A Happy Novy God (Without God)

A member of the Haifa municipal council has suggested that the city's annual `Holiday of Holidays' festival - which combines Hanukkah, Ramadan and Christmas - include Novy God, the Russian secular New Year holiday.

About two months ago, Dr. Boris Lazarov, a member of the Haifa municipal council representing the new immigrant list "Emda" [Stand], wrote a letter to Mayor Amram Mitzna. The subject: "An agenda proposal: The `Holiday of Holidays' for secular people as well." In the long and detailed letter, Lazarov asks that Novy God - the Russian New Year holiday - be included in the annual Holiday of Holidays festival in Haifa. In a unique event, one of the last vestiges of folkloristic peaceful relations, the mixed city celebrates the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Muslim Ramadan and the Christian holiday of Christmas in colorful Wadi Nisnas.

"It's important to point out the significant demographic changes that have taken place in the composition of Haifa's population," Lazarov wrote to Mitzna. "The new immigrants who have arrived from the CIS in the past 12 years constitute over 25 percent of the population, and the vast majority of this population is secular. These people have great respect for religious values, without distinguishing between the faiths, but they have their own holiday, too, which takes place at the same time of year. This holiday is called Novy God - `New Year.'

"Novy God," emphasized Lazarov in his letter, is not the "Sylvester" (New Year's Eve) of the Christians, which bears the name of a saint who was unknown in the Soviet Union, but is simply a secular new year.

And thus Lazarov's letter is not just another proposal on the agenda of the Haifa municipal council, but an expression of a profound philosophical revolution. It represents secularism not only as the absence of religion, but as a faith with equal rights, which demands recognition. "To tell the truth, only after the fact did I understand that my proposal has an ideological aspect," says Lazarov, a chemist-researcher in the Deshanim plant, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in November 1990. "Our world outlook is secular, democratic and liberal, and we want to give expression to all these. It contains no statement against Judaism. It's only our way of saying that not everything in our previous life was bad, and there are things to take even from there. It doesn't harm our new identity, but only complements it. It's true that there was always snow there on Novy God, and here there can be a hamsin [hot, dry desert wind], but that's precisely the compromise between the ideal and the real."

About two years ago, there was an exhibit of paintings by immigrant artists in the lobby of the Jerusalem Theater. One of the paintings portrayed the 12 tribes and their names, in graphic form. Around them the artist had drawn another circle symbolizing the immigrants from the CIS, and entitled it: "The 13th Tribe." Lazarov's proposal, and the way in which the olim are creating a fascinating combination of their former and present cultural milieus, prove that they are indeed "The 13th Tribe." Naturally and uninhibitedly, with confidence acquired with time and with their numerical strength, the olim are creating a new cultural-social reality, in which there is a place for everything: Novy God festivities, the apple and honey for Rosh Hashanah, the fir tree, and Yom Kippur. Not defiantly, not nostalgically, simply by establishing a fact: "This is the place we came from, and this is what we brought with us. Accept us with all this baggage."

Lazarov well remembers the first year when he wanted to celebrate the civil New Year in Israel, and asked where he could buy a fir tree. The reactions were hostile. They told him that it wasn't nice, they reprimanded him, saying that it was a Christian custom, they told him it was forbidden. "We felt a bit like in Russia," laughs Lazarov, "but there the prohibitions originated in the government, and here they originated with the neighbors. There it was dangerous to go to the synagogue even in the 1980s, here it was simply unpleasant to buy a fir tree. We understood that we had to do everything almost secretly. The Jews in Russia who wanted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also had to do so secretly."

Twice midnight

According to a survey conducted about two years ago by Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim Institute, 82 percent of the immigrants celebrate the civil New Year, fir tree and all. Only three percent of the olim celebrate the Christian Sylvester holiday on that date. Over the years the fear and shame have disappeared and the celebrations are conducted openly as a cultural fait accompli.

For most of the immigrants, Novy God is a reminder of a pleasant tradition in the countries of the former Soviet Union, which didn't provide many causes for celebration. For the vast majority there is no connection between the fir tree and Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus. Most were never exposed to this connection in the Soviet Union, which lacked religious symbols. The fir tree is simply a beautiful winter tree that provides a nice decoration for the home. Even Santa Claus is foreign to them. They have Grandfather Frost, who comes not from Lapland but from the forests, and his granddaughter Snow White, who distributes presents to the children. "That was the only holiday that the Bolsheviks didn't succeed in endowing with an alternative ideological character," says Lazarov. "So that we received a totally natural holiday."

The Gureliks, who came to Israel at the end of 1990, also have fond memories of the holiday. In their apartment in Kiryat Ekron they happily pull out a small artificial fir tree and a statuette of Grandfather Frost. Maybe it's not exactly the real thing, but it's the closest they can get to a reminder of the pleasant holiday they used to celebrate every year in Bobruisk, many of whose inhabitants were Jews. Even among the gentiles it was very popular to know a few words of Yiddish.

Thanks to their grandparents, they knew the dates of the Jewish New Year and of Yom Kippur, and even prepared gefilte fish and kishke, although they didn't exactly know why. "We did what we understood had to be done, but there wasn't the excitement of Novy God. We didn't know the meaning of things," says Bella, a lab technician in a start-up company. "We were a little afraid, too," adds Sergei, a technician in a military plant, who once saw a Jewish prayer book wrapped in a piece of cloth in the home of his grandparents.

All of these events, as opposed to Novy God, had no meaning in their lives, which were devoid of religion. Even now their eyes sparkle when they tell about the special quality of that day in Belarus, their native land. And that, more or less, is how things have continued since they immigrated to Israel. The 13th of December is a major holiday: They set a beautiful table, with bottles of champagne and traditional foods such as preserved fish from Russia, turn the television to the Russian channel, watch entertainment programs, and wait for midnight in order to make a toast. Not only their parents celebrate, but their daughters - 10-year-old Iris, who was born a month after they arrived in Israel, and 5-year-old Gefen. They sip the first glass of champagne when the television screen shows that it's midnight, Moscow time; a second glass is raised at midnight, Israel time. One could say that this duality is their way of celebrating their multiculturalism.

The next day nobody goes to work; the girls don't go to school. "In school nobody says anything any more," says Iris, "they all know already that the Russians don't come, and ask me later how I celebrated, and what time I went to sleep." The adults have established facts as well: In the company where Sergei works, for the sake of order, the manager lists the names of all those who were absent from work. Now it's already self understood, without declaring major revolutions. The immigrants from the CIS have de facto added another holiday to the calendar year.

Judaism is education

The Jewish holidays are an entirely different story for them. "I don't know anything, and sometimes I try to get an explanation from Iris about the holidays," says Bella. Recently she asked her daughter if the word megilla [scroll, as in the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim] is related to the word mag'il, which means "disgusting." This story amuses her, without causing her embarrassment. The Jewish holidays are a meaningless milestone, whose main significance is closed shops and better food. On Pesach she likes to sing that song, "What do you call it?" "Ma Nishtanah" [the Four Questions asked at the seder celebration]. This ignorance doesn't make Bella less of a Jew in her opinion, certainly not less of an Israeli.

Iris likes Yom Kippur best, because of the chance to ride her bike with her friends. Sergei, who is listening to this very untheological discussion, suddenly sums up: "What you consider a Jew and what I consider one, isn't the same at all. If a Japanese man were to come and convert according to Jewish law, for you he would be a Jew. For me, never. A Jew to me is education, a way of thinking, language. It has nothing to do with religion. That was the distinction made in Russia and in Russian between a Jew and an `Ivrei' (from the word `Ivri' or Hebrew)."

To the question what makes them Israeli, Bella answers without thinking: An ID card. Iris says it's "the language." Sergei adds that what makes a person Jewish is also this genetic baggage thanks to which the Jews of Belarus will always do the opposite of what they are pressured to do. For example, celebrating Novy God with the tree and with Grandfather Frost, as it should be celebrated.

During the past three years, the Israel Association of Community Centers, in cooperation with the Absorption Ministry and the office of Deputy Minister Michael Melchior, has been making a special effort to involve the immigrants in Jewish holidays, in a way that is acceptable to them. What began three years ago as a modest project for Yom Kippur has become over time a holiday project in which about 20,000 olim have taken part.

With the slogan "Yom Kippur for everyone," thousands of immigrants will be invited again this year to the Kol Nidre prayer and the Ne'ilah prayer [the opening and closing prayers of Yom Kippur] to be held in the community centers, and will receive prayer books in Russian. Mainly, they can simply ask questions. The demand for the "holiday project" surprised even the organizers. This proves that anything that the new immigrants see as contributing knowledge is welcome; anything seen as coercion or prohibition, is summarily rejected.

Boris Lazarov is also slowly feeling his way to the Jewish lifestyle in Israel. From childhood, he remembers his grandmother fasting on Yom Kippur and eating matzos on Pesach, two customs he respected, although they seemed somewhat strange to him. "There were no books and there was no access to information," he recalls. "The little I had I received from my grandmother as `oral law.'" When he arrived in Haifa, Lazarov lived not far from a large synagogue. He liked to watch from a distance, and especially enjoyed the varied human mosaic. "When I first saw a man dressed in Hasidic garb, I felt that I was at some kind of play in the theater," he says. "But it was a source of pride for me, since in the Soviet Union the ideal was to be as standard as possible."

"Over time," he says, "I took from the Jewish menu the minimum necessary in order to feel like a Jew." On Yom Kippur, for example, his wife has a central role in the cooking effort; the girls have the job of knowing what to say and when; he has an important job, to say "amen" at the right time. The rest of the family fasts. Lazarov says he eats the meal before the fast, a meal after the fast, and another meal instead of the fast. Within himself, Lazarov has constructed a hierarchy of holidays: "Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot - that's the order of the holidays, as though one is ascending stairs, until reaching the highest level on Simhat Torah [the holiday of `Rejoicing in the Torah' on the eighth day of Sukkot]. If at all, I go to the synagogue on Simhat Torah. That is when the most natural link between the Jewish people and the Jewish nation is created. In this way, the synagogue turns into a component of my national identity. The fir tree is my cultural identity; both together are what I am."

Apparently this complexity will not be the heritage of one generation only. Iris Gurelik, a sabra [native-born Israeli], has already internalized the fir tree and Novy God as part of her cultural identity. Katya Lazarov, 23, a graduate of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology - and a soldier in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], went back to being "Katya" after years of being "Keren." During her first years in Israel, she studied in a religious public school (on the advice of an emissary from the Education Ministry who came to their city in Ukraine before their immigration), and she combines her cultural heritage naturally with parts of the Jewish heritage that she has absorbed here.

This complexity is a kind of challenge that the olim are placing on the doorstep of Israeli society, which is used to thinking in fixed package deals. Now this is a package that includes matzos, a fir tree, Kol Nidre and Grandfather Frost, who are all living here peacefully side by side, to this very day.