I love New Year’s Eve. I love it because I grew up in Soviet Union where it was the biggest holiday of the year. It was not religious or ideologic, it was all about family. Families saved up food for a feast for this holiday. We once even had bananas, bananas! The whole family would come together, we ate, we sang, my grandmother played the piano, we watched tv and shows. Every year we would get a pine tree which we decorated and on January 1st we got presents! (The presents were not under the tree because we didn’t have wrapping paper, so they were always a surprise.)
After coming to US, I still remember our first tree. We got it on the cheap after Christmas. It was 5 foot tops and with maybe ten branches extending wide to fill up most of our living room: the stalk in the middle clearly visible through the thin branches. A really sad thing but it was ours and it reminded us of the home we left. We decorated it and our family came together for the first New Year in a new country.
Over time, the cultrure of the country seeps in. America doesn’t celebrate the way Russia did. In US the holiday is not a family event. You celebrate with friends and it’s ok to bring in the new year at midnight and then go home. So I started to have my own celebration. Bringing in my friends to my house, having good music and food. We had some amazing New Year’s celebrations, an epic time every year. So this is why when I came to Israel, I realized that this holiday, that the whole world decided to celebrate, is a no holiday in Israel. Probably the only country in the world that doesn’t care for it. Even though there are over a million Soviet Jews here who celebrate, the country refuses to recognize it. It felt like in someways Israelis try to deny that they are part of the world, isolating themselves on something special, that could make them a part of the global community. This is why in Israel schools are open the next day and all businesses, there are no fireworks, no official celebrations.
BUT, unofficially, some still try. Because we are new and don’t know many Israelis who celebrate the holiday, we decided to have our own celebrations in my apartment in Florentine. South Tel Aviv area of Florentine is secular and worldly. There are a lot of bars and there are regular graffiti tours of the area. So it is easy to find new year’s trees on display in stores and restaurants here (they are not called Christmas trees) as well as happy new ear signs and decorations in English and Russian.
That’s one thing that I love about Israel. There is no commercialism. Every week all decorations change, they don’t have happy holidays, they have happy Hanukkah. Once Hanukkah is over, they have Merry Christmas signs up. Once Christmas is over, they have Happy new year decorations up. But it feels festive. There are no sales, no pushy decorations, it feels festive, not commercial exploitation.
As I took the bus home on December 31st and I saw shop keepers getting their tips ready, putting up lights and decorations, I was starting feeling the spirit. The same spirit I used to feel in Ukraine as my family was getting ready for the company to come over, cooking all day and decorating and cleaning the house.
In a few hours, my American, Australian, Dutch and Israeli friends came over. We poured champagne, we ate, we had conversations and at 11:30, we went up to the rooftop to dance and bring in the year. It has been my favorite thing to do every year, to bring everyone outside, to meet the new year in the nature. It had been raining like crazy all day but by midnight it cleared up and we had a beautiful new years. There were no fireworks, but we had our poppers, our whistles and our funny hats. We yelled and cheered. We could see people in apartments around us who were sitting at home. It felt lonely. It actually made us a little lonely to see people at home alone as if it was just another night.
So we took off to find a place to dance. We lost some of our members as they had to head home to get ready for the work day. We walked the quiet streets of Florentine surrounded by the graffiti, permanent street decorations. However, when we got to Rothchild, it was packed with people. A corner bar on a street had the music blasting outside and maybe a dozen people were dancing on a corner. We joined the circle and danced until people cleared while a religious jew with a big knitted kippa and long peyyut handed out pamphlets and collected hugs.
We walked home and I passed out drunk, woke up with a hangover and sadly, had to go to work and school. Sitting on a bus for an hour while hung over was cruel, it was sad, but it was worth it. I thought about how originally, this holiday, celebrated the bris of the worlds most famous jew and 2000 years since the end of Jewish homeland. Today though, as we are back, that’s not what we celebrate. We celebrate making it another year, together, the world alive, all of us alive, Israel is alive.
If you liked this article, check out the book with photography and stories from Jewish communities in 32 countries.
Find it on Amazon or at a Judaica Store near you.