Column for Jewish News January 1 2015
So finally, it is behind us. The C-word, that is. When even the Chief Rabbi issued year-end words of wisdom to tie in with those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, we are entitled to wonder about the pervasiveness of Christmas. When my Hindu newspaper boy drops in a card wishing me a merry festival, and when people get quite aggrieved when you tell them you don’t do Christmas – is there a message here for us, the Jewish community?
I’ve been very struck this year by the rising number of public declarations by Jews as to how much they enjoy Christmas – trees, presents, celebratory meal and all. Some (and you know who you are) even go further and attend midnight mass. Maybe these are people for whom Judaism is not enough, a religion of strictures and “thou shalt nots”, so it seems, initially, harmless to wallow in a festival that encourages hospitality and, dare I say it, sentimentality.
The other extraordinary thing is the sheer amount of sustained flapping that goes on in the wider community, as people who are strangers to entertaining for most of the year are flung into a panic at the idea of having more than four people round for food.
Most Jewish households routinely offer open hospitality and take in their stride meal planning for large numbers, even if presents don’t feature on a regular basis. It seems reasonable for Jews to hold a family meal on the day that all the rest of the world is celebrating, if only because it’s a public holiday and in any case, this year it was a Friday night. But why some Jews feel the need to embrace the rest of it – the tree and the presents thing, particularly – remains a mystery.
We certainly have enough Jewish schools now for it not to be a problem for kids feeling left out. If you’re that keen on presents during a winter festival, then go the full nine yards and do Chanukah properly. Leave Christmas to the, er, Christians.This year, for a change, there has been a row in Israel relating to Christmas, as if there weren’t enough things about which to have a row in Israel without dragging Christmas into the mix.
But this year’s row relates to the vast number of Russians now living in Israel, who are resuscitating a festival celebrated even in Communist times in the Soviet Union, Novy God.
Novy God, I learn, is a “family-friendly” festival which is held to mark the new year, and is not to be confused with what Israelis call “Sylvester”, which the Russians say commemorates the death of Pope Sylvester I.
No, Novy God is different. It is celebrated with a 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”.
Attempts by Russian Jews in Israel – who are largely less-Jewishly observant than their Israeli-born counterparts – to introduce Novy God to their Israeli friends have been met with perplexed responses and sometimes down- right derision. The Russians complain that nobody condemns American Jews in Israel for celebrating Thanksgiving, so why shouldn’t they celebrate Novy God?
There are more than a million Russian-born Jews living in Israel so maybe demographics will eventually win the day. But it does seem to me, after watching a Novy God video designed to market the festival to Israeli-born Jews, that Novy God is simply Christmas under another name – trees, presents, a Grandfather Frost, a big meal.
A member of Knesset, Ksenia Svetlova, is pushing a campaign to make Novy God an official Israeli holiday, but that seems as likely as the United Nations making Yom Kippur an official UN holiday. Oh, wait a minute…
See, the problem here is that we Jews don’t seem confident enough in our own festivals. We are never, while living in the diaspora, going to ‘Extraordinary, the amount persuade the wider community of the blanket joys of Jewish life, but we could do a better job of sustained flapping at the persuading ourselves, so that the whole trees-and-presents thing doesn’t seem so attractive.
We have enough creative, innovative minds idea of having more than to make it happen. Events like Mitzvah Day and four people round for food’ Shabbat UK are a great start, but we need more. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.