A tank, he said. If I was in charge of this country, my exuberant host on New Year’s Eve declared, I would give you a tank to drive home every weekend. Can you imagine, he continued, waving his hands at his brood of Kurdish children, this young man left his home, his family, everything he knows to come defend our country. You, he turned to me, deserve nothing less than a tank.
2010, my year as a soldier, concluded with a mix of the surreal, romantic and tedious -— exactly the ingredients that define my army service. The New Year passed with me in green, having volunteered for the weekend sentry assignment so my non-religious peers could enjoy the year end festivities. The guys on my squad were overjoyed and even surprised at my willingness to stay on base —- New Year's, known as Silvester in Israel (see below for why) is the party night of the year. Soldiers, and Israeli partygoers of all ages, could care less about the Catholic saint or the pogroms that historically marked the start of the European calendar. Silvester in Israel is about booze, dance clubs and, for the young men and women serving their mandatory two to three year’s service, a reminder that they are one year closer to finishing the military.
While my peers were out barhopping, I was looking for my own source of salvation. Rumor had it that the largely Sfardi town outside my base was home to a hospitable Habad rabbi. Finding his shul meant inspired prayers and a warm Shabbat meal. So after wrapping up a dreary guard shift I slipped off to town to find the rumored rebbe. Asking local residents proved hilariously unsuccessful. The Moroccan and Kurdish Jews I spoke with were as surprised as me to hear that someone with the outrageously Polish name of Reb Shmerling even lived in town.
After failing to gather any information from a car of glammed up Syrian girls and an old Tunisian couple who came to the door in matching bathrobes and lit Cubans, I was ready to admit defeat. My Lubavitch rebbe, I concluded sadly, was nothing more than a heady promise. As my feet turned towards base, a fluorescent glass sphere in the distance convinced me to keep exploring. The sphere turned out to be a Sfardi synagogue. And my decision to go in turned out to be the ticket to Shabbat dinner by a lively Kurdish family.
Hours later I was back on base, counting down to midnight. The New Year was far from my thoughts. 2011 meant wrapping up guard duty, setting aside my gun for some much desired rest.
New Year’s Eve, and all the drunken parties that take place come nightfall, is called Silvester in Israel. Why?
The answer lies in Israel’s Ashkenazi, and by extension European, roots. December 31 is the yarzheit (anniversary of a person’s death) and saint-day of Sylvester, a Catholic pope and saint from the fourth century. So the last day of the calendar year was traditionally known as Silvester in many European countries and, by extension, European languages. Since Germans refer to New Year’s Eve as Silvester, Yiddish (Hebraized German and the mother tongue of most European Jews before the Holocaust) follows suit. And since the Jews who built Israel were by and large native Yiddish speakers, my guess is that Silvester entered Israeli lingua franca through the mamaloshen.
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