It’s New Years, not Sylvester!

As December 31st approaches, I am faced yet again with the inner-conflict of whether or not I should celebrate a ‘chutznik’ holiday. Since the moment I arrived in Israel, I have done everything humanly possible to become ‘Israeli.’ I put myself in Hebrew-only environments, such as an Israeli pre-army Yeshiva program, I joined the army, and I listened exclusively to Israeli musical artists. I can honestly say that I did my best to avoid being caught in what I term the ‘Anglo-Bubble.’

I certainly didn’t celebrate the holidays I grew up with, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Years. In fact, if people would ask me if I planned on celebrating those holidays, I would make an indignant face and say “of course not – those aren’t my holidays anymore.” The only reason I even noticed when Thanksgiving came around, was because my parents would call me from the annual Thanksgiving family gathering.  I would then ceremoniously get passed around between Uncles, Aunts, and Cousins at a dizzying pace, forced to repeat the same practiced lines to each and every one. Then, as soon as I would thankfully hang up the phone, the knowledge that it was Thanksgiving Day would fade again into my subconscious and I would rejoin just another routine day here in Israel where Thanksgiving has no real import. Yet in the last couple of years, whether it’s because the chaotic army phase of my life has passed, I’ve finally accepted the fact that I will always be somewhat ‘American’ no matter how ‘Israeli’ I become, or perhaps simply because I am getting older, something has changed. I am getting nostalgic for those holidays, and what’s more – I don’t want to be embarrassed about it anymore.

In Israel, ‘New Years Eve,’ is called ‘Sylvester,’ named after St. Sylvester, a documented anti-Semite.  Such a negative connotation! How did this name catch on here?? I have heard two different answers. The first is that it is called Sylvester here to remind Westerners that have moved to Israel that it is a non-Jewish holiday. The second answer, and a tad more mild I might add, is that Sylvester is the name used in Europe, and when the European Jews moved to Israel, they simply carried the name over with them. However this name and association in no way parallel my experience of New Years as a child. Queue the magical chimes as I take you back 20 years…

In the past, New Years was always an exciting time of year for me. It would mark the pinnacle of the holiday season in thrilling fashion. During the build-up week of Christmas and Hanukkah, houses would be decorated with festive lights, which cast the evenings in an enchanted glow throughout the month of December. Since there was no school (another blessing), every day would be dedicated to  sledding, snow fights, and general mischief and mayhem. Trudging home through the snow covered streets of my cozy neighborhood in Philadelphia felt like an adventure in its own right.

Not to mention the warm bowl of soup or mug of hot cocoa which my mother would infallibly have waiting for my brother and I. A warm shower later, curled up under the blankets with my favorite comic strip book (always Calvin & Hobbes), there was no doubt in my mind that this was the most magical time of year. As the Christmas/Hanukkah week would draw to a close, the final act would consist of bugging my parents mercilessly and tirelessly if I would be allowed stay up until midnight to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Whether or not I could make it until midnight was a challenge unto itself and on the years I managed to make it that far, I was rewarded with an inflated sense of pride and the distant thunder of fireworks which cascaded the city skyline.

These are amazing moments in my life which I hope I will never forget. Though it’s unlikely that the streets of Jerusalem will be covered in snow anytime soon, and even though it would certainly be a rare site to see Christmas lights anywhere along the Jerusalem Avenues, it is still a magical time of year. Costume parties on Halloween, cookout dinners on Thanksgiving and the exhilaration of starting a new Gregorian year still have their place in my life here in Israel. Someday when I have a family, I will have the opportunity to pass these childhood traditions along to my children, in the hopes that they too will experience the cozy warm feeling of the captivating holiday season. For me, this day will never transform into ‘Sylvester,’ no – no, it will always carry that romantic ring of ‘New Year’s Eve.’

About the Author
Amishai Gottlieb is originally from Philadelphia and made aliyah in 2006. In 2007 he fulfilled a life long dream of serving in the IDF Paratroopers, including partaking in operation Cast Lead. He now studies English Literature at Bar Ilan University. In his free time, he writes, plays guitar, and sings in the shower at the top of his lungs.