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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

WHEN EVEN "HAPPY NEW YEAR" IS JEWISHLY DIVISIVE

Happy Secular New Year!


A couple of days ago on one of the Israeli news shows that I stream, I witnessed an interaction between two of the journalists, one wearing a kippah and the other bare-headed, indicating a modern religious Jew and a secular Jew. It went something like this:


Secular Fellow: Happy New Year (Shanah Tovah)!


Religious Fellow: That sounds funny to me at this time of year.


Secular: Well it is a new year, so I’ll say Happy Secular New Year instead.


Religious: Still sounds strange but I wish you the same.


It was as if these two Israelis were from different planets. They were both speaking fluent Hebrew, arguably a centerpiece of Jewish culture though obviously non-Jews also speak it. But they could not even agree about how or even whether it was appropriate to wish each other a happy 2023. Their exchange reminded me of my own December 31 experiences in Israel where, not only were there no public celebrations, but some hotels and other venues were threatened with punishment by the kashrut (i.e., kosher food) authorities when they dared to host private events! 


From a religious point of view, it’s understandable that many observant Jews ignore New Year’s Eve and Day. December 31 is actually a Catholic feast day in honor of St. Sylvester. In Israel they often call the holiday Sylvester (“Sufferin' succotash!”). There are other Christian connotations, too, all of them created after the early Church Fathers absorbed Roman and other pagan solstice celebrations into the Christmas / New Year season. Israel is not alone in shunning the holiday. While some non-Christian countries like Japan, China, and India do it up big, many Muslim countries, for example, do not.


What is unique about the Jewish approach to celebrating the secular new year is the way that it’s become just one more litmus test of what it means to be a Jew.


In my last commentary, I introduced Rabbi Wine’s six essential questions for Humanistic Jews. The issue about how and whether to acknowledge the secular new year – while it may seem tangential to Jews like us – is an outstanding example of the enormous division among many Jewish groups. It relates directly to Rabbi Wine’s first question: “How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from intensely pious forms of religious observance to completely secular expressions of identity?”


I invited you to share your ideas and I received some wonderful responses that I’ll share next week. It’s not too late to share yours, too. You can email them to me at rabbi@chj-detroit.org.

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