relatively low turnout of voters, it’s fair to say that an unrestricted day off was very much enjoyed and appreciated. And while I don’t know if any specific measurements were taken, I’d be prepared to wager that the day off resulted in improved productivity and efficiency. Which is precisely what can be expected from an official, mid-winter vacation day.
Granted, there are seriously pressing matters that our government must busy themselves with, so it might be some time before legislation designating January 1 a national holiday gets on the agenda. Let’s just hope, though, that the critical issues relating to health, defense and security get sorted out so that the country can all enjoy a welcome respite come January 1 2023.
The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.