Celebrating Silvester in Israel
Time is flying. Even though Corona has been with it for what seems like an eternity, and some countries are already returning to lockdown, Israel, for the moment, is not in the grip of a crisis. Whilst the borders are temporarily closed for tourists at present, the chances look good that they will open again soon.
Hanukkah has now passed for Jews but what’s just around the corner is Christmas, followed by New Year, a time when thousands of Christian pilgrims flock to Israel, to visit Bethlehem (the place where Jesus was born) and Jerusalem (where he was crucified, buried and then resurrected). In the modern Gregorian calendar, the New Year falls on 1st January and is preceded by the famous ‘New Year’s Eve’ festival, which in Israel is called Silvester. So, why Silvester and why do Jews celebrate it in Israel?
What does Silvester Mean?
The word ‘Silvester’ is derived from the Roman Saint, Pope Silvester (also spelled Sylvester) from, back in the 4th century. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar was reformed and the last day of its year was declared to be December 31st, linking it up with the feast day of Silvester.
Today, of course, 31st December is one of the most celebrated public holidays across the globe. Fireworks are a traditional way to end the evening, along with parties, cocktails, and a certain degree of merriment. Silvester is a huge tradition in central Europe (particularly Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy).
And of course, over time, that tradition - like the traditions of Halloween and St. Valentine’s Day - has arrived in Israel. So when did Silvester make its first appearance and how do Israelis celebrate this festival today?
Silvester in Israel Past. From the Ottomans to the British
By any standards (well, thousands of years in fact), the Jewish calendar predates the Gregorian calendar. Furthermore, when Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans, the ‘Rumi’ system (which is solar-based) was operational. Of course, all this changed when the Ottoman Empire fell and the British conquered the territory on 1st March 1917.
Under the Mandate, Muslims celebrated their new year in the summer, Jews would celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Fall and Orthodox Christians marked the New Year using the Julian calendar. However, because there were so many British soldiers (and diplomats and their wives) in the Holy Land by that time, the demand for a party on New Year’s Eve grew.
In 1927, the first one was held, in the form of a dinner followed by a ball. At the same time, the Jews who lived there were not celebrating 31st December/1st January (instead celebrating Hanukkah in Israel) and so advertisements for these festivities were promoted more to English and Arabic speakers.
Silvester Springs Up
By the 1930s, however, many Jews from Germany and Austria (where Silvester was always popular) had arrived in Palestine. These Jews were, in the main, secular and worldly - they dressed beautifully, spoke eloquently, and enjoyed ‘bourgeois’ traditions such as summer tea dances and winter balls. Thus the tradition of the Hanukkah ball was born!
These ‘Hanukkah/Silvester’ celebrations actually did gain some popularity, although there was a certain amount of discussion and disagreement from other Jews, who felt they were not in keeping with the ‘Zionist ethos’ (as well as being named after a Pope who was notoriously anti-semitic). Indeed, in 1934, the powers that be in Tel Aviv argued:
“This foreign custom of Silvester parties is absolutely undesirable, contrary to the spirit and traditions of the people of Israel...and requests that all coffee houses and large event hall owners in the city not organize Silvester parties.” (Deputy Mayor Rokach)
The Chief Rabbis went even further, declaring that Silvester was a tradition alien to Jews and something that should not be allowed to ‘invade’ the Holy Land. Essentially, they regarded these parties as a dangerous precedent - one that could lead to Jews adopting Christian traditions!
However, as time passed, it became clear that many Jews in Palestine (and, after 1948, the State of Israel) wanted to celebrate. Attempts to stop parties (or even ban them) never came to much, and by the 1950s, Silvester parties were very fashionable (and attended by artists, journalists, and even Israeli politicians).
Silvester in Israel Today
So, how many Israels celebrate ‘New Year?’ today. Well, that’s a great question and essentially it all depends on which one you’re referring to. The Jewish New Year - also known as Rosh Hashanah - marks the beginning of the ‘holiday cycle’ (as we’ve said before, Israel has many holidays!) and is celebrated widely by families and friends, usually with a festive dinner and sometimes a trip to the synagogue.
Rosh Hashanah, like every Jewish holiday, is based on the Jewish (lunar) calendar so its exact date differs every year. However, it usually falls sometime between early September and early October. Occasionally Israelis give gifts, but the biggest traditions are eating apples dipped in honey and round challah bread!
And just in case you’re invited to someone’s home for such a celebration, it’s good to know how to say ‘Happy New Year’ in Israel. You say “Shanah tovah u’metukah” which, translated, basically means ‘Have a good and sweet New Year.”
Does Israel Celebrate New Year's Eve?
Silvester, of course, is a completely different ball game - it’s not a religious holiday whatsoever. As a result, many Israelis will celebrate the evening, although more traditional Jews (who observe Jewish ritual law) may not do anything special, since historically they have regarded it as a more ‘Christian’ holiday.
In Tel Aviv, for instance, (Tel Aviv has a reputation for being secular, liberal, and somewhat hedonistic) you will find endless attractions - restaurants holding special New Year’s Eve menus, dance parties, intimate celebrations in peoples’ homes and, in hipster neighborhoods like Florentin and Jaffa, people partying in the street when the clock strikes midnight.
In Jerusalem, however, which is a lot more traditional (even conservative) any celebrations will be more low-key, perhaps in peoples’ homes and you definitely won’t see revelry in the capital’s downtown. And, of course, since January 1st is not a public holiday in Israel, you’ll still be expected to attend work the next day!
Silvester Events in Tel Aviv this Year (2021)
The New Year’s Eve countdown in Tel Aviv can be celebrated at many different venues across the city, including:
The Breakfast Club - this popular nightclub on Rothschild Boulevard is throwing a Tiki party, with lots of dancing and tropical cocktails!
Cheers Bar - hanker for some old music? Well, this bar is throwing a 1990s themed bash with music from that era, including Madonna, the Spice Girls, and Nirvana! Get your dancing shoes on...
Brown TLV Hotel - this trendy hostel is converting its lobby into a disco and with its reputation for upmarket design, style, and cocktails, it’s bound to be fun!
Shpagat - this popular gay bar on trendy Nahalat Binyamin is throwing their annual ‘Sylvester Prom Party.’ It’s an intimate and cozy venue and, even better, there’s no entry fee.
The Dancing Camel - this fun bar is throwing a Roaring Twenties shindig, where you can dance to swing music and drink fabulous cocktails.
The Kitchen Market - this upmarket restaurant, above the food market in Tel Aviv’s Namal Port, has a special New Year’s Eve menu, with both early and later sittings.
As well as Silvester, the holiday of Novy God has also become increasingly popular in Israel. ‘Novy God’ is Russian for “New Year’ and symbolizes both the Russian New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Historically, Russia adopted European customs in 1700 under Tzar Peter I, when he issued a decree, declaring that all citizens should have a fir tree in their home.
By the mid 20th century, after the Tzars had been overthrown by the Bolsheviks, Novy God was declared a public holiday Unsurprisingly, it became very popular, perhaps because it was the only holiday in the Soviet Union not associated with communism.
Israel has a large Russian population (many of whom arrived in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union) and so Novy God has gained popularity in the last 30 years. Especially in places where there is a large Russian community (Ashdod, for example), many festivities are held, with plenty of revelries to boot.
A typical ‘Novy God’ dinner (which can often resemble a veritable feast) will include traditional Russian appetizers such as cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, beets, and dill. Salads with mayonnaise (Olivier Salad and dressed herring, e.g.) are popular and caviar is often served, not to mention fermented pickles, which are often paired with vodka shots and champagne!
Celebrations go on way into the night and many Russian Jews will tell you that they have fond memories of their childhood Novy Gods, when they were not told to go to bed, often staying up until dawn broke. There will often be a decorated tree with presents underneath, which ‘Ded Moroz’ (‘Grandfather Frost’) hands out to the children.
Now that more and more Israelis are beginning to understand that Novy God has little in common with Christmas, they’re also dying to learn more. Outreach initiatives mean that, across the country, many Russian-Israelis are inviting friends and neighbors into their homes, so they can share their wonderful traditions with them.
Teaching others that Novy God is less about drinking in a bar and more about getting together with family and friends to share food and stories is just one more way of spending 31st December. So whether you’re religious or secular, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, Happy 2022 to you all - and whether you’re celebrating Silvester, Novy God or just staying home with Netflix, enjoy yourselves!