New Year’s Fete From FSU Irks Some in Israel: ‘It’s Not a Jewish Holiday’
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                  New Year’s Fete From FSU Irks Some in Israel: ‘It’s Not a Jewish Holiday’

                  Natascha Manko, who emigrated from Ukraine two years ago, decorating a Novy God tree in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.CreditCreditCorinna Kern for The New York Times

                  New Year’s Fete From FSU Irks Some in Israel: ‘It’s Not a Jewish Holiday’

                  07.01.2019, Israel and the World

                  As dusk fell in a port city in southern Israel, Roman Kaminker’s neighborhood pop-up shop twinkled with a bountiful display of Santa dolls and synthetic spruce trees adorned with tinsel and baubles.

                  Mr. Kaminker’s store in Ashdod was catering to those shopping for Novy God, the Russian end-of-year celebration when families traditionally gather before midnight on Dec. 31 to feast on delicacies from the old country like herring, caviar and jellied calf’s foot, and toast in the New Year with vodka and bubbly.

                  “This has no connection to religion,” declared Mr. Kaminker, 39, who emigrated from Moldova in the mid-1990s, and was eager to avoid any misunderstandings that his shop was somehow linked to Christmas. “You won’t find any Marias or crosses here,” he added. “That wasn’t allowed in the Soviet Union.”

                  Nearly 30 years after the start of the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which began in 1989 and brought nearly a million Russian speakers to Israel by the end of the 1990s, the Novy God holiday has become something of a barometer to gauge the place of these immigrants in Israeli society.

                  Back in Soviet days, Novy God was a particularly joyous night for many, being a purely secular holiday with no connection to the Communist Party.

                  Yet some of those who brought Novy God traditions with them to Israel, like the evergreen yulka tree or Ded Moroz — Grandfather Frost, an often blue-coated Santa Claus — found themselves celebrating with curtains drawn, concerned that disapproving neighbors might think they were marking Christmas.

                  The holiday and its symbols can still tap into underlying prejudices in the broader Israeli population about “the Russians,” as immigrants from all former Soviet nations are referred to here.

                  The immigration at the end of the last century included hundreds of thousands of newcomers who qualified for Israeli citizenship through family connections but are not considered legally Jewish under the strictly Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

                  The pronounced secularity of many of the newcomers has led many immigrants to say they feel they are viewed suspiciously by other Israelis and constantly have to prove their Jewishness.

                  So while the main point of Mr. Kaminker’s pop-up store is to sell Novy God goods, he also wants to use it to help persuade his non-Russian and Orthodox Jewish neighbors to accept the holiday’s traditions.

                  “We need more awareness in Israel,” he said. “A lot of people say a million Christians came here and that we tricked the state.”

                  An annual obstacle to a wider embrace of the holiday are the Santas for hire who bring gifts to children.

                  And this year has posed an extra hurdle for acceptance: There is a tradition of including the relevant animal from the Chinese zodiac in Novy God decorations, and 2019 happens to be the year of the pig — a reviled animal in Judaism whose meat is forbidden — meaning that this year’s wares have included an abundance of ceramic pigs, cuddly pig toys and piggy banks.

                  According to the Hebrew calendar, the Jewish New Year arrives in the fall, and the Jan. 1 date carries with it painful historical memories for some in Israel.

                  The New Year’s Eve that many secular Israelis celebrate at clubs and restaurants on Dec. 31 has long been referred to as “Sylvester,” because it coincides with a traditional European feast day for a saint with that name who served as a pope in the 4th century and was considered anti-Semitic.

                  For some Jews of Eastern European origin, the date connotes a time when local non-Jews would get drunk and carry out pogroms.

                  “There were years when our people were slaughtered on such dates,” said Nachman Zilber, 40, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, as he rushed past Mr. Kaminker’s store.

                  Ashdod, whose population of more than 200,000 is almost a quarter Russian-speaking, became the focus of disgruntlement with Novy God this year after the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Avi Amsalem, objected to a spruce tree displayed beside a Hanukkah lamp at a city mall.

                  In a Facebook post, Mr. Amsalem said that the tree was “meant to hurt whoever defines themselves as Jewish,” and that the lamp had gone up a day after Hanukkah ended. Similar tensions erupted this year over Novy God decorations in a Tel Aviv suburb.

                  Mr. Kaminker is not alone in his efforts to ease these tensions over the holiday and some of the fallacies associated with it.

                  Three years ago, a group of Russian-Israeli activists introduced an “Israeli Novy God” campaign on social media, producing humorous videos showing ordinary Israelis that the holiday was not what they thought it was — a clandestine religious ritual or an excuse to drink heavily — and offering to host them at Novy God gatherings.

                  “We wanted to create a new Israeli tradition of Novy God where Russians open their homes,” said Pola Barkan, 28, the director of the Cultural Brigade, who came as an infant with her family from Kiev.

                  The Cultural Brigade, whose mission is to familiarize Israelis with the richness of Russian culture, was set up by young adults who had a common experience: They arrived with their families as children in a foreign country and found themselves living a cultural double life, speaking Russian at home while struggling to be accepted as Israelis.

                  “First,” Ms. Barkan said, “it was all about our integration into the country and forgetting where we came from.”

                  But now Ms. Barkin says she wants Russian immigrants and their descendants to feel free to embrace their heritage and invite other Israelis to appreciate it.

                  “Let everyone decide what they want and have a choice, without feeling embarrassed,” she said.

                  Year by year, Novy God does appear to have become more widely accepted.

                  A recent survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group, found that 38 percent of the general Jewish population in Israel did not know what Novy God was — meaning that more than 60 percent did.

                  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broadcast New Year’s greetings in Russian last year. And the Jewish National Fund, known for planting forests, said it was distributing trees this year for Novy God.

                  Newspapers have devoted food columns to traditional Novy God recipes, and a supermarket advertisement on Israeli public radio opens with a woman exclaiming, “Novy God!” over the steep discounts.

                  At the Big Fashion Mall in Ashdod, the Novy God tree has turned into an attraction, with Russian speakers and Israelis whose families have been here for generations both snapping selfies by it.

                  Many passers-by said there was more tolerance than there used to be, although not everyone was wholly comfortable with the festivities.

                  “It’s a free, democratic country,” said Yehuda Crispin, 33, an observant Jew who was out shopping. “In history, there were pogroms against the Jews on that date, but in our days that’s less relevant.”

                  At another pop-up stall nearby, Alice Duke, 39, was buying a tiny tree for her daughter, Klil, 7, who was smitten by “The Christmas Chronicles” movie and hoped that Santa would bring her presents.

                  Ms. Duke noted that Klil was more likely to get presents from the prophet Elijah who, according to tradition, visits Jewish homes at Passover.

                  Etty Ben-Dayan, 50, who was walking by, said that she was married to a Russian and that her husband and her older daughter went to his parents for the Novy God feast. “My daughter is not always so happy about it,” she said. “She says it’s not a Jewish holiday.”

                  By Isabel Kershner

                  The New York Times