Just Your Normal New Year’s Shabbos
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Just Your Normal New Year’s Shabbos

Associate Editor

Some say there are really only two Jewish denominations: serious Jews, and all the rest. And serious Jews approach millennial celebrations with what Sir Walter Scott described as ìburning pride and high disdain.î

Nevertheless, with intermarriage, assimilation and secularity, great multitudes of Jews will be partying at the gates of Babylon, if not watching Times Square.With the millennium arriving on a Friday night, a Jacob-Esau wrestling match is being waged. In Israel, the chief rabbinate warns that hotels allowing a New Yearís celebration will lose kashrut certification. Here in New York, Mendyís restaurant on the Upper West Side was persuaded by the Orthodox Union kashrut certifiers to cancel a pre-paid Shabbat dinner that supposedly was a Trojan horse for New Yearís Eve.

Beholden to no one, the Odessa, a lusty, non-kosher nightclub for Russian Jews in Brighton Beach, is fully booked on that Friday night with a ìBroadway-style show, dancing and many surprises.

Jews havenít had this situation for a quite a while. The year 1200 was the last time a new Christian century dawned on Shabbat. Jews in 1200 werenít invited to the party. Way back in ye olde 999, when this millennium commenced on a Sunday night, the very next morning Jews ó every one of them still living in the Eastern Hemisphere ó were chanting Parashah Shemos in their synagogues, same as youíll be hearing in synagogues on the first morning of 2000.

So what will it be this year, the 23rd of Tevet or Dec. 31?

ìThat night is Shabbat,î stresses singer-composer Debbie Friedman, the muse for liberal Jews. ìMy millennium is not due for 240 years. Iím not so frum, but this millennium is not a part of my tradition, so I canít get excited about it. I can acknowledge their celebration, but only if Iím holding on to my roots, embracing my history.ìThe focus for me that Friday night will be on the One who is the Sovereign of the universe. Iíll be celebrating a low-key Shabbat with friends.îSidney Zion, the Daily News columnist, tells us, ìReally frum people, they donít have a problem. They just stay home and have a great Shabbos. But even people in the middle, guys like me, it concerns me. Iím not delighted. I live in the outside world; I celebrate New Yearís Eve. But this year, I donít feel great about this whole thing. Maybe if it was on a Thursday night, but itís not.îLeon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, says: ìItís a mild disgrace that Jews should mark this event. The year is 5760. This millennium is rooted in a Christian reading of the past and a Christian reading of the future. I understand that many Jews live by two calendars, but in a profound way this event is just not about us. I have no plans of any consequence for that night. The only thing I can say for certain is that thereíll be Kabbolos Shabbos,î the prayers ushering in the Sabbath.Rabbi Brooks Susman of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Lawrence, L.I., taught his congregation: ìThe New Year begins not when Jesus was born, Dec. 25, but eight days later, the day of his bris, and our temple isnít going to celebrate Jesusí bris day.îNevertheless, scores of Jewish organizations are trying to piggyback programming onto the ìmillenniumî brand name.The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a programming guide specifically for this ìShabbat of the Centuries,î reminding its 760 synagogues that this is a chance ìto affirm the centrality of the mitzvah of Shabbat,î but the ìsecular centuryî may be marked with ìspecial celebrations.î Some will say Kiddush over champagne.Sometimes the rabbi has to convince himself. After Rabbi Joel Goorís lecture series on ìMillennium Madnessî at the liberal Metropolitan Synagogue in Midtown, he issued a written statement: ìRabbi Goor warns that he will not be in Manhattan for the event itself. … He is escaping to the quiet of the snow covered mountains of Aspen, Colorado.îThe Drisha Institute, a yeshiva for women, is advertising ìGreet the Millenniumî with a late December study week on the ìend of days.î On Jan. 1, the Conservative Ocean Parkway Jewish Centerís Mr. & Mrs. Club is inviting members to ìCome celebrate the millennium … dance the night away to the music of Johnny Lane and his orchestra and enjoy a terrific chicken dinner.îHowever, when that Brooklyn synagogueís Rabbi Gerald Meister heard about it he was livid: ìI will absolutely forbid it. Itís not a millennium. The state of Jewry everywhere is pure anarchy. Itís disgusting.îOn the contrary, says Lincoln Square Synagogueís Rabbi Adam Mintz, whose Upper West Side shul is planning special programming for ìShabbos 2000.îìThereís a challenge to Modern Orthodoxy not to reject the culture around us,î says Rabbi Mintz, ìbut to integrate it to our advantage. New Yearís Eve is not a Christian holiday, at least not the way we celebrate it today. The excitement that will be generated around that Friday night will be channeled into something like ëTurn New Yearís Eve Into Shabbos,í to borrow Jesse Coganís phrase.îNot everyone is on board.

Rabbi Allan Schwartz of Ohab Zedek, a few blocks away, politely says, ìThere are other programs in the community that we wonít be replicating.îNisson Wolpin, editor of The Jewish Observer, thinks Shabbat tie-ins to the millennium ìseem kind of desperate. Bringing other elements into Shabbos is really an intrusion.îHe may be on to something, even for less serious Jews. Millennium fatigue is setting in. According to a recent Yankelovich poll for Time magazine and CNN, 72 percent of Americans now say they are not planning ìsomething specialî on Dec. 31. Trend-spotter Faith Popcorn told Time that people will be ìstaying at home … playing with their babies and wishing it were 1954.îSome Jews canít get far enough away.Komar & Melamid, satiric modern artists, are leaving their Lower Manhattan studios for ìan elephant camp at Lampang, Thailand,î says Alexei Melamid. ìWeíll be at an art school for the elephants, teaching them to paint,î holding brushes with their trunks, ìbecause logging jobs for elephants are harder to come by all over Asia. Itís vocational retraining.îAnyway, says the former refusenik, ìThe Jewish year is 5760. In Thailand, itís 2543. Maybe weíll have champagne with the elephants.îLetty Cottin Pogrebin, the feminist author who co-founded Ms. magazine, says sheíll be getting as far away as she can, in time if not in miles. Her family will escape the impending 21st century by returning to the 19th, with a weekend upstate at the Mohonk Mountain House, built in 1869.ìI have no connection whatsoever, obviously, with 2000,î says Pogrebin. ìI canít stand Christmas in the city. America becomes a Christian country from the day after Thanksgiving to January. You have to listen to their songs, look at their images, and while Iím happy for them, I donít think it has to be foisted on everyone.ìI feel the same negative way about the hoopla for 2000,î she says, ìbecause the assumption is that it means the same thing to all of us. The only thing it means to me is that the number has zeroes in it, and whenever my age changes to a number with a zero I feel the decades going by.

Pogrebin hearkens back to 1950, when she was 10 years old, ìsitting on the floor of my fatherís study and looking at a thick, mid-century Life magazine and suddenly becoming very moved by the notion that the next big one would be 2000. I did the arithmetic to see how old Iíd be in 2000, figured out that Iíd be 60 and thought Iíd probably be dead! It seemed so old to me, to be 60. And here I am, alive.î

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