Happy New Year? Not so fast, if you’re in Israel, where the somber, soul-searching and autumnal new year of the lunar Jewish calendar overshadows the Gregorian’s Jan. 1.
The highly diverse country certainly has its modern and hard-partying side. But even in such circles, where the pull of the outside world is strong, there is a sense, even as champagne is swilled, that New Year’s Eve is someone else’s party — indeed, maybe everybody else’s.
So while there will be plenty of festivities on Dec. 31 — especially in the vibrant and Western-oriented Tel Aviv area, home to one of the world’s major high-tech hubs — almost everyone has to work the next day, giving the whole enterprise a somewhat underground, guilt-ridden feel.
Yossi Yosfan, 32, seemed to personify the mixed message: he was planning to attend a large party in Tel Aviv, but insisted that he didn’t mind the absence of a public holiday in the morning. “It’s not part of Israel’s heritage,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be more than what it is.”
In hip neighborhoods like Tel Aviv’s Florentin, street parties were planned, poster invitations were up and bars planned to be heaving till the early hours of January 1. But big hotels, of the kind where one might expect a fancy and lucrative affair, were distinctly subdued.
“We open a champagne bottle in the lobby at midnight,” but that is all, said Chen Michaeli, manager of Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama hotel. “We don’t see this as a holiday that our religion relates to. We don’t (consider) it right to mark it.”
One might ask why religion comes into it. Most Jewish Israelis are not especially traditional — few can remember their birthday by the Jewish calendar, and the Gregorian calendar is the one that dominates most activity in the land. About a fifth of the population of 8 million are not Jews.
Furthermore, New Year’s in the rest of the world is a rather temporal affair.
But the narrative that has set in here suggests otherwise, and as if to emphasize the “Christian” aspect Israelis call New Year’s Eve the “Sylvester” — a term also used in some European countries which refers to fourth-century Pope Sylvester I who died on Dec. 31. President Shimon Peres, similarly, hosted a New Year reception Monday for Christian dignitaries in Israel.
“It’s nonsense,” said Yisca Harani, an Israeli scholar of Christianity. “No one dances because of (Pope) Sylvester.”
Historians say New Year’s Eve is not religious in origin, and contrary to occasional rumor here there is no evidence of anti-Semitic associations with Pope Sylvester. The Romans used January 1 as the start of their year and the Catholic church later sought to give the commemoration a religious dimension, listing it in the liturgical calendar as Jesus’ day of circumcision.
Still, the Jews — like the Chinese — do have another calendar, and the issue has become intertwined with the ever-present, not-always declared project of figuring out what it means to be “the Jewish state.”
“We treat (New Year’s Eve) with jealousy and disdain. Jealousy before the world has a blast of a party. Disdain because we were not invited,” wrote columnist Yossi Klein in the Haaretz newspaper. “The seclusion and the guarding of the gates are exhausting.”
But Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Israeli lawmaker who grew up in the U.S., said it was needed in order to “maintain the Jewish identity.” That’s a major concern in a country mostly founded by secular Jews seeking a national home, in which a growing religious minority is increasingly at odds with less traditional brethren, and a major festering problem in the continuing occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank — some of whom, as it happens, do mark New Year’s, but mostly at home or in restaurants in urban areas.
“As a Jewish state we certainly want to maintain the official New Year’s celebration as being Rosh Hashanah,” he said, referring to the Jewish new year that is marked on the first of the month of Tishrei — which usually falls in September.
Echoing a common concern, Herzl Levi, manager of the Crowne Plaza in Haifa, northern Israel, said his hotel does not allow New Year’s parties to avoid upsetting the supervisors that certify the hotel’s kitchen as kosher.
Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that kosher certificates to hotel kitchens should not be dependent on unrelated matters like the hosting of a New Year’s party. Ziv Maor, a spokesman for the state-affiliated rabbinate, said he expected that would be respected. Yet the rabbinate does outline in its kosher guidelines that hotels “should not permit displays that relate to non-Jewish holidays at the end of the civil year.”
In an added wrinkle, many of Israel’s million Russian-speaking recent immigrants consider New Year’s the year’s most important holiday and celebrate it like they did in the former Soviet Union, with tinsel-decorated firs that look a lot like Christmas trees and bearded New Year’s character Grandpa Frost, who appears very much like Santa Claus by another name.
Although New Year’s Eve is one of the most unifying moments on the planet, Israel is not entirely alone in its reserve.
In highly conservative Saudi Arabia, ultraconservative and influential Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Arifi wrote on his Twitter account that celebrating New Year’s Eve is not as rigidly opposed as celebrating Christmas, but he also warned against celebrating either since they are non-Muslim holidays.
The nearby natural gas-rich state of Qatar doesn’t mark New Year’s either and does not encourage official celebrations, but many members of the large expatriate community mark the occasion in restaurants and hotel bars.
Celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Iran are muted, and are mainly marked by the largely Armenian Christian minority of about 100,000. Still, state TV typically mentions the celebrations happening elsewhere in the world. For Iranians, the real celebrations happen in spring with the pre-Islamic Persian new year festival of Nowruz, which begins March 21 and lasts for two weeks.
There are other non-Christian territories that mark New Year’s Day as a public holiday, including Taiwan, Communist China and the Islamic sultanate of Brunei. In Nigeria, which is about equally divided between Muslims and Christians, Jan. 1 is a public holiday, though Muslim groups have been demanding that the government declare the first day of the Islamic Hijrah calendar as a public holiday.
The majority of present-day Mayas in Central America, whose ancient calendars marked a new year about every 400 years, are Roman Catholics and celebrate the new year on Jan. 1.