Happy “Secular” New Year

This past week, most emails that I sent to people outside of Israel usually sent a message right back to me: I’m out of the office until January 4. For me, this was the reminder – oh yeah, this week is New Year’s.

In Israel, officially this week is not New Year’s, more often referred to as “Sylvester”, the European term for the holiday. From what I can gather, Saint Sylvester was a pope in the 4th Century who died on December 31, and that’s where it gets that name.

New Year’s day is not a holiday here – it is a regular work and school day. There are no signs anywhere wishing people a Happy New Year and the greeting is not used in personal exchanges (and this is a country that is always wishing each other Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!). In fact, the only signs that I noticed was the radio stations playing “the best songs of the decade” and small advertisements for parties – geared towards young singles.

This week, I participated in a youth-led discussion at a Tzameret chapter in Rishon L’Tzion, “Should Jews celebrate Sylvester/New Year’s?” Most of the teens who participated had never celebrated New Year’s and didn’t think that Jews, especially in Israel, should do it. “We have our own New Year’s – Rosh HaShana,” one said. “I couldn’t celebrate if I want to,” said another, “I have a big test in school on January 1!”

My husband and I wanted to go see a play this week and it just happened to be the night of December 31. There was a front page (small) story in HaAretz saying anyone who would be getting a babysitter for this night would probably be paying double because of the holiday. I tried anyway among my list of babysitters and, sure enough, one wrote me back – “No problem, I can babysit Thursday night.” The word New Year’s never came up. She is an Orthodox Jew, so, for her, obviously, it was just another night. We saw Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Pirates of Penzance which was also attended by mainly anglo people (it was in English) and no mention of Happy New Year (they even threw some Yiddish into one scene, to the crowd’s delight).

When we came back home, we turned on the radio just a minute before midnight. The two girls in the studio, excitedly counted down – “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Happy New Year!” They laughed and shouted. And then it immediately went to “beep beep beep” and then began the hourly news. The announcer politely mentioned a bit about New Year’s celebrations around the world. And then got to the real news….a few rockets had been fired from Gaza and had landed in open fields in Israel.

Oh, and being in Jerusalem, we could hear the pealing church bells ringing out a merry tune celebrating the New Year.

What do I think about all of this? Well, growing up in America and having spent a few New Years’ in Europe – it’s just a fun holiday that I always really enjoyed. However, one of the things that I do love about Israel is that this is the only place in the world that runs on Jewish time which is my time. I don’t need a specific date to have a reason to go to a party (and as young parents, that’s a rare word in our vocabulary, anyway!). I much more appreciated Shabbat this weekend – a wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat service in my congregation reuniting with bar/bat mitzvah families from the past year, dinner with some lovely families, and spending the day with my little family going to the swimming pool and exploring a 2800 year old archaeological site.

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One Response to “Happy “Secular” New Year”

  1. Stacey Says:

    I’ve always wondered what December 31st was like in Israel. Now I no longer have to wonder. Thanks for the insight.

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