Borderline Views: The new year in Israel and the Jewish world

"For me it will be a normal quiet evening at home – my New Year is Rosh Hashana, not December 31."

New Year's ball New York 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
New Year's ball New York 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For much of the world it is New Years Eve today. In Israel too, the beginning of the New Year will be celebrated with much gusto and parties into the early hours of the morning. For me it will be a normal quiet evening at home – my New Year is Rosh Hashana, not December 31, although I would be less than truthful if I did not admit to cashing in on global New Years celebrations, such as a good concert, a fireworks display, or attending a major sports event if I happen to be outside of Israel during this period.
It is one of those occasions where the definition of Israel as a Jewish state comes into play. I am always amused by my colleagues’ amazement throughout the world when I explain to them that in Israel the week of Christmas is just a regular working week – for both Jews and Muslims – and that were it not for the news broadcasts from Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, most of the country – especially those not networked into satellite TV or the Internet, would not even know it was taking place.
When we grew up in the UK, Christmas was a busy day in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish community got together and offered its voluntary services to hospitals, care centers and other welfare organizations to allow as many of the regular workers to take the day off and celebrate in the company of their families.
For those of us in Jewish youth movements, the Christmas and New Year week was, more often than not, the time of our winter camps. We would hire the residential schools which were all on vacation during this period and eager to earn some extra revenue by renting out their facilities during this “dead” period. The youth leaders and emissaries from Israel would engage us in intensive discussions about our Jewish identity and destiny, along with regular camp activities and adventures within a closed, Jewish framework. The fact that it was Christmas and New Year out there was totally lost on us.
Among the orthodox, the vacation period is exploited for special week-long learning sessions arranged at the yeshivot and the local synagogues, so as not to waste valuable learning time. For the yeshiva world outside Israel, especially for those who spend their week in gainful employment, the Christmas and New Year period is exploited to its fullest potential as a time and place for additional study.
The mother of all global Jewish events, the annual Limmud conference, takes place during this holiday period on the campus of Warwick University. Thousands of Jews come together for a week of study, learning and exchange of ideas within a pluralistic Jewish environment, almost oblivious to what is happening in the outside world. What better a time to engage in in-depth Jewish study and discussion than the week when the rest of the country is on holiday celebrating their own religious festivals.
And, by all accounts, this year was yet again a huge success story, with the likes of UK Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis (a well publicized and much discussed first appearance of a British orthodox chief rabbi at the event), the eloquent Israeli ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, the head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and recently elected member of Knesset Dov Lipman just some of the “celebrity” figures attending this unique global Jewish event.
But celebrating the season’s festivals in Israel is not only about the Jewish dimension of the state. We are also a democratic state, as we continually remind ourselves and the rest of the world. So whether we choose to celebrate Rosh Hashana, Christmas or January 1 (and lets not forget the Muslim festivals which are of significance to many more people here in Israel than are the Christian celebrations) must be a question of free choice, not coercion.
A large proportion of the population does celebrate the New Year as the supreme global festival, mostly ignorant of the fact that it also celebrates the feast of Pope Sylvester. There was a time when the Israeli rabbinate refused to grant kashrut certificates to hotels and restaurants in Israel if they so much as mentioned, let alone celebrated, the New Year. This attempt at coercion has been challenged, and ruled illegal, by the courts.
But given the growing consumer potential of the orthodox and religious population in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, many hotels have decided to abandon their New Year celebrations for simple commercial considerations – especially in those places where those Diaspora Jews not attending Limmud or volunteering, take this time as an opportunity to come and spend a week to 10 days visiting Israel, where the last thing they are seeking are Christmas or New Year events.
Ironically, it is the academic community which fits in best with the Jewish, as contrasted with the Christian, calendar. Since the academic year worldwide invariably starts around September – October, Israeli universities are always able to begin the year immediately after the Jewish New Year and subsequent festival period in the autumn, continuing through December and January without any break or vacation.
The global winter break is a peak period for holding international conferences in Israel, as many guests from abroad are able to take time out of the immediate post-Christmas vacation to attend the meetings here in Israel without having to cancel classes back home or request special permission for leave when they should otherwise be teaching.
Some combine it with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Bethlehem at Christmas. This next two weeks will see many international meetings of academics taking place in Israel and, given the growing context of boycott attempts not only in Europe but also – and perhaps much more significantly – in North America, the more academic visitors that attend conferences here, the better it is for Israel’s international scientific reputation and image.
So Happy New Year to all those of my colleagues and friends who are out there celebrating. I hope that those of you who are due to meet with me tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. will not be nursing a hangover and that business will be as usual. I’ll be taking it easy tonight, nothing special planned and, more than likely, falling asleep before the clock strikes midnight. And when I wake up tomorrow morning the world will have moved into the year 2014, but little else will have changed. For me that’s part of living in Israel. Its part of my Jewish identity.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.