> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

My First Hanukkah in Communist Russia

November 26, 2015 | by Gita Steinberg

No one saw my pitiful menorah. Little did I know how that small flame would grow into a huge light.

I was born in Communist Russia to parents who were Holocaust survivors. We knew that we were Jewish – it was written in our identity cards – and we had Jewish names. But apart from that I had no idea what Judaism was all about.

I was the third generation to be disconnected from Judaism. I grew up amongst non-Jews but I always felt out of place, like a black sheep. As far back as I can remember, I had a strange feeling that I couldn't identify; I felt like a plucked leaf flying in the wind, without a home. I was restless and didn't feel at home anywhere. I thought that maybe it was because of my family's wanderings – they were penniless refugees. But the lack that I felt was not material; it was deeper, in my soul. I felt abandoned.

The Soviet authorities branded me a traitor for wanting to leave Russia and put every possible obstacle in my way.

One bright day I heard for the first time that there is a country called Israel, whose residents are all Jews. Somehow, my soul heard that there is a place in the world where I belong. At that moment it was absolutely clear to me that my place is there because I am a Jewess. I had no doubt that my home was in Israel, even though I had no idea how, or what to expect on the way, or what was waiting for me there.

This discovery changed my life, granting it a purpose and meaning. It was clear to me that whatever price I would have to pay to get there would be worthwhile, for what is truly precious requires effort. I was possessed by this goal – to be a Jew and to live as a Jew – and pursued it relentlessly for the 12 years that it took until I received permission to leave the prison of Soviet Russia.

During those years I suffered greatly. The Soviet authorities branded me a traitor for wanting to leave Russia and put every possible obstacle in my way. I was threatened, interrogated, and my house was searched. I lost my citizenship and my rights as a citizen. Ironically, I was no longer a Russian citizen but I was unable to leave Russia. But worse than that, my family also rejected me. “How could you leave your parents?” they told me.

None of this lessened my fervor to pursue my goal. On the contrary – as the pressure and persecutions increased, I became stronger and surer of myself. My soul awoke and began to demand its food – a connection with its Creator.

I tried very hard to find every opportunity to learn about Judaism, paying dearly for every drop of information. I travelled to the larger cities searching for underground Jews. And I found them. I was given a suitcase with illegal booklets describing Judaism. These were papers secretly typed with five copies using carbon paper. I read them thirstily and gathered a few like-minded Jews in my city to share the information with.

When I learned about the story of Hanukkah, about the Maccabees and Hasmoneans with a small picture of a menorah, I felt that this belonged directly to Russian Jews, to the struggle for the right to be a Jew and to remain a Jew in every place in every generation. I decided that I must get a menorah and light it and share it with the members of my group.

I made a simple sketch based on the picture in the story and what I imagined. One of the members of our group was a machine engineer and I asked him if he could make such a thing out of metal. He agreed even though he had to work at great risk at night when no one would see or ask questions – true Jewish heroism. When it was finished I was very excited. He made it in one piece; it was very heavy, but to me it was beautiful.

I lived in an eight-story building for young people. I had to wait years for government housing, and I had received a small room on the eighth floor in an apartment for eight families with one kitchen for all of us and a joint bathroom. It was opposite a building materials factory. The building was at the edge of the city and all my friends lived at the other end of town. When Hanukkah arrived it was the end of December, freezing cold, minus 30 degrees and snowing heavily.

What's this candle doing? Who sees it? There isn't a living soul outside.

On the appointed day I invited my friends and prepared to share the story of Hanukkah and serve some light refreshments. Night came. I waited and waited but no one arrived. The storm was raging outside. When I realized that there's no point in waiting any longer I put the menorah on the windowsill and lit a candle. My first Hanukkah candle. I sat in front of the small flame watching the reflection in the black window. I began to ask myself: What's this candle doing? Who sees it? The factory opposite? To whom am I publicizing the miracle? There isn't a living soul outside. And if someone does go by down there, he won't pick up his head. Even if he does lift his head, he won't see this little candle.

So what am I doing here? I've been sitting in this prison for over ten years without family and without children. Will I ever leave this prison and live a normal life? I was disappointed that after all my efforts to prepare for this night, none of my friends had turned up.

Feeling very sorry for myself, tears began to drip down my face. I didn't know how to pray but I knew how to cry and I continued crying throughout the night.

That was my first Hanukkah candle.

A Bright Light

That small candle was not lit in vain. Someone did see it, the One who created me a Jew and Who guides my life. He wanted me to light a candle, to exert myself, and He freed me in the end from that huge prison – Communist Russia.

God brought me to Israel. I kissed the Land and I merited going to Jerusalem and to the Kotel, the Western Wall. Slowly I learned about Judaism and became a fully observant Jew.

Hanukkah party at my school, with me in the middle.

Over the course of ten years, drastic changes took place in Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union. I was sent back to Moscow to be the principal and teacher of Jewish studies in a Jewish school that had opened there, very close to the Kremlin.

At the mall, handing out Shabbat candles.

The school was called Migdal-Or which means a lighthouse. My small Hanukkah candle ended up lighting many more candles, eventually turning into a huge light, a veritable lighthouse. Additional lights come from the thousands of Shabbat candles that I give out every Friday in the mall near my house. More light shines from the Torah classes that I am privileged to teach and my learning partners throughout Israel, and from my poems and stories of my personal miracles that accompanied me throughout my life.

To think that all this began from one forlorn Hanukkah candle that no one but the Almighty saw.

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram