Friday, September 14, 2012

When New Years comes twice a year

Doesn’t seem fair, does it - that we get to celebrate New Years twice a year. First time around: family, gefilte fish and presents. Second time around: friends, cocktails and smooching at midnight. Officially, there is only one New Year in Israel - the Jewish New Year which falls sometime in September. Just as, “officially”, we have one calendar - the Hebrew Calendar  ;-)

Quick - what day, month and year is it today according to the Hebrew Calendar? Okay, while you try to work that out in your head, or look it up on the Internet, I will move on.

The Hebrew Calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning that things - such as Hebrew holidays - shift around, when trying to synchronize them with the Gregorian Calendar (you know, the one we use every day). So sometimes the High Holidays (New Years, Yom Kippur, Succot...) come earlier in the year and sometimes later.

This does cause schizophrenia among Israelis at times. Especially when it comes to birthdays.

Let’s say that you were born on the 20th of Elul, 5747 - which fell on the 14th of September, 1987 according to the Gregorian Calendar. Which date do you now celebrate your birthday on? The chances of the 20th of Elul falling exactly on the 14th of September again is slim, or sporadic at best. So unless you expect to receive presents on your birthday twice a year, you are going to have to decide - the Hebrew calendar or the Gregorian one. If you were by chance born on a holiday (New Years, first day of Hanukah... but not something somber like Yom Kippur), the choice is easy. It will be easier for people to remember your birthday according to the holiday, even if it jumps around the Gregorian calendar every year. So, Hebrew calendar it is. But if you were born on just an ordinary Hebrew date, such as the 20th of Elul, 5747, the chances of friends and family remembering that date, let alone converting it to the Gregorian calendar, are slim. There go the presents. Like it or not, the 14th of September will be much easier to remember. You can’t have your birthday cake and eat it too - although you may still try. “Yes, my birthday is today on September 14th,” you say, opening yet another present, “but it is really on the 20th of Elul”.

And when people say that you will be paid on the 10th of every month, or that rent is due on the 1st of every month, I don’t ever remember this referring to the Hebrew months.

But although we measure over 90% of our daily affairs according to the Gregorian Calendar, Israelis continue to have a love affair with the Hebrew Calendar. Why? Because it is ours. We are embedded in it and it is embedded in us. Much like the Hebrew language, although Hebrew is much more entrenched into our daily consciousness, even though it almost lost out to German when plans were being made for the revival of the State of Israel. At the time, the idea of reviving a language which hadn’t been used in daily life for two thousand years must have seemed rather daunting. I mean, look at all of those things that had been invented and conceived of since - Mein Lieber Gott - how do we give them names. One could become almost meshuganeh. But it was done, and Hebrew has become a modern and linguistically rich language - although it has borrowed heavily on Anglicisms in the process.

But let us return to the Hebrew and Gregorian calendar, and subsequently - the “Jewish” and “Gregorian” New Year. If Israelis can manage peacefully with the two calendars, why should two separate new years be a problem? It’s not as if we are requesting the Gregorian New Year to become a national holiday so that we can sleep off the hangover from the night before. But the celebration of the Gregorian New Year on New Years Eve is considered problematic by many, even viewed as a sacrilege by some. So much so, that hotels have been threatened in the past with having their Kosher certificate taken away if they allow New Years Eve celebrations in their establishment.

Why all the fuss?

“Sylvester” is apparently the culprit. And I’m not referring to the cat in Looney Tunes  (“I tawt I taw a putty cat.”) - the only Sylvester I knew of before moving to Israel. No, we are talking about an anti-semitic Pope from back around 325 C.E., who not only was proclaimed a Catholic Saint, but was also awarded a day of his own by the Catholic Church: Saint Sylvester Day, which falls on December 31. Which also happens to run into New Years Eve. Somehow a connection was made between the two. In Israel, the Gregorian New Years Eve is even called “Sylvester”. In my first year in Israel, as January 1st approached, I kept hearing about the evils of celebrating Sylvester. “What does New Years Eve have to do with a pussy cat?” I asked. “No, you don’t understand. We are talking about an anti-semitic saint who lived about 17 centuries ago.” “Oh,” I answered, “What does New Years Eve have to do with an anti-semitic saint?” I never really received an answer to that. Except for the fact that Saint Sylvester Day falls on the same date (and I imagine that we can find many other things that fall on that date), I don’t really see the problem.  New Years Eve, for most people I know, is a time for getting together with friends and celebrating the coming in of the new year. Marking time, marking friendship, hoping for a year that is better than the one that came before.

And a time for New Years resolutions. You know, those things that we swear by and never carry out. (You can read more about this in a former blog post of mine - Taking the “new” out of New Years. ) Here we Israelis can have more fun and cheat. Not only can we make new years resolutions on the Jewish New Year, but we can test them out before reaching the Gregorian new year a few months later. Then we can either continue on with them, toss them aside and make new ones, or toss out the idea altogether. Now, who can have a problem with that?

So you have seen, in many of my former blog posts, how schizophrenic I can be in being both Canadian and Israeli and in speaking both Hebrew and English. And now we can also see how easily schizophrenic Israelis can be, simply because of a small matter of a calendar. (And I am just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Israeli schizophrenia. Don’t get me started.) Now, take this Israeli schizophrenia and mix it into my own Canadian/Israeli split personality, and what do you get. I don’t know what it is, but it certainly is messy.

Happy New Year!


  1. This may be a country-related thing, but September 11 will never be the same as before 2001........speaking of proximity to the Jewish New Year.

  2. Oh, I also remember being so puzzled by Sylvester when I came here.
    May this kind of "schizophrenia" be our worst problem!
    Once againm a Great Read Post!
    Shana Tova!

  3. Well said
    Shana Tova

  4. I'm one of those lucky ones with a birthday the day before Hanuka - so people always remember the Hebrew date. And what can be better than getting to celebrate twice!
    Shana Tova

  5. Well put and all very true.
    Happy new year,

  6. David, my head was spinning from all the dates.....
    but one thing I know......
    presents = good
    more presents = better

    isn't it just that simple? really!!!

    p.s. Happy New Year ;-)

    1. Yes, we do have a habit of complicating things. Especially those of us who suffer from a Woody Allen syndrome.

  7. Calendar dates are like Gheematria numbers ( is that numerology?)

    If I say 'Kaff Vav Elul' in a class of students, the ones who had a religious education understand, the others do not. The same goes for November 14, except then the ones with the religious education start counting months on their toes. I can even shoot off a pun in the lecture hall aimed at a specific group. Anyway,your blog is a lot of fun and Happy Taff Shin Ayin Whatever!

  8. I enjoyed reading your post, yet again.
    Being born in Elul is even worse as on one year it's already the school year and on another it's still the summer holiday. In both cases, no party in school when I was young. :(

    At least it's nice that every 19 years you get to celebrate your Hebrew and Gregorian birthday on the same day.
    Shana Tova!!

  9. Interesting post..Keep posting ..Informative..