Not Our New Year’s Eve: How Israeli Jews Celebrate the New Year

Jerusalem, December 25, 2018…The annual debate in Israel about the placement of Christmas trees in malls or hotels – this year in Ashdod – shouldn`t fool anyone. For most Israeli Jews, the holiday season is celebrated in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, not in December. For a significant majority of Israeli Jews (78%),  December 31st is considered a “completely ordinary day.” Only 2% say that they conduct “soul searching” on the New Year, and only 6% say that December 31st feels like their “real New Year`s Eve.”

JPPI is releasing this data as part of its #IsraeliJudaism research project, based on an extensive survey of Israeli Jews. A new book based on the research: #IsraeliJudaism, a Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, was published a few weeks ago by Dvir Publishing.

December 31st is not only a (mostly unutilized) time for soul searching; it is also a time for celebration. People around the world celebrate the New Year and many (but not most) Israelis join these celebrations. One in five Israeli Jews (20%) celebrates the New Year. Of those without children, especially young people, the percentage rises to 34%, about a third of all Israeli Jews.

Looking at the different sectors of Israeli Jews, one can see significant gaps between secular and traditional (which are divided into three different groups in the JPPI survey: completely secular, secular who are a bit traditional, and traditional) as well as between the different religious groups. The percentage of those who celebrate the New Year is between a quarter and a third (see graph) of the secular groups. Among the religious groups, the percentage is much smaller. One group is an exception to this rule: those who identify as “liberal religious,” and who celebrate the New Year in similarly  to the secular groups — and much more than the other religious groups (religious, national-religious, and haredi).

There is a large group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel, which celebrates Novy God (a non – religious Christmas celebration) on New Year’s Day. This is not an insignificant group – 8% of Israeli Jews say they “celebrate the holiday with friends.” Four percent of all Israeli Jews have a Christmas tree at home. This generally refers to Jews who identify as either completely secular (8% have a tree at home) or secular who are a bit traditional (5% have a tree at home). Overall, considering the number of Jewish households in Israel (according to the Central Bureau of Statistics), there are about sixty to seventy thousand Jewish households that have a Christmas tree in order to celebrate “Novy God.” In these households, it is also customary to exchange gifts. Among the religious sectors in Israel, no households practice this custom and few (1%) celebrate Novy God.

Novy God is a custom of a specific group of the Jewish population, and has not, at this time, expanded to the general population (of course, there are many celebrations that take place on Dec. 31 unrelated to Novy God). Relatedly, Novy God is not well known among Israelis who are not from the former Soviet Union. Thus, when compared to other holidays such as the Mimouna celebration, which is held the day following Passover and was brought to Israel by Moroccan immigrants, this is especially clear.

For the sake of comparison, out of the general Jewish Israeli population, about four in ten people (38%) asked “what is Novi God?” when questioned about the holiday. However, everyone (except 2%) were familiar with Mimouna, which has been part of Israeli culture longer. The phenomena is especially clear in the Haredi sector, which is usually the last to know about holidays it does not celebrate itself. Accordingly, only a small percentage of the Haredi population (6%), which is largely Ashkenazi, is unaware of Mimouna.  On the other hand, a large majority of the Haredi population (75%) is unaware of Novy God.

JPPI’s Israeli-Judaism project is headed by Senior Fellow Shmuel Rosner, and Professor Camil Fuchs (Tel Aviv University), who oversees the surveys and statistical analysis. JPPI Fellow Noah Slepkov assisted in data analysis, drawn from a survey conducted of 3000 Israeli Jews in two rounds, one of 2000 Israeli Jews and another of an additional 1000 respondents, a representative sample of the Jewish public in Israel. The statistical margin of error for the sample of 3000 survey respondents is 1.8%. the #IsraeliJudaism book as published in a cooperation between Dvir Publishing and the JPPI.
The Jewish People Policy Institute (established by the Jewish Agency for Israel) is a think tank located in Jerusalem. Through strategic thinking and long-term action-oriented policy planning, JPPI focuses its efforts on ensuring the thriving of the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization. Avinoam Bar Yosef is President of JPPI, and Ambassadors Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross are the Institute’s Co-Chairs.

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