In the United States, there are those who believe Christmas has swallowed Hanukkah whole, reducing it to a sort of Christmas for Jews. But in places like Ukraine, where historic anti-Semitism is not so remote, the holiday still retains some of its original meaning: for instance, as a parable of Jewish resilience in the face of war and oppression.
So when Ira Sborovskaya sees a huge Hanukkah menorah near the Potemkin Stairs, the iconic entrance to Odessa, once a major Jewish hub, she feels something akin to pride. Sborovskaya didn’t find out she was Jewish until she was 16 or 17 years old, as Soviet control once made all religions taboo in her birthplace of Odessa. Now, she’s the point person for one of the world’s largest Jewish charities, the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee (JDC), in southern Ukraine and neighboring Moldova.
“I thought that if I live in Ukraine, I’m Ukrainian,” she told JNS.org on Tuesday.
Since religious freedom was restored to the region with the Soviet Union’s fall, the JDC has positioned itself in an attempt to help renew Jewish life behind the former Iron Curtain. That mission is now complicated by its related goal of providing for the spiritual and physical needs of Ukrainian Jews displaced from the east.
Odessa has experienced pro-Russian unrest, though it remains safely in Ukrainian hands.
Part of celebrating Hanukkah for people like Sborovskaya is continuing to welcome in hundreds of Jews fleeing an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and Russian-backed separatists.
JDC representatives share information, and so when Jewish families began arriving, Sborovskaya was aware of them and ready. JDC is helping organizations on the ground commemorate Hanukkah with celebrations that range from a costume show behind rebel lines in Lugansk to Hanukkah menorah handouts for internally displaced families in Odessa.
In rebel-held Donetsk, whose bombed-out airport has been a flashpoint in the conflict, the local Jewish community celebrated with a holiday performance in central Shakhtar Plaza, outside the city’s soccer stadium.
Sborovskaya’s daughter is having a very different Jewish childhood from her mother. The 7-year-old, who wears a Magen David around her neck, is leading a Hanukkah dance performance at the Odessa Beit Grand Jewish Community Center.
“It was forbidden here to be religious…when we celebrate Hanukkah so openly, it means we’ve really returned to our tradition,” said Sborovskaya. “And when we see young people, who do it very naturally, it means there is really another [Jewish] generation today in Ukraine.” Read more.