Israel warms up to New Year's, celebrating Soviet-style

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 31 2011 7:27 p.m. MST

Israelis shop for groceries at a supermarket decorated with icons of the Russian holiday.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

RISHON LEZION, Israel — For years, many Israelis got a little jittery as New Year's Eve approached.

Their neighbors, some of the nearly 1 million Soviet citizens who flocked to the Jewish state as the Communist regime collapsed, would decorate fir trees and wear Santa Claus-like hats, celebrating New Year's Soviet-style.

But after 20 years, Israel has come to terms with the Christmas-like custom, even if most of the country lights Hanukkah candles this time of year.

Soviet-born immigrants will ring in this New Year with more oomph than ever before — a testament to the comfortable and influential niche they've carved for themselves in Israeli society. One hotel is throwing a Russian winterland bash and charging up to $660 a plate.

"How can we not celebrate? There's no holiday in Israel like this one," said Violetta Galbert, a nurse from Moscow, as her toddler son dived into a large box of tinsel at a supermarket catering to the Soviet-born immigrant community.

New Year's is not an official holiday in Israel because it is not a Jewish commemoration, but many young secular Israelis flock to bars and discos on Dec. 31.

It is the Soviet-style celebrations, though, that have raised eyebrows.

Irene Yavchunovsky's experience in the early 90s was commonplace: Her first year in the country, she decorated a fake miniature tree she brought from her native Ukraine — shocking her religious Jewish landlord.

"He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'It's not religious,'" Yavchunovsky, a writer and translator, recalled. "He was not happy we were doing those things in his apartment."

She tried, in vain, to explain: Her family was not celebrating Christmas. Soviet citizens didn't even know what Christmas was — the Communist regime replaced all religious holidays with party-imposed commemorations. "Novy God," Russian for New Year's, was the only nonpolitical holiday the Soviets allowed. Christmas icons were stripped of their religious symbolism and attached to New Year's Eve.

"It was the best, cleanest, most joyful holiday. It was completely clean of ideology," said Masha Buman, who arrived in Israel from what was then Leningrad. In the early 90s, she ran workshops for Israeli social workers to teach them the symbolic significance of Novy God. They were relieved to learn that it wasn't a Christian tradition, she said.

By most accounts, the Soviet immigration is considered an Israeli success story. The tiny country took in nearly a third of one million people in a two-year period and eventually absorbed more than a million newcomers, boosting its population by some 20 percent.

Two decades later, Soviet emigres occupy virtually every corner of Israeli society. Soviet immigrants or their children hold senior Cabinet posts and important military commands, and freely marry veteran Israelis. Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, himself came from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.

Israeli rabbis, however, are less accepting of the immigrants' New Year merrymaking. Since 1998, they have banned most of the country's hotels and banquet halls — which are under their kosher supervision — to display trees, ornaments and other reminders of the holiday.

Novy God decorations have still made it out in the open. No longer are statues of Santa — called Grandpa Frost in Russian — sold only in small Russian-language bookstores. Today they're displayed nationwide in some of Israel's biggest supermarket chains — ones that don't seek rabbinic certification, like the Tiv Taam megastore in Rishon Lezion, a city south of Tel Aviv.

At the entrance to the store, a smiling mustachioed snowman statue wearing a Grandpa Frost hat towers over a tall pyramid of canned peas, mushrooms and mayonnaise — essential ingredients for traditional Novy God fare.

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