Growing up in Israel, Alex Rif was often asked how she could be Jewish if her family gathered around a Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve and welcomed Santa Claus into their home.
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It was hard to explain to her new Israeli friends that Novy God, the Russian term for New Year, is a secular holiday that has nothing to do with Christian saints – in fact, it was the only non-Communist holiday she and her family were allowed to celebrate under the old Soviet regime.
While Israelis, particularly in more secular cities like Tel Aviv, will often party through the night to celebrate New Year’s Eve (or Sylvester as it is known in the country), the public display of Christmas-related imagery is often frowned upon.
Many Russian-speaking immigrants, for that reason, make a habit of drawing their drapes at this time of year, lest already suspicious neighbors catch them in the act of decorating their Christmas-like “yolka” trees. Some, like Rif’s family, abandoned the tradition altogether. “We were ashamed,” acknowledges the 29-year-old Tel Avivian who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in the early 1990s.
No longer. This year, dozens of young Russian-speakers will welcome other Israelis into their homes as part of a new outreach initiative aimed at sharing a cherished tradition from the old country.
“Our goal is to erase all the stigmas around Novy God,” says Rif, one of the brains behind this new project, which will match up Russian-speakers eager to open their homes with native-born Israelis seeking a unique cultural experience. “It’s not a Christian holiday, and it’s not a time when we go out to bars to get drunk. Rather, it’s an opportunity to get together with the family in the intimate environment of our homes to share food, stories, and gifts.”
Rif, a scriptwriter whose work has been heavily influenced by her experiences as an immigrant, recently began organizing readings for young Russian-speaking poets hoping to introduce them to wider audiences. It was at one such event that she met Beri Rozenberg, a 31-year-old lawyer, who had become aware, through his own independent experiences, of a growing interest among young Israelis in Russian culture.
“Three years ago, I disappointed my mom when I told here that I wouldn’t be coming coming home for Novy God because I wanted to have it in my own place with some of my non-Russian-speaking friends,” recalls Rozenberg, who moved to Israel from Latvia as a small child. “We started with six people, by the next year the number had doubled, and last year, we had close to 30 people, most of them non-Russian-speakers. It made me think about the possibility of turning this into something really big.”
It took his meeting Rif to make that happen. Not coincidentally, the two collaborators in the Novy God Israeli project are both active members of Generation 1.5, a relatively new organization comprised of young Russian-speaking social activists trying to stake their claim in Israeli society.
At a typical Novy God celebration, Rozenberg explains, family and friends gather around the table in the evening hours for a huge feast that begins with a tapas spread known as “zakuska,” a highlight of which is a salad made of cured fished topped by layers of root vegetables and mayonnaise. Toasts begin at 11 p.m. – the hour when many of them would have been welcoming in the New Year back in the former Soviet Union.
“Raising a toast at Novy God is an art, and it can go on and on because everyone has a speech to make,” he notes.
Then it is time for Grandpa Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus, to make his appearance and hand out gifts to the children. At midnight, family and friends toast the New Year once again and spend the rest of the night telling stories and watching Russian cult films.
In Israel, notes Rif, Novy God has acquired it own special twist. “It’s become an opportunity for many of us to talk to our parents and grandparents about Jewish life in the old country and learn about our heritage,” she says.
Earlier this month, the project organizers launched a new website and a Facebook page to spread the word. The website includes links with information about the history of the holiday, the yolka tree and the all-important New Year’s toast. It will also feature recipes for traditional dishes eaten at the Novy God feast.
The group also produced a video that riffs off the "What people think I do/What I really do" Internet meme to laugh at the various Israeli misconceptions about the celebration.
Ever since the website went live, say Rif and Rozenberg, they have been inundated with requests from Russian-speakers to host native-born Israelis for the big celebration. The response from the other side – native-born Israelis wanting to partake in the experience – has been even more overwhelming. “We see our role in this process as serving as the facilitators,” says Rif, “getting the two sides together.”
A few years ago, she reveals, her parents began celebrating Novy God once again, after a hiatus of several years. It goes without saying that this year, the drapes in their home will not be drawn.