For most of Israel’s history, wholeheartedly celebrating New Year’s Eve in Israel carried something of a stigma. The holiday was pointedly called “Sylvester” after St. Sylvester – a first-century pope who mistreated Jews. Hotels and restaurants hosting New Year’s parties were in danger of having their kosher certificates withdrawn by disapproving rabbis.
It has taken over 30 years of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union – and a new generation with confident Israeli identities but strong Russian roots – to bring the celebration of Novy God ("New Year" in Russian) into the Israeli mainstream.
The festive holiday was celebrated privately by families from the former Soviet Union who made their way to the Jewish state in the early 1990s. Under the regime, it was the only non-Communist holiday they could celebrate, and from their first years in Israel, they marked it as they did back home.
They would gather around tables laden with champagne bottles and delicacies from the old country in living rooms decorated with lights, tinsel and a fir or spruce tree called a “Yolka.” Families who went all out would dress up as “Grandfather Frost” (Ded Moroz) and his granddaughter the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) and hand out gifts to children. Toasts were made, holiday songs were sung and many families sat together and watched familiar holiday movies produced by the Soviet regime.
Festive as it was, many felt that they had to keep their celebrations behind closed doors. They knew they were observing a secular tradition that had been tolerated by the religion-averse Communist regime, but were worried that their Jewish neighbors saw trees, gifts and decorations in the last week of December as a celebration of Christmas. Their concerns were justified – in some immigrant enclaves, Orthodox public officials raised objections to displays in stores and public squares, and pointed to the celebrations as evidence that the newcomers from the USSR were not fully Jewish.
But in recent years, Novy God celebrations have entered the Israeli public square full force and the stigma has faded away. Supermarkets and toy stores advertise specialty items geared to the celebrations. Israeli politicians – and not just those of Russian heritage – release videos wishing members of the community "S Novim Godom” – "happy New Year" in Russian.
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Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of sending Novy God greetings to the Russian-speaking community last December. This year, President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal made a three-minute video expressing their appreciation for the contributions of Russian immigrants to Israeli culture.
“It's been a long journey,” said Liza Rosovsky, a journalist who immigrated to Israel with her family when she was ten years old, and frequently writes on the Russian-speaking community in Israel for Haaretz. “I still don’t think everyone in Israel has been exposed to Novy God and really understands what it is, but things have definitely changed.”
A turning point in the integration of the holiday into Israeli life took place in 2015, with a campaign called "Israeli Novy God." Behind the initiative was a group of Russian-speaking Israelis in their 20s and 30s who came to Israel as children and refer to themselves as Generation 1.5. Their goal was to erase any stigma attached to the holiday they enjoyed as children. Their message: Novy God is a secular celebration and, despite the resemblance, Grandfather Frost is not Santa, and yolkas are not Christmas trees.
A key part of the campaign was inviting non-Russians to celebrate with them, and a website played matchmaker between Israelis interested in experiencing Novy God and Russian immigrants willing to host them.
This began the process of putting Novy God on the map of festival traditions brought to Israel by immigrant groups and shared with the locals: the Russian equivalent of the Moroccan Mimouna, Ethiopian Sigd or American Thanksgiving.
Keren Morav, 17, has been celebrating Novy God for as long as she can remember. She joins her parents, who immigrated to Israel in 1991 and 1992, in visiting friends, watching Russian television, singing songs, exchanging gifts and embracing at midnight. She said that she looks forward to the “special Russian atmosphere” every year.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, last year was the first time her family celebrated at home, and she invited her non-Russian Israeli friends to join them, all of whom “really enjoyed” the experience, she said.
“I definitely think the holiday is much more mainstream than when I was young and more people know what it is and are interested in participating,” she said. But Morav also noted that her brother, who is serving in the IDF, was not allowed leave to come home and celebrate. Though acceptance is growing, unlike Sigd or Mimouna, Novy God is not recognized as an official holiday by the military.
Rosovsky believes that the driving force behind the push to bring Novy God into the mainstream of Israeli culture was the birth of a new generation in the Russian-speaking community and the desire to pass on the tradition.
“I think the real turning point for me personally – and for a lot of my friends – was when we started to have our own children,” she said. “With the second generation of children, you want to pass on the traditions and the feeling of celebration that we grew up with. That is when we started to really celebrate Novy God in a big way, and wanted those around us in the Hebrew-speaking world to know about it and embrace it.”