Young Russian-Israelis return to roots with motherland-style New Year’s

It’s not Christmas despite the tree and the plump, bearded gift-giver, and it’s definitely not Silvester, which celebrates the life of a pope. It’s Novy God, and it’s about family, food, fun and fresh beginnings

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Russian immigrants in Ashdod celebrate Novy God with actors dressed as Grandfather Frost in 2015. (Drori Garti/Flash 90)
Russian immigrants in Ashdod celebrate Novy God with actors dressed as Grandfather Frost in 2015. (Drori Garti/Flash 90)

Novy God, the Russian celebration of the New Year, isn’t just for Slavic speakers anymore. That’s the goal, at least, of a group of Russian-born Israelis who want to bring Novy God to the sabras.

They’re calling it the Israeli Novy God, in an effort to introduce the traditionally secular, family-friendly holiday to Israelis, with a quaintly designed website full of traditional Novy God recipes, songs, photos and the option to host or be invited to a family Novy God celebration.

“It’s a chance to get to know another new holiday, and to stop mixing it up with Silvester [the December 31 anniversary of the death of Pope Sylvester I],” said Alex Rif, who created Israeli Novy God with fellow Russian-Israeli, Boris Rozenberg. “Israelis would call Russians ‘goyim’ because we celebrated it.”

In the Jewish land, there have long been misconceptions about Novy God. It is celebrated with a Christmas tree, often called a New Year fir tree, with presents stacked underneath and a Grandfather Frost persona who gives out the gifts, but the main focus has always been on the dining room table, where Russian families would gather for a sumptuous feast and vodka toasts to celebrate the new year.

“It was our favorite holiday because it was the only one that wasn’t political or party-related,” said Israeli food writer Janna Gur, who was born and raised in Riga, Latvia, before her family moved in 1974 to Israel.

Janna Gur has fond memories of her family's Novy God celebrations (Dan Perez/via JTA)
Janna Gur has fond memories of her family’s Novy God celebrations (Dan Perez/via JTA)

“Apartments were small, and my parents’ friends would usually come to us because our apartment was a little bigger,” she recalled. “They would open a table, which took over most of the room. We were Jews, so we weren’t big drinkers, but we would still drink. There was champagne, but it was more like Carmel with bubbles. And the food was the main focus: salads and salted fish, pirogi and chopped liver. Everyone would raise his glass to this toast and that toast.”

She remembers a lighthearted, merry atmosphere, with guests staying until the wee hours and the lingering scent of oranges and pine needles. The next day marked the start of the two-week winter vacation, so she was allowed to stay up late.

In Israel, however, the Jewish new year began in September and December 31 was Silvester.

“We didn’t know what that was,” said Gur.

Novy God has nothing to do with Christmas or Silvester, said Rif.

“We all celebrated Novy God,” said Rif, who immigrated with her family to the seaside town of Netanya in 1991. “We did it quietly, and in Israel, everyone called it Silvester.”

For ex-Soviets, Novy God is the only holiday completely devoid of political meaning, focusing on celebrating the future and the prospects for next year and saying good-bye to the old year, explained Larissa Remennick, a Russian-born sociologist at Bar-Ilan University.

“It’s pretty much the only glue in terms of old country traditions that are still with us,” said Remennick.

The sole connection to Christmas is the tree, said Remennick. Some Russians moving to Israel packed synthetic trees in their luggage, before the days of Christmas trees being sold in Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Those who didn’t had to settle for a potted plant or head to Nazareth or Jaffa, two cities with larger Christian populations and access to Christmas trees.

Rif’s family’s Novy God celebrations included “decorating the tree with all kinds of tchochkes, and my father was always warning me not to break anything,” she said.

Alex Rif with her parents at a Novy God celebration back in the old country (Courtesy Alex Rif)
Alex Rif with her parents at a Novy God celebration back in the old country (Courtesy Alex Rif)

By the time Rif was a teen, she wasn’t interested in Novy God and her parents stopped decorating the tree, though they did still hold a family dinner.

“Being from the former Soviet Union wasn’t cool,” she said. “I did everything I could to be Israeli.”

Rif, now 29, spent her year after high school in a prestigious Bronfman youth fellowship program, served as an officer in the army and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree before going to work at the Finance Ministry.

Alex Rif, a 29-year-old Russian-Israeli, is one of the people working to promote Russian culture in Israeli society (Courtesy Alex Rif)
Alex Rif, a 29-year-old Russian-Israeli, is one of the people working to promote Russian culture in Israeli society (Courtesy Alex Rif)

But she’s also a poet and screenwriter, and a few years ago she began to delve more deeply into the subject of her poems, many of which were about the dual nature of life as a Russian-Israeli.

She and Rozenberg, a 31-year-old lawyer, began organizing events for Hebrew-speaking Russians, as they call themselves. All the materials and discussions are in Hebrew, but the topic is how to be both Russian and Israeli.

“There’s room in Israel now for multiculturalism,” said Rif. “There are Ethiopians, Moroccans, Yemenites. The Russians aren’t in the conversation, so now’s the time.”

It’s about creating a new identity in Israel, said Roman Kogan, the Estonian-born CEO of Limmud FSU, pluralistic conferences of Jewish learning and culture for Russian speakers in Israel and around the world.

“It’s the identity of where you came from alongside your new identity,” he said. “We have to remember what we brought from there; we can be totally Israeli and love hummus and Etgar Keret, but on the other side, protect what we grew up with, whether it’s literature or food or language or holidays.”

For Rif, that has meant allowing herself to recognize that for Russian Israelis, Novy God is a holiday full of warmth and feeling, worth remembering and celebrating.

“It was a place for family and happiness and here it can be an opening to the history of the former Soviet Union,” she said. “We can sit around and talk about what was there, what it was like, what it looked like, because it isn’t spoken about at all in Israel.”

That harking back to Russian culture and history is at the crux of the Israeli Novy God publicity effort. Bringing Novy God to the Israeli public has a lot to do with the emergence of the new Generation 1.5 of Russian Jews, noted Remennick.

The 1.5ers, like Rif and Rozenberg, are immigrants who came as children or teens, and form an intermediate category between the first and second generation of immigrants, she explained. They have good reading and writing skills in Russian as well as networks of friends from their homeland, and may have a harder time adjusting to Israeli youth culture and experience, she said.

“Now they’re fluent in Hebrew and served in the army and studied in high school and college and are young professionals, but they have a special location on the map of immigrant Israelis,” said Remennick.

There are Generation 1.5 Facebook groups in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, each of which hold events for their members, symbolizing cultural transitions and building bridges, she said.

The traditional Novy God dinner; salted fish, salads and toasts that start at 11 pm (Courtesy Israeli Novy God)
The traditional Novy God dinner: salted fish, salads and toasts that start at 11 p.m. (Courtesy Israeli Novy God)

Russian-Israelis are familiar with Israeli traditions — welcoming the Sabbath at nursery school, celebrating Jewish holidays, learning biblical texts in elementary and high school — but they didn’t grow up with any of those traditions.

“They’re familiar with it now, but it’s foreign to them,” said Remennick. “They didn’t have bar or bat mitzvahs.”

Russian-Israelis are often mixed ethnically as well, some with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, which has created a host of issues in Israeli society when they want to marry and have kids.

Novy God, said Remennick, is one small method of changing a sense of second-class citizenship.

“Novy God is saying, ‘accept us as who we are,’” she said. “‘You will not tell us how to be Jewish or Israeli. We served in the army and we work and pay taxes, so please accept us as Israelis.’”

There are signs of greater acceptance. Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova is pushing a campaign to make Novy God an official Israeli holiday, although when Israelis hear about the Christmas tree, they stop listening.

“A tree? It’s Christian,” said Israel Radio host Benny Teitelbaum, when interviewing Svetlova.

Enough said?

This year, said Rif, she is going to celebrate Novy God at her parents’.

“I’m going to sit with them, and let them tell me all the stories they wanted to tell me and I didn’t want to hear,” she said. “My father is a history freak, but now I want to hear where I’m from. I want my kids to understand that it’s not bad to know this.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed