The Hypocrisy of Turning New Year's Eve in Israel Into a Nonevent

Israel's theocrats don't want you to know that it's a new year, because that's not kosher.

Josh Mintz
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Josh Mintz

It's a new year; it's 2012. The year section of the date on my phone, my computer and my wall calendar has changed. I've already written one check incorrectly and the year's barely more than a day old. Simply put, we had New Year's Eve here in Israel, and then it was New Year's Day, and now it is a whole new year. You'd be forgiven for not having noticed that though, as it was a pretty quiet celebration here in Israel.

You see, Israel's theocrats don't want you to know that it's a new year, because that's not kosher. It's understandable that Israel doesn't use public funds to celebrate New Year's with parties and fireworks shows, as it's not a Jewish or Israeli holiday. It's a shame (I love fireworks), but it's understandable. However, the level of conservative religious coercion involved in trying to obliterate this harmless celebration shows a lack of the very cultural tolerance that Israel's religious movement is currently chastising the rest of us for lacking.

A couple standing before the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv on New Year's Eve, Dec.31, 2011.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

A large proportion of Israel's Jews are, maximum, have not-too-distant roots in countries that take New Year's very seriously indeed, especially all of those Israelis that came from the Soviet Union, those Israelis that are considered the greatest work of immigrant absorption in history; one so good that the South Koreans still use it as a model for North Korean integration, those Israelis who contributed to our remarkable standing in the world of science, those Israelis that serve in droves in the military and win chess titles for us, those Israelis who form a remarkable proportion of our healthcare system and compete under our flag at international sporting events, those Israelis who we are so proud of until they want to celebrate New Year's that is, then they get left by the wayside.

You see, Soviet New Years looks a little like Christmas; there are trees and a man in a red suit called Grandfather Frost who comes and gives gifts. However, as anyone with only a little knowledge of modern history knows, the Soviet Union was so emphatically secular that it is safe to assume that Christmas (a holiday that went completely uncelebrated under Communism) is as far from people's minds on New Year's as can be.

Sadly, this means nothing to those who see themselves as fighting for Jewish integrity in Israel and, seeing as how there are no women to assault in this small battle, they resort to the only weapon that they have, and simply revoke the Kashrut license of any venue that dares to hold a New Year's party that displays any of these innocent symbols of the heritage of over one million Israelis, as if this somehow affects the integrity of the food.

The ridiculous thing is that Jews all over the world over celebrate New Year's with gusto and joy, without compromising their Jewishness at all. In fact, my parents celebrated New Year's over dinner with friends while I stayed at home and was in bed by 11:30, yet they worry constantly about my tenuous Jewishness, and wish that they would have done more to keep me in the fold.

Michael Broyde, a Rabbi, dayan (judge) of the American Beth Din and law professor recently wrote an article explaining that there is nothing non-kosher about celebrating New Year's as today's incarnation is a sufficiently long way divorced from its religious roots and there is a perfectly reasonable non-religious reason for celebrating it. Using the works of some of the most venerated poskim (arbiters of Jewish law) he explains how New Year's, Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day are all fine for Jews to celebrate, but that Halloween is best left alone. Israel's religious authorities disagree though, yet again showing their extremism in relation to their overseas counterparts.

In the meantime, we'll just keep on pretending that this isn't a problem and keep our New Year's celebrations low-key. And we won't call it New Year's, because that detracts from Rosh Hashanna; we'll call it Sylvester, because naming it after a canonized Pope is much more Jewish.

Josh Mintz is completing his degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies and is the communications director at Friend a Soldier, an NGO that encourages dialogue with IDF soldiers.