An awkward Sylvester

This was my first New Year in Israel. I have one word to describe it: awkward.

As awkward as I felt when midnight approached and there was no choral countdown. No fiddling with the TV to make sure we synchronize right. No avid looking around to decide who we are going to kiss first.

Midnight came and it got worse. No screaming in the neighborhood, that distinctive collective exultation which only arises during the Football World Cup and on Dec. 31st. No crackling of fireworks in the distance. No one jamming the lines in frenetic attempts to call the dear ones before anyone else does. Worse of all: no kissing!

I could not believe my eyes. I stood petrified, looking around me with a growing sense of panic. If not kisses, someone must step forward to share a good wish for the New Year. Nothing. At 2010 and ten minutes, I reached for my mobile phone, but there were no messages. I turned to my boyfriend in despair: “can I kiss someone?”, I asked in a little voice. “Better not – he said – it is not in the culture.

It is all about cultural differences, isn’t it. In Israel, Dec. 31st is just an excuse to go out and have a “Sylvester party“, as unconvincing and forced as Halloween in Europe. There is no public display of festivities, even less than at Christmas. I again missed the sense of collective happening. It is not fun when you are the only one saying “Happy new year”.

Jews have their New Year on Rosh Hashana, with festive gatherings, meals ,wishes and good resolutions. It would be awkward to repeat the same scenario on Dec. 31st, just a couple of months after, and just because the rest of the world does. Wikipedia reports Israel as the only country using the Gregorian calendar that does not publicly celebrate Jan 1. In fact, if Dec 31st is either an excuse to go to the pub or nothing at all,  January 1st in Israel is no big deal either: people go to work, as the state does not stop to contemplate the New Year sitting in, not even giving you the chance to quietly overcome the hangover.

Just to make things worse, I learned from my always informative friends that Sylvester was an anti-Semitic pope whose saint’s day happen to fall on New Years Eve. Although not much is known about him, according to some sources Sylvester was the one who convinced emperor Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem, as well as promoting anti-Semitic legislation at the Council of Nicaea. This I was not taught on catechism, nor in History class. Here in Israel, everyone I spoke to referred to Sylvester as “that anti-Semitic guy”. To my defense, I can assure you that in Italy Saint Sylvester is only related to a big fat dinner we have on Dec 31st. I challenge you to ask around if anyone knows the story behind the name, even less the nasty story-behind-the-story.

Who was really Sylvester?

Rochel Sylvetsky gives us an idea of what Sylvester night meant for a Jew growing up in New York city.“Our house was silent on that night […] This evening was, once the calendar settled on December 25th as Christmas, calculated to be the night preceding the circumcision of the child born in the “little town of Bethlehem”, therefore a call for the local peasants to engage in drinking, making merry and killing Jews.” Again, on another blog: “She [the author’s mother, n.d.r], too, remembers this to be a day when a Jew being out on the street meant he was taking his life in his hands.  She remembers that on that day, the priests would always fulminate about how the Jews killed their God, and the congregants would rush out of church looking for Jews from whom they could take revenge.


Maybe I won’t raise my glass again next year. Not in Israel. Apart from the friendly kissing and the sense of an happening, I was never a big fan of New Years anyway. Too much significance gets attached to it, to the point that people start in September asking you what you are going to do on Dec. 31st. So much building up can only be met with an equal amount of subsequent disappointment.  Objectively,this is also an evening where every place will charge you 10 times more and police will happily withdraw your license at the faintest sign of ivresse.

As for your 2010 resolutions, if you are clueless you can adopt some from here. Happy new year.

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