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Just don't call it Christmas: In Israel, Russian holiday coming out of closet

Novy God, a Soviet-created secular holiday that borrowed from Christmas and New Year's, was embraced by Russian Jews and is gaining acceptance in Israel.

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    Israeli-Arab Issa Kassissieh wears a Santa Claus costume as he walks atop a wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City during an annual Christmas tree distribution by the Jerusalem municipality December 21, 2015.
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Growing up the son of immigrants in the Israeli city of Ashdod, Alex Miller never told non-Russian speaking friends about his grandmother’s fir tree that he and his cousins would decorate in honor of the New Year.

Though many of the 1 million newcomers from the former Soviet Union who arrived in the 1990s clung to the traditions of “Novy God” – a secular holiday invented by the Soviets who borrowed symbols from Christmas – the celebrations were shunned by most Israelis who mistakenly saw a Christian observance. For the immigrants, the holiday marked a cultural barrier.

“We knew how they didn’t accept it. When I was a kid, it was something not good, something strange, something not Jewish,” says Mr. Miller, a 23-year-old education student. “It was just a family thing.”

In recent years, however, an increasingly self-assured second generation of Russian-speaking young adults is inviting non-Russian Israelis to the festivities and even pushing for public recognition of the holiday. The openness reflects an embrace of their parents' traditions by children more confident of their Israeli identity.

This year a freshman member of parliament, Ksenia Svetlova, started an initiative to have Israeli school children learn about the holiday. In recent years, Israeli youth groups in cities with a large Russian population have been holding celebrations. A Facebook group, “Israeli Novy God,” recently opened up calling on Russian-speaking Israelis to volunteer to host native Israelis for traditional Novy God celebrations.

Russian Israelis say the initiative comes at a time when many in the Israeli mainstream have become more receptive to the winter holidays. Though Dec. 31 merry-making was once frowned upon because it was confused with the Catholic Feast of Pope Sylvester on the same day, Tel Aviv is now flooded with party-goers who stream to the city’s bars and clubs to ring in the New Year.

A circular by the Israeli army’s education department on Novy God from last year encouraged commanders to be open to the holiday and be flexible on vacation requests. Russian Israelis can now buy decorations and trees nearby instead of having to travel to Christian Arab towns.

For this year’s party at his home, Miller says he’s planning a gathering in which Russian immigrants will be in the minority. “Things have changed,” he says. “People understand it’s a Russian tradition that people have of being with their family.”

A holiday without flags and slogans

In Communist Russia of the last century, the Soviets outlawed religious observances but crafted their own New Year’s celebration, Novy God, that appropriated the Christmas tree – known in Russian as a “yolka” tree – as well as Santa Claus, who became Ded Moroz, or Father Frost. The tradition of gift-giving was also preserved.

Russian Jews, forbidden to openly mark their own religious holy days and marginalized by the government, embraced the holiday as a rare opportunity to celebrate something that was not steeped in Soviet ideology.

“It was the holiday,” wrote Arik Elman, a Russian Israeli columnist whose parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union but stopped celebrating in Israel. “Even the general population was grateful to celebrate something without parading with flags and slogans.”

For Russian Israelis, opening up now about Novy God is also a way to dispel stereotypes about Russian Jews and the culture that they brought to Israel. A video on the “Israeli Novy God” Facebook website about the holiday pokes fun at misconceptions that Russian immigrants are secretly Christian.

“If you go to Russian Jewish homes who are not religious, you can see a menorah and a fir tree in the same room, and people see no conflict,” said Roman Yanushevsky, a contributing editor at Israel’s Channel 9 Russian language television news.

To be sure, there is still resistance to public manifestations of the holiday, which for now remain mostly confined to Arab areas. Parliament Member Svetlova complained of a rabbi who said those who celebrated Novy God couldn’t be considered Jewish. A Jewish nationalist organization protested the public lighting of a Christmas tree at the YMCA in Jerusalem this month.

'Why not a Russian tradition?'

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi says the tension experienced by the Russian speakers has been a fixture in the absorption process of several waves of Jewish immigrant from diverse locations. Striking a balance between the old country and new takes between one and two generations, he says.

“Most Russians are secular, and the traditions that they are bringing from the former Soviet Union are far more secular than Christian, but many Israelis with long historical memories still feel uneasy,” he says.

“It’s a measure of the maturation of Israeli society that Russian immigrants feel confident enough to go public with rituals that make other Israelis uneasy. More power to them.”

Mr. Elman, who will be celebrating with his two young daughters this year, says that while the openness is a good sign, it’s unlikely that Israeli society will ever be able to make the distinction between Santa Claus and Father Frost.

Others, like parliament member Svetlova and Miller, think Novy God, like other immigrant imports, can be integrated into Israeli culture as well.

“Why not a Russian tradition?” Miller says. “We’re all part of this country, I think it’s something worthwhile.”

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