Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not

Tonight is New Year’s Eve so before I get into the substance of this post, I would like to wish all of you a Happy and Healthy New Year! 🥳

So… New Year’s…

Growing up in America, this was not a holiday that I marked in any way, shape or form. Truly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was the transition between December 31st and January 1st any more significant than that between any two other calendar days?

The funny thing is that New Year’s Eve had once been a very big deal to both of my parents. You see, my mother had grown up in Lithuania, and my father had grown up in Russia, both under Soviet reign, both celebrating Novy God (Новый Год), which designates the Russian New Year’s celebration. Today, this holiday remains extremely popular in countries that were formerly part of the USSR, as well as in Soviet emigrant communities worldwide.

The elimination of religion was an objective of the USSR’s official ideology, with the goal of establishing state atheism. Therefore, most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia (Grandfather Frost, a decorated fir-tree) were moved to New Year’s Eve after the Revolution and remain associated with Novy God to this day.

For my parents, Novy God belonged to the regime they had escaped from in the mid-70’s, the regime, which had nearly succeeded at obliterating their Jewish heritage. While they both considered themselves secular, they strongly embraced their Jewish and Israeli identities, shedding themselves of Soviet culture and traditions.

I was eight or nine years old when I first met my father’s parents.

My father had been lucky enough to get out of the USSR in the mid-70’s, but his sister and his parents were only permitted to leave in the late 80’s, just before the Soviet Union’s final collapse. Developing a relationship with my formerly non-existent (from my perspective) grandparents at that age left me with some very vivid memories, including a seemingly insignificant moment that I only came to appreciate many, many years later.

It so happened that upon one of our visits to my grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, I was flummoxed to find that my grandmother had purchased place mats with Christmas trees for their little apartment. As an Israeli-born and American-raised Jewish boy, I was truly flabbergasted. “We’re… Jewish. Why would you buy these?”

That’s when my parents somewhat casually explained the holiday of Novy God and its symbols to me. My grandmother hadn’t intended to purchase Christmas place mats – she’d intended to purchase them for Novy God. Still, even then, upon my first exposure to the concept of Novy God, the significance and complete pervasiveness of this secular Soviet national holiday was not made clear to me; and I didn’t reflect upon the fact that my parents had never, ever mentioned this tradition to me before.

For many years, I continued to regard Novy God with suspicion as a non-Jewish holiday that had incorporated Christian symbols. To me, it represented assimilation, which was the ultimate threat to the Jewish people. However, having moved [back] to Israel as an adult changed my perspective and attitude dramatically for several reasons.

First of all, in today’s Israel I encountered many Jews who had repatriated to the Jewish State after the USSR fell apart. Whereas my parents had been among the lucky few to be granted permission to leave the USSR in the 70’s, and whereas their citizenships had been revoked due to their betrayals of the Motherland, those who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors. These new immigrants retained their ties to Russia, Ukraine, etc., wherever their families lived; and they could visit them freely.

Also, whereas during the late 1960s and the 1970s, only ~163,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, immigrants and descendants of immigrants from formerly Soviet Jewish communities residing within the State of Israel today number around 900,000. In fact, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel include an enlarged population of 1,200,000, including non-Jewish members of Jewish households, which represents ~15% of Israel’s total population. By virtue of sheer numbers, elements of Russian culture have become mainstream here.

Of course, many Jews in Israel continue to look askance at Novy God as a non-Jewish phenomenon, but a sizable percentage of the population continues to celebrate it. My secular Babushka (my mother’s mother) who moved to Israel in the seventies stopped celebrating Novy God because of the Israeli culture of those years, but she confided in me on more than one occasion that Novy God remained her favorite holiday. I’m certain that had she emigrated later, in the nineties, she would have continued marking this secular holiday.

Now, on a very personal level, Novy God has entered my life through my wife of nine years. Her extended family, including her mother and her grandparents, still reside in Russia, and they continue to celebrate Novy God, as do all Russians.

My wife was raised celebrating this holiday, and she loves it. Every year, she prepares various traditional Russian dishes in advance of December 31st; every year, she chats long-distance with her family members in Russia, as they celebrate Novy God together; and every year my wife and daughter visit my mother-in-law in January who leaves presents for her granddaughter underneath her Novy God tree.

This year, for the first time, my wife will be putting up a little tree for Novy God here in our home in Jerusalem, which she brought back from her last visit to Russia… and I am totally unbothered by it. In fact, I’m happy to support her and to participate. I’m happy that this makes her happy.

You see, living in Israel has removed the threat of assimilation from my personal calculus. It has become a non-issue for me. Furthermore, my wife and I are both Torah observant Jews by choice. We not only live in Israel, but we also keep the Sabbath and maintain a kosher kitchen. By personal choice, we have become the religious Jews in an extended family of secular Jews and gentiles, and we live this way because this is how we choose to express our Jewishness.

Today, secure in our family’s religious, cultural, and national Jewishness and Israeliness, I can comfortably embrace other facets of our family’s collective identity. And, so, I’m happy to wish all of you a Happy New Year! 🍾

79 thoughts on “Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not”

  1. This is interesting David, thanks for sharing! In Serbia they celebrate the nova godina 2 weeks later according to the orthodox calendar. I’m pleased my husband doesn’t follow this tradition though he has a Serbian father, because I’m well and truly done with the festivities by then!

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing, Ingrid 🙂

      Yeah – that would be kinda a pain – to have to celebrate New Year’s 2x. I’m thankful that the Russian version of Novy God is on New Year’s Eve – much less complicated that way!

      Here’s to your health: 🥂


  2. This is beautiful. You’ve captured that growth, that transition so perfectly that it feels like I have gone through this experience. Amazing writing❤🕊

    1. Ellie,

      I’m really glad that you found it interesting.

      Identity discussions can get touchy so I try to be as precise with my explanations as possible!

      Happy New Year to you and yours! 🥂

  3. Thanks David, I came to know about Novy God. In fact we also have a different new year as per Hindu calendar, but we enjoy celebrating both.

  4. I love this story. It is fascinating to see how these traditions are navigated by peoples of different countries and faiths. Many blessing for the year to come.

    1. Thanks, Meg.

      It’s really super interesting to me too – and, in this particular case, it’s also a matter of generations and the historic events that impacted their respective perspectives.

      Happy New Year!

  5. A bit of family history and celebrations
    with their festivities to take us into the New Year

    A lovely read David, filled with new stuff for me. I wish you and yours all things wonderful now and upon the arrival of the new year
    Have a great new year’s eve.

  6. I’m glad you’re firm in your heritage, beliefs, and practices. I’d think honest adherence would want no less. And as far as appreciation of other traditions goes, anchored in one’s own would seem the best place from which to start. I’m not sure I understand the fascination of the world toward the New Year’s Eve and day that we have. I figure it’s a kind of solstice celebration that got pushed around and somehow landed where it is. But there is this celebration, and I hope for you and yours it is a safe and happy time.–Christopher

    1. Thanks so much! I also don’t quite relate to all the fuss surrounding the turning of the calendar page, but, hey, it seems to make people happy… so why not, right? And, I won’t lie – my wife makes some delicious dishes for the occasion!

      Happy New Year, Christopher!

      All the very best

    2. New Year used to be on 1 April (near the Spring Equinox) but the Romans moved it to 1 January because they had a practice of moving their generals to new postings at the New Year, and they wanted to move a general three months earlier, so they moved the date of the New Year. (You’d think it’d be easier to just change the custom, but there you go.)

      England didn’t move its new year until the calendar reforms of the early 18th century, and the tax year still starts on 1 April.

  7. My perspective on Russia (all bad) comes from my Hungarian uncle. This sheds a different light, thanks. Many of these holiday customs predate current religious affiliations anyway. Happy New Year! (K)

    1. There’s a lot wrong with Russia even today, but people are people… and Russia has a very rich history and culture.

      You know, even my mother has recently enjoyed visiting Russia on visits to friends and family.


  8. I’ll admit to ambivalence around New Year’s , especially being an introvert, but remembering my great grandmother’s Watch Night services, now find the idea of celebrating that new year, in 1862, more appealing in the light of the importance of history, just as your grandparents did.

    1. Wow. Your words are so full of power, Shira. Thanks for sharing.

      BTW, in regards to being an introvert, we don’t do anything particularly extroverted for Novy God – we just stay home, watch some videos and eat some food – that’s pretty much it.


  9. This is inspiring and beautiful… as is your amazing and gorgeous wife… as an aside, I don’t think of the tree as being related to Christmas; I think of it as a pagan solstice tradition, celebration of nature and light in a dark time of year (in the northern hemisphere). Much love to you and yours, and happy new year David; love these stories and insights. 🔆🎊🌿

  10. Fascinating, I was just talking to my Russian friend about this as we drove around Jaffa to see the Christmas trees. I’m proud of any who manages to do their own thing here despite the strong encouragement to assimilate in Israel. Russian subculture in Israel is often viewed as a threat to the nationalist narrative.

    1. Yes, I know.

      But… well… I just don’t care so much about what mainstream culture prefers. I used to care more.

      I’ll wear your pride in us as a badge of honor!


      1. I came to Israel with a lot of prejudice against Russians because we get too much exposure to Putin’s propaganda efforts directed at UK, thus most Brits believe Russians to be ineducated, materialistic, calculating people that are still living in the 80s. Straight up. After a few years of living with Israelis you come to appreciate the community as a safe haven for reason and respect.

        1. I understand. Russians continue to be on the receiving end of a lot of prejudice.

          Thank you for your open-mindedness and empathy.

          Shabbat Shalom,

    1. Yeah – it’s a HUGE deal. It was basically the only holiday in the USSR that was not directly related to honoring the USSR (or its military) itself.


  11. Fascinating, thank you for sharing! And Happy New Year.

    When does the year number change in the Jewish calendar, then? I’m guessing that Rosh Hashanah would be the logical choice?

    The practice of bringing greenery into the house at the winter solstice originated in ancient Pagan religions and festivals. The origin of the decorated tree with lights may be Christian or it may be older, but bringing greenery into the house and exchanging gifts definitely started with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

      1. You’re welcome! I’m constantly amazed how people from other religions have no idea where the Pagan stuff in western culture originated from, since it’s clearly not Christian.

        After I’d posted my comment, I saw a great tweet from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the various concepts of New Year in Judaism.

        1. Also I think the bits of Paganism that got imported into Christianity are not obvious to Hindus and Jewish people because both Hinduism and Judaism are quite nature-oriented, or nature-inclusive.

        2. It depends on the flavour of Christianity.

          Early Christians divorced themselves from their Jewish roots and were a very urban phenomenon (there have been 14 popes called Urban). As Christianity moved north, it started to acquire local customs from the indigenous polytheistic religions that it was supplanting / suppressing. Some were incompatible with Christianity and were suppressed ; others were assimilated into it.

        3. You’re welcome! Thanks for sharing the Jewish New Years too. Interfaith dialogue is fun with people who like to share their traditions and aren’t interested in making converts 🤩

  12. What a very interesting story and history lesson David. Your parents went through many changes in their lifetime. That is a beautiful photo in your post!
    Wishing you and your family all the best for the coming New Year!

  13. Fascinating. I had never heard of Novy God until I read this. I appreciate both the history lesson and the family history story.

    I agree that if you feel secure in your own identity, the symbols/traditions/observances of the outside world won’t bother you.

    I also find it funny how certain traditions come to be. Like eating Chinese food on Christmas or Jewish singles events like the Matzoball on Christmas Eve. Like these are traditions clearly associated with another holiday that have become Jewish-ified in a way.

  14. I had a non religious tabletop tree. My daughter had a non religious tree with Hanukkah ornaments on it.

    Hoping your 2021 is filled with good health, comfort, joy and love.

      1. Indeed, they are! Although my daughter had Hanukkah decorations, here and there, she had other, sentimental, meaningful, decorations on it, as well, along with lights.

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