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! 🍾