Jews mark festival of lights, Hanukkah
A popular joke during Hanukkah is that if you screw up on a gift once, you have seven more tries.
The eight-day Hebrew holiday is often confused with Jewish New Year, as it usually occurs in winter. In practice though, Hanukkah has nothing to do with the new calendar and doesn’t require presents.
Often called the Festival of Lights, it comes from the battle for the Jewish temple between the Syrian-Greek soldiers and the Jewish army in the second century BC.
The Jews won the fight, but their precious synagogue was looted and trashed. There was nothing left inside except for one jar of oil.
It was enough to burn just for one day, but the jar amazingly lasted for eight days – the time needed to prepare new oil.
The miracle of the jar and the military victory set the start for the Hanukkah tradition.
For Dmytro Yudkevych, a 47-year-old Ukrainian Jew, Hanukkah means family time and wisdom to pass on to his three children.
The Friday night of Dec. 3 was especially important given that Shabbat – the Jewish rest day, and the third day of Hanukkah coincided.
When he was growing up, Yudkevych said his family never observed Jewish holidays.
“Up to this day, my mother doesn’t really want to admit her origins,” Yudkevych said. No longer fearful of Soviet persecution, it is still difficult for her to identify herself as a Jew.
Subject to oppression and discrimination throughout history, Jewish persecution sank to its ugliest depths during the era of Nazi Germany.
Millions of Jews perished in death camps and in pogroms on Ukrainian territory during World War II.
Post-war Soviet Union discrimination included bans on Jewish participation in government, good universities and public hospitals. Many Jews hid their identity by changing their names.
When Yudkevych learned about these sad chapters, he started practicing Judaism.
“Very often we are reminded of who we are. After a while, we really want to know more to be able to pass it on to our children,” he said as he set the table for the festive Hanukkah dinner.
The two Shabbat candles are placed together with a hanukkiyah, a candleholder with eight branches and the ninth in the center set slightly above the others.
This candle tree is different from a menorah, which is another traditional candelabrum with seven branches. For each of the Hanukkah days, one candle is lit with the help of the middle one.
As the family gathers around the table Olha, Dmytro’s wife, lights the candles. She is Orthodox Christian, but follows the Jewish tradition of wearing a headscarf while saying a prayer in Hebrew first and then in Russian.
She sings Shabbat and Hanukkah songs with her family in both languages.
The Yudkevychs celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays.
After serving grape juice and bread as part of the Shabbat tradition, Dmytro picks up a soup ladle.
The custom requires Hanukkah dishes be fried in oil. But the Yudkevych family strays from some of the traditions.
“I stress the wisdom of the holiday instead. I always remind my kids that one of the Hanukkah lessons is that we shouldn’t run away from problems or look for easy solutions. It is the better to deal with problems before they become more complex,” he said.
But Hanukkah isn’t just about a prayer. Children get money from their parents and enjoy themselves. Playing a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side, is a favorite pastime.
Each letter represents a word in a Hebrew phrase for “a great miracle happened there,” which refers to the miraculous jar of oil.
“Last year we played it long after Hanukkah, up to the New Year,” said Olha.
Synagogues around Kyiv hold special services with plenty of candles and prayers. According to David Milman, rabbi's aide in the Choral synagogue at Shota Rustaveli St., the holiday is back on the Ukrainian Jewish calendar.
“In the Soviet Union, people had to stay home for Hanukkah,” Milman said.
Despite the oppression, the tradition was still observed. “Some Jews managed to celebrate Hanukkah even in the concentration camps.
They were making candles out of potatoes by cutting them in pieces and carving an opening to put some oil in it. If there is a will, there is a way,” Milman added.
The Yudkevych family thought of emigrating to Israel. But after staying there for one month, they returned home to Kyiv.
Dmytro said he's intent on helping other Jews in Ukraine discover their roots.
As a man who's successfully found his own identity, Dmytro has plenty of experience to share with others.
10 December 2010 KyivPost