This is a busy season for Alex Volfson and Marina Aletko, a physics teacher and kindergarten teacher in Arad. Several years ago, the couple – who are also amateur circus performers – started staging shows for Israel’s Russian-speaking community in the lead-up to Novy God (the Russian New Year celebrations). And as December 31 approaches, they don’t have a moment to spare.
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It’s hard to say for certain if Alex and Marina are the only Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) in this southern desert town, but clearly they don’t have any serious competition. But the demand for their show in Arad is relatively limited, and the prices reflect this. The duo don’t stage many performances, but instead suffice with brief house calls. “Snegurochka arrives and, together with the family, summons Grandfather Frost: ‘Dedushka Moroz!’” says Alex, explaining the traditional ceremony so familiar to those who spent their childhoods in the former Soviet Union. “He arrives, blesses everyone, hands out presents, poses for photographs and away we go.”
The origin of the characters (Grandfather Frost is reminiscent of Santa Claus) is in an ancient Slavic tradition. They feature in Russian folktales, often in a scary context: “Snegurochka is a beautiful girl made of snow who melts when spring comes, and the frost bestows gifts on a modest maiden whose stepmother sends her to die in the forest and freezes her capricious sister to death.”
The communist regime initially forbade the celebration of Novy God, as well as other religious holidays (opiate of the masses, and all that). Christmas was beyond the pale, but at some point Novy God was recognized as a secular celebration and adopted into the Soviet holiday cycle.
In accordance with a tradition that developed over decades, the Snow Maiden – wearing shades of blue, white and silver – is Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter and mediates between him and children. In the Soviet Union, the kindhearted grandfather (in a long red or blue coat, and a fur hat), customarily conducted a short quiz for the children or demanded that they recite a poem as a condition for receiving gifts. Accordingly, children would prepare and learn a poem by heart.
In Israel, the Ded Moroz business has been flourishing in an unusual way in recent years. While there has been a gradual awakening in outlying parts of the country, business has really been booming the closer you get to the center: Parties in homes, big celebrations in restaurants or banquet halls, and elaborate feasts for adults that includes entertainment. And, of course, the beating heart of the holiday: family gatherings around the Novy God table on the night of December 31.
Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden are important guests at these home celebrations, and Alex and Marina are but one of many pairs of Russian-speaking actors who lead programs for children and make a living from Yolka (fir tree) parties.
“The general principle behind Novy God parties is that parents who grew up in the Soviet Union want to give their children what they had there,” says actor Ariel Krizhopolsky, 37. Together with his partner Kriss Fayerovich, he runs the La Panim Theater and, among other things, conducts interactive programs for children.
“All these parties and shows are inspired by what happened in our childhood in the various kinds of youth centers,” says Krizhopolsky. “Our aim is to replicate the holiday atmosphere in the conditions of a tropical winter.”
Victoria Avakyan, 36, runs Snezhinika, a group of seven couples (including herself and her husband). The consortium is made up of Russian-speaking actors from Be’er Sheva in the south to the towns north of Haifa. “We advertise together, and we try to support and help one another – and at the same time not spoil the market,” says Avakyan. She adds that in light of the demand, more couples will probably join them in the future.
Bookings start in November, with most dates sold out toward the end of December. The prices charged by the various Grandfather Frosts and Snow Maidens range from 300 to 500 shekels ($78 to $130) for a short visit and blessings, and between 650 to 900 shekels for a program lasting 60 to 90 minutes. The nearer the holiday, the higher the price. Naturally, the peak is on the night of December 31, when an entertainment program moderated by the wintry couple can cost up to 3,000 shekels.
Krizhopolsky says he has five or six gigs per day as the holiday approaches, while Avakyan’s phone doesn’t stop ringing. Volfson, meanwhile, barely manages to get home from work and put on his costume to perform for children.
“At parties for adults, Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden are invited along for the atmosphere,” explains Krizhopolsky. “There, we present these characters though a prism of humor. Two years ago, we were invited to a swingers’ disco with a crazy program moderated by Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden. We needed a huge amount of humor then!”
According to Avakyan, both the demand and supply have increased in recent years. “Ten years ago there wasn’t really much to choose from, and it also seemed very costly. Now, a whole host of people are spending on this – perhaps also because many parents, like us, want to transmit the [Russian] tradition to their children who were born here.”
Nevertheless, the holiday celebration is different here, with the Israeli children “usually mostly interested in the presents,” says Avakyan. She adds that the performances in the Soviet Union included a lot of rhymes, which isn’t suited to Israel because most of the children born here don’t know Russian well enough to understand verse.
Most of the holiday excitement among Russian speakers – which includes studio family portraits and the purchase of excessive amounts of food, drink and gifts – is barely recorded by those with no Russian roots. However, occasionally there are flashes of Novy God in the public arena. Even though the rabbi at the Technion in Haifa and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein opposed putting decorated Christmas trees up in public spaces, at Sheba Medical Center in central Israel, volunteers are organizing their third annual Yolka celebration – complete with fir tree and decorations in the pediatric oncology department.
The Hizdamnut Lehai’im organization, which was founded by Anya Bacharyeva and Yana Lemkin, helps children with cancer who have come to Israel for treatment. However, the party it holds annually at the hospital, with the participation of Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden, is for everyone: Immigrant children in the various hospital departments at Sheba, Ichilov and Schneider, and also for children who don’t know Russian. “They see that there is dancing and they join in. They see that presents are being distributed and they stand in line and receive a gift,” explains Lemkin. The announcements about the party are in two languages: Hebrew and Russian.
This year’s celebration at Sheba also saw the introduction of pirates and other figures from Russian fairy tales and cartoons. And in the same way that children pen letters to Santa Claus, it is customary to put gift requests to Grandfather Frost in writing. The organization publishes the children’s requests on its Facebook page and, says Lemkin, “within a few days all the wishes are granted by donors. We received hundreds of chocolate Ded Morozes and boxes of other gifts, which we distributed to the guests. Soldiers helped us decorate the space and motorcyclists dressed as Grandfather Frost put on a show for the older children. It was really like the Yolka celebration at the Kremlin,” she laughs.