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Identity

A Soviet Jewish Tradition

February 8, 2019
Emily Leyfer

Sunnyvale, California, United States

The start of my December went quite similar to how every other secular Jew’s did; taking our Hanukkiah off of a high shelf, cleaning out the year-old candle wax with a corkscrew, and relatives coming over for last minute dinner gatherings none of us were prepared for. But something a little bit different happens in my home as well. In an old box in our garage is a fake evergreen that gets put on display in our living room, adorned with ornaments and tinsel. Presents will go underneath it, not on the 25th, but rather on January 1st. It is a New Year’s Tree, a tradition brought to the United States by immigrants from the Soviet Union.

The answer to where the New Years Tree comes from lies in not too distant history. There had always been a large Jewish population in the Soviet Union, yet in the early 20th century, they had begun to lose their identity. The number of people who spoke Yiddish as a first language lowered from nearly half the population to a mere 2%. For Jews who resided in larger cities, putting up a Christmas tree was a method of assimilation, a way to show their neighbors that they were not outsiders and that they belonged.

Christmas is still celebrated, even by major political leaders such as Lenin, until church holidays became abolished in 1929. This occurred during the cultural revolution in the Soviet Union, sprung by changes instilled from Stalin’s five-year plan that brought economic and social disruption. A couple years later in the mid-’30s however, the festive tree started to become a symbol of domesticity. Party officials and activists became encouraged to decorate a “Soviet fir” for the new year.

The New Year’s tree became a tradition that many people grew up to be familiar with, including Jews, who were not prevented from participating in the now widely popular secular holiday. The government’s method to crackdown religion worked. In 1937, over half of Soviet citizens described themselves as religious, while only one in ten Jews of that population did so. Soviet Jews quickly embraced their secular identities.

The Jews of the Soviet Union who lived through the German invasion lost a lot of what we think what makes one “Jewish”: grandparents native in Yiddish or Hebrew, a detailed understanding of the story of the Torah, remembering the traditions and rules of every holiday. Sadly, a lot of that was lost in the history of families like mine. With Israel’s reestablishment, many Soviet Jews immigrated to rebuild their identities, but traditions such as the New Year’s Tree carried on. And for the over 500,000 of those Soviet Jews who came to the United States, this was their way of becoming a part of their new culture, without having to sacrifice their traditions in order to assimilate.

Emily Leyfer is a BBG in Jerusalem Shel Zahav BBG #1516 in Central Region West.

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