Do Jewish Israelis Celebrate New Year’s Eve? It’s Complicated, New Survey Finds

Only 2 percent of Israeli Jews say they conduct any form of soul-searching or resolution-making on December 31, but about a third of young adults will be out celebrating

A New Year's Eve celebration, known as "Sylvester" in Israel, in Tel Aviv, December 31, 2012.
\ Alex Levac

For decades, ringing in the New Year was a contentious issue in Israeli society. Champagne midnight parties were viewed by the religious community as an insult to the Jewish calendar – after all, the official Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) takes place in the fall.

It doesn’t help that in Israel the December 31 festivities are referred to by their German name, “Sylvester,” referring to the feast day of St. Sylvester. He was pope of the Catholic Church from 314-335 and by any measure was no fan of the Jews. He is known for having talked Roman Emperor Constantine into prohibiting Jews from living in Jerusalem and other anti-Semitic measures.

The religious authorities in Israel have frowned on the holiday to such a degree that hotels risked losing their kosher certification if they dared host New Year’s Eve parties.

While some Jewish Israelis still party it up on December 31, they mentally compartmentalize their “meaningful” New Year (the Jewish one) from the “fun” one in winter, according to a new survey compiled by the Jewish People Policy Institute.  

The JPPI poll found that a large majority of Israeli Jews view Rosh Hashanah as their “real” New Year, with only 2 percent saying they conduct any form of soul-searching or resolution-making on December 31. Only 6 percent polled believe that the latter date should be viewed as the actual end of their year and January 1 the beginning of the New Year. 

Still, even without any deep meaning attached to the New Year in the Gregorian calendar, many Israelis are happy for any excuse to party. JPPI found that 20 percent of Israeli Jews celebrate the New Year, with that number climbing to 34 percent among those without children.

 
In Tel Aviv, most restaurants are packed on the last night of the calendar year, with many featuring special menus – despite the fact that January 1 doesn’t mean a day off from work. And champagne toast functions in private homes aren’t uncommon, either.
 
Unsurprisingly, the biggest factor determining whether one pops a champagne cork at midnight is the level of religious observance. Over a quarter of Israeli Jews who consider themselves secular or traditional, but not religious, say they celebrate New Year’s Eve, according to the survey. Among the traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox crowd, that number drops below 5 percent.  

The most extravagant celebrations at this time of year in the Holy Land are held by the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union celebrating Novy God. This secular Russian New Year’s Eve celebration comes complete with decorated fir tree – which looks like a Christmas tree to the untrained eye – and the Santa Claus-like figure of Grandfather Frost.

Though decorated fir trees have become far more common in the Jewish state as a result, the survey reported that 38 percent of Israeli Jews have no idea what Novy God is (and that number shoots up to 75 percent among the ultra-Orthodox community).

However, 8 percent of Israeli Jews say they mark Novy God, either because they are immigrants themselves or are celebrating with Russian-speaking friends. 

The survey did not include Israeli Arabs, roughly 9 percent of whom are Christians. The data was drawn from a survey conducted of 3000 Israeli Jews with a margin of error of 1.8 percent.