happy impending sylvester

by marjorieingall on December 29, 2010

I guess SOMETHING has to be my least favorite Tablet magazine column ever. So far, this is it.

Here’s the one interesting bit, which ended up on the cutting-room floor:

In Israel, New Year’s Eve is called “Sylvester.” (As in Saint Sylvester, not as in Tweetie-Bird’s nemesis.) The original Sylvester was a fourth century Pope who died on December 31, 335. In some countries – including Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary and parts of Russia – New Year’s Eve has long been called Sylvester, Szilveszter or Sylwester. Some people hypothesize that Sylvester gained ground in Israel as more Russians made aliyah. Writes Deborah Frenkel in Israelity, the blog of Israel21c, a non-profit pro-Israel educational foundation:

“During decades of Communist rule, Sylvester celebrations developed into a unique tradition in their own right, with a customary family dinner involving Champagne, caviar, the diced vegetable and potato dish known as Olivier’s salad, as well as other accoutrements more traditionally associated with Christmas, such as a tree, lights, and ornaments. With a huge percentage of Israelis hailing from the former Soviet Union, the event sets off its own economic ripples, and many savvy restaurateurs have jumped on the bandwagon, with special Sylvester menus featuring European-style delicacies.”

Or maybe secular Israelis are increasingly digging Sylvester because globalization has made them tune in ever more to celebratory whoo! New Year’s culture. A few years ago, my mom returned from Israel exclaiming over the “Sylvester sale!” signs everywhere in Emek Refaim, an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood. And of course, Sylvester has particularly dug in its spike heels in heathen, party-hearty, shop-till-you-drop Tel Aviv. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear cosmopolitan Israelis wishing each other a shana ezrachit tova – a happy secular New Year.

Unsurprisingly, ultra-religious Israelis are having none of it. They see Sylvester as a secular, anti-Jewish holiday, and point out that any festival named after a Pope is a festival for the goyim. Though the historical record doesn’t back up arguments that Pope Sylvester urged the Emperor Constantine to kick the Jews out of Jerusalem or force conversions (historically, we actually know very little about the real Sylvester except the date of his death), it doesn’t matter: No Sylvester for you! In fact, kosher restaurants purportedly can lose their certification if they advertise Sylvester menus.

While parties and sales are certainly features of the Israeli shana ezrachit program, New Year’s resolutions don’t seem to be as big a deal. Here in the USA, of course, American Jews welcome the opportunity for annual reinvention, and American Jewish writers welcome the opportunity to write New Year’s resolution stories as part of their whole controlling the media thing.

Anyway. Onward and upward in 2011. Happy New Year.

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