When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, New Year’s Eve was hands-down the most significant holiday for us. This is true for many, if not most, of the Russian Jews I know. We actually celebrated with a fir-tree, our beloved yolka – but don’t worry; it wasn’t a religious thing. The Soviet Union was a country where religious symbols were repressed, if not downright outlawed.
The tree was so beautiful, and I loved the smell that filled our apartment. We exchanged presents after midnight – and most importantly, New Year’s was the only holiday not linked to some State revolutionary or patriotic celebration. We could simply enjoy the holiday without feeling that it represented support for the oppressive government under which we lived. We had our rituals: watching a beloved movie, “The Irony of Fate,” and toasting each other with Soviet bubbly we mistakenly called “champagne.” We superstitiously believed that we would spend the rest of the year with the same people we rang in the year with.
But then I came to America where presents were exchanged under a Christmas tree by Christians on Christmas, and only then understood the religious origins of our seemingly secular holiday. Jews don’t do the Christmas tree thing in the US, so at some point my family stopped.
But if I can make a confession to you during this holiday season – I really miss it.
Recently, when the Vatican declared that we Jews are no longer required to convert to Catholicism, I secretly wondered if that meant we could also buy trees without the worry of being saved by the Church. Maybe we can even get the Chief Rabbinate, the Minister of Religion, or the Conference of Presidents to declare that trees are kosher for Jews but only for New Year’s celebrations?
We don’t have any such law-giving authorities in our faith. Lots that would like to be, to be sure – but there is nothing in our liturgy barring New Year’s trees and presents. Maybe we can start a whole new ritual. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. A wonderful new friend, Sofia (who is indeed wise) reminded me that her family (as did mine) waited until December 26th, when the trees were all free, to put up the New Year’s tree that first year in America. It was before we knew that after years of discrimination for being Jewish, in America this compromised our Jewish “credentials.”
I do still love that fir-tree smell! I picked one up yesterday ( after Shabbat, of course…).
Happy secular New Year!
Dr. Misha Galperin is author of two books and currently heads a philanthropic consultancy business. He is former CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. You can subscribe to his musings at Zandafi.com.