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Israel likes a party but is torn about New Year's

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

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.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Mark Stevenson in Mexico City, Mexico; Vijay Joshi in Bangkok, Thailand; and Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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Follow Daniel Estrin at www.twitter.com/danielestrin

Follow Dan Perry at twitter.com/perry_dan

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