What We Talk About When We Talk About New Year's

In this response to Yossi Klein’s op-ed, Elad Kimelman argues that it is Christians, not Jews, who are ignorant about the holiday’s origins.

In his opinion piece (“Why Israelis should celebrate the New Year,” December 27), Yossi Klein criticizes Israelis for isolating themselves and turning their backs on the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the rest of the world, treating them with “envy and loathing.” Even if some of us do celebrate, we do it with “Israbluff,” telling ourselves that what’s being commemorated is the civil new year when in fact it’s the Christian new year.

In principle, Klein is correct. Barricading oneself inside, for whatever reason, is a defensive measure borne of ignorance. As he puts it, “The last thing [Orthodox Jews] want us to be interested in is ‘The Pietà.’ Anyone who knows something about ‘The Pietà’ might also take an interest in Michelangelo, and anyone who takes an interest in Michelangelo will want to become acquainted with medieval art, and to become acquainted with medieval art you would have to read the New Testament. From there, it is a short distance to forced conversion, self-hatred and maybe even, God have mercy, actual anti-Semitism.”

Against this line of argumentation by the separatist stream of Orthodox Judaism - but also against Klein, who presents it as the only stream - one should note that the Jewish bookshelf is full of arguments against withdrawal, in favor of learning from non-Jewish sources of wisdom. Examples of this include correspondence between Jewish sages and Greek philosophers as well as the poetry of Spanish Jewry in the Middle Ages. Klein goes too far in suggesting ways to avoid cultural isolation. As long as he proposes that we “take an interest in,” “become acquainted with,” “know something about” the multiple layers of Christian culture, it can be construed as a call to broaden our horizons, a laudable endeavor. But when he calls on us to join the festivities (of New Year’s or any other Christian custom), thus imposing on us identification with this culture, he is entering a contentious field.

More important, if we return to his main argument and embrace his call to break down the walls of isolation around us and abandon our “ignorance,” we reach an interesting point. After all, what does the Christian New Year that Klein wants us to celebrate really mark? The birth of Jesus? This was celebrated eight days earlier, on December 25. So what happened eight days after the birth of Jesus to make it a day important enough to mark the beginning of a new Christian year, rather than the day of birth itself? What happened was what happens to all Jewish males at that age.

Hold on – does the beginning of the Christian new year mark the day Jesus entered into Abraham’s covenant with God? But across Christian Europe it’s now de rigueur to oppose circumcision, as a violation of the baby’s “right to bodily integrity.” How is it that this “barbaric” custom is celebrated with “escargot in a garlic flan” in Rome’s finest restaurants? What connects this “paganism” to midnight kisses in the nightclubs of Zurich?

Before one diagnoses a Jewish identity crisis lurking behind the envy and loathing felt by Jews toward the Christian new year, it would be better to address a long-standing and serious identity crisis in the Christian world itself, particularly in Europe. It is only hinted at by the envy and loathing that Christians express toward the deeper levels of meaning underlying their New Year’s. This identity crisis puts Jewish isolationism in a new light: it is a reaction, natural albeit sometimes childish, to the real withdrawal and genuine ignorance that pervades the rest of the world. There, outside the “Jewish fortress,” the world celebrates the Christian new year while shutting its eyes and ears to the question: Why the celebration?

Jews may be erring in their ignorance, but this is insignificant in comparison to that of the Christian world, whose ignorance may have its reasons. One could use Klein’s imagery in reverse: Anyone taking real interest in the background to the New Year might find out more about Jesus’ circumcision. This might lead to a quest to familiarize oneself with more Jewish law, to which Jesus strictly adhered right up to his crucifixion. To understand Jewish law one would have to read the Torah and its exegesis. This could rapidly lead to apostasy, self-hatred, and, God forbid, a real love of Jews among the nations.

Elad Kimelman is a fellow in the government internship program of Jerusalem’s Jewish Statesmanship Center for Strategic Planning.