A crypto-New-Year's-celebrating Orthodox Jew comes out of the closet
The writer finds a balance between the strange dichotomy of Soviet culture and her rediscovered religion,
By Avital Chizhik | Dec.31, 2012 | 8:02 PM
"You know, New Year's is a Christian holiday." I say this as my mother chops onions and throws them into a frying pan.
"Kakoi Christian?" she shakes her head. "You think we knew anything about Jesus when we lived There? Do me a favor, fetch me two more onions."
I sigh and go to the pantry. It had been the same argument every year, as my yeshiva teachers continually taught us that New Year's was most definitely a Christian holiday, and as my Soviet-born parents continued to insist that we would be celebrating the holiday regardless. For my family, 'Noviy God' was a time of tangerines wrapped in gold foil and imported from Elsewhere, a time to attend the Young Communists' annual dances and to sing guitar ballads about love, life, youth -- while in school, I learned that New Year's Eve was nothing less than a Sodom and Gomorrah erupting as people took to the streets to celebrate.
"It's the beginning of a new calendar year, that's all," my parents would say, shrugging off my complaints. Every time I told them that it was forbidden, they'd tell me simply, "It's the one holiday we had, don't you understand?" And that was that. Every year I surrendered, joining my family for their celebrations though I was sure I was guilty of utter idolatry.
It became my reluctant secret: I was a crypto-New-Year's-celebrating Orthodox Jew. On December 31st I'd come to school with a velvet dress and party shoes in my backpack, smiling uneasily to my classmates and knowing that in a matter of hours I'd be sinning and also probably enjoying it. After classes ended, I'd run to the bathroom, change out of my long skirt and into my dress, and slip out to meet my parents and sisters waiting in the back.
Off we'd go, Brooklyn, Queens, wherever that year's celebration was being held, to loud affairs of smoked fish, beets, fried potatoes with mushrooms, catered platters of sushi and wine and vodka, too. Violin concertos, karaoke competitions, Russian Jewish families crowding together to sing about "accidental waltzes" and short nights, "for on my palm lies your unfamiliar hand." There was a religious zeal to the way with which we celebrated the most secular of holidays, a passion which I both admired and feared.
And I knew my friends had it quite different. I knew to keep quiet, because even those girls who came from the more liberal homes didn't acknowledge the holiday, beyond perhaps watching the Times Square ball drop on television. The few friends who knew about my celebrating the holiday looked at it with curiosity, wondering at the immigrant family pouring glasses of champagne for their young children, reading aloud Moscow's latest anecdotes and roaring with laughter over the punch line.
I don't even remember when exactly our celebration shifted. We barely noticed when suddenly our skirts grew longer, our prayer times became more regular, and somehow my parents began hosting New Year's parties for their fellow Orthodox Russian-speaking friends. It's the same loud affair of smoked fish, beets, fried potatoes with mushrooms, platters of sushi and vodka, but now, the food is kosher, the men are in kippot, and we're reciting benedictions and giving toasts that are curiously punctuated with a sly 'Shana Tova'.
By now, I've come to terms with this balance of Soviet culture and our rediscovered religion, this strange dichotomy which traditional Russian Jews maintain almost effortlessly. Perhaps it's inevitable, because if New Year's was simply a party, it would be easier for us newly-Orthodox to leave it behind.
But it's far beyond a celebration; this holiday is a glimmer of nostalgia which brands us as eternally Diaspora Jews, holding on to a relic of another place and time that we're unable to give up, as we saute our onions and prepare our anecdotes. Whether we want to or not, and no matter how often we pray, we still find ourselves playing those violins and dancing those accidental waltzes.