Novi Gud Meal is Heart of Observance
For Americans trying to understand why Novi Gud [“New Year”], is so special to hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis, they must first realize that it should not be confused with the New Year’s holiday. Though both celebrate the end of one calendar year and the beginning of another, Novi Gud plays a truly exceptional part in Russian culture.
Tal (originally Vitaly) Paperim, who grew up in Kyiv and made aliyah with his family at the age of 9 in 1991, put it this way: “If you would take all of the Jewish holidays together and somehow substitute just one holiday for all of them, that is what you have with Novi Gud. It is not a holiday in Russia but the holiday.”
The heart of the celebration of Novi Gud lies in a big family meal on the night of December 31. Tal explains: “Historically speaking, in the Soviet Union families were spread all over. For many families, Novi Gud was the one time during the course of the entire year that they would all see each other.”
Does Tal celebrate Novi Gud? “Of course I do. I was born in the Soviet Union and it’s part of the culture.”
Tal, who became religious at the age of 15, admits that he celebrates Novi Gud now mostly out of respect for his parents and grandparents; “After all,” he says, “in Israel, there are many different Jewish holidays to celebrate; plus, every single week on Shabbat there is an opportunity for a family gathering and meal.”
The Novi Gud meal lasts for hours and hours. Caviar as well as various salads (cold and hot) are key features of the meal; a classic is called “herring in a fur coat” (a pickled-herring salad layered with grated vegetables, mayonnaise, and hard-boiled eggs). And then there is the traditional countdown to the New Year, the popping of champagne, and the opening of gifts.
My friend Alex, who is from Moldova and made aliyah in 1998 at the age of 19, is also fond of Novi Gud, saying that “it reminds you of your childhood and touches your heart,” but he points out that Novi Gud is tied to snow and winter and so “it’s hard to experience the holiday here.”
Perhaps because he does not have a family and children to introduce the holiday to, Alex says that he finds that his enthusiasm for Novi Gud is waning: “For 20 years I would decorate, I would invite friends, but how long can you make the tradition last?”
When I asked Jana (who grew up in St. Petersburg and made aliyah in 2001 at the age of 19) if she celebrates Novi Gud in Israel, she said: “Clearly—it’s the holiday of our childhood. There is no more important holiday than Novi Gud; in Russia it was even more important than your birthday.” Jana always makes sure to have a nicely decorated tree for Novi Gud; under the tree, Jana places identically-wrapped gifts for her family.
Though Novi Gud trees at the end of December will inevitably remind Americans of a very different winter holiday, from a Jewish Zionist perspective, a Russian Israeli who celebrates Novi Gud is, as Tal points out (his wife is American) akin to an American Israeli who celebrates Thanksgiving.
If that is not enough to assuage your reservations about Jana’s Novi Gud tree, the following will: While the fertility rate for Russia is currently about 1.822 births per woman, Jana and her husband Oleg have four children. Happy Novi Gud!
Teddy Weinberger is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.