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Kharkov, 1995

Kharkov, 1995

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American children are taught never to ride with a stranger. America is technologically advanced; America is on the cutting edge of craziness. The former Soviet Union is lagging behind; people still hitchhike.

I watch and learn. Taxis are more expensive, and they don’t take cigarettes as payment. You put your hand out, and a car quickly slows down. You say a street name, the driver says two bucks, you say one, he says “forget it” and drives off. You stop the next car and say the same street name. He says “get in”; you do. If you don’t settle on a price beforehand, you take the risk of hearing a wordless grunt when you get out.

It was a cold morning, and I couldn’t wait to be sitting in a warm car. I put my hand out. A small blue car stops, and at once, as if it is an old friend of the family, I get into the car without asking or telling. We drive in silence down Pushkinskaya Street towards the shul.

In my haste, I have forgotten to set a price. When I try to pay, my driver refuses to take the amount shown. He refuses any payment for the ride. I am confused, and it is too early in the morning to argue. What don’t you understand? he says. Look at me. I’m a Jew; my name is Cohen. I should charge a yeshivah boy to get to shul? I thanked him, and later bought a Coke with the money.


Snow falls and stays. Flake after flake, the earth foams with clouded slush. Sincere snow trucks make rounds. The ice hardens. The sidewalk slips into an endless street. The vendors and beggars surf the cold with grace.

Tonight is one of those nights when all I want to do is cuddle up with my cat. But that would be impossible. First, tonight is the fifth night of Chanukah. Second, I have no cat.

Tonight, hundreds of Russian Jews will publicly celebrate religious freedom. Tonight, Kharkov’s minister of religion, Vladimir Voldovsky, will join Kharkov’s chief rabbi, Moshe Moskowitz, for the lighting of the giant Chanukah menorah. Tonight, we will celebrate the victory of light over darkness. Or, at least, we’ll try.

Where did the menorah come from? Who built it? Maybe the Maccabees themselves?

Kharkov’s menorah was created by students, the first group of Lubavitch students to come to Kharkov. What do young yeshivah boys know about constructing a giant menorah from less than scratch? But I’ll save that for another story. Like One Hundred Ways to Build a Menorah in Russia. Or The Menorah That Was Made from Snow. In Ukraine you don’t ask, “Where did it come from?” If you have it, you use it. And tonight the menorah stands tall, facing every street in the world, starting with Ulitsa Pushkinskaya.

Tonight the chief rabbi and the minister of religion will arrive on time, and with a rented cherry picker, the two will light the five kerosene lanterns. The glass cover will keep the flame alive all night, and the warmth will melt the frozen heart of man. That was the plan.

That is what was supposed to happen. That’s what we advertised. That’s what the hundreds gathered came to see. But Russian life is what happens when you have plans.

Tonight Yossi is inside the shul, trying to get the frozen lanterns to start. Outside, hundreds are waiting in the cold. The Russian crane driver is angry and wants to leave. My fingers are frozen and smell like gas.

I run to see how the lamps are doing, but a short man stops me. “Do you have a shovel?” He offers to clear the snow off the shul stairs. I tell him it is a good idea, but I can’t help him with a shovel. “Do you remember me?” He points to a small blue car. Cohen has come to celebrate, to be amongst Jews. Cohen wants to do his part, but he already has. He came.

Now Yossi and Yefim have three lanterns working in the office. But how can we light only three lamps on the fifth night? We need a Chanukah miracle, the miracle of lights.

The minister speaks a few words in Russian; the rabbi places the first working lantern, then the second, then the third. He then slowly tries lighting the fourth and fifth. I close my eyes for the miracle, but there is none. The music starts to play, and the Jews dance in the snow. The crane drives off. Minutes later, two lights go out; only one lamp remains shining brightly. I join hands and start to dance, to celebrate, to be amongst Jews. Mr. Cohen smiles and claps his hands.

It is time to go home. I put my hand out, and a car stops. We drive a little, and then I look back through the frosty window and see the miracle of lights. Seventy years of communism, and one flame still burns. Russian Jews still know how to dance. And hitchhiking is still safe. Well, at least tonight.

From Chicken Kiev, by Shmuel Marcus (to purchase the book click here)
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Anonymous unites states December 4, 2013

kharkiv Too bad your good story takes place in Ukraine otherwise - It should read to Ukraine with love. It is in Ukraine - so it is Kharkiv Reply

Proud Kharkovite Kharkov December 22, 2011

Kharkov-today A short clip of last year's Chanukah program in Kharkov...

look on you tube "Chanukah Kharkov" to see what's happening in Kharkov now

As you can see...miraculously all the candles stayed alight..it must have been thanks to that one light in the early years that kept burning... Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 20, 2011

The Real Thing Since I am experiencing major connects via story, every time I see a Coke truck go by, I say, Hey Ruth, this is, the Real Thing. And this story is, The Real Thing. Maybe things go better with coke. I wouldn't know. I don't drink it. Too sweet for me but on a hot day, in Israel, well, that's another matter.

The miracle of ONE. All you need is ONE. One G_d. Our Shema. And so many people striving to light the menorah. It's not about all the lights is it? It's about the light in everyone's eyes as they danced, in the snow, and I bet that snow gleamed with a thousand diamonds of light, because shine a light, any light on snow, and you get, sheer crystalline delight.

You took me to Russia. With thanks.

One could say, To Russia With Love. Reply

Miriam Adahan Jerusalem, Israel December 20, 2011

MIRACLE You write beautifully! You are so gifted! You were able to see the miracle in the one light - as if that one was a million. Please continue to write. Reply

julie black mtn, nc,usa December 4, 2010

A coke and a smile maybe? Sara, Sara, Sara.... I see me in your reply and I clearly identify with you, then ask myself: Is one response right & one response wrong? Since The Creator made ALL and set the stage for each response we have, it appears it was right for Shmuel to buy a coke because THAT is how The Creator MADE Shmuel. Had the Cohen experience happened to Sara, SHE would have given charity. Maybe, next time Shmuel will give charity, and Sara will buy a coke! Then I am not imagining i know what someone else should be doing with their life G-d gave them...thank you,Sara, thank you Shmuel... You are each lovingly spirited and inspiring... from a Pepsi drinker! (now, i can post this--or not... so it continues). Who is Shmuel to refuse a blessing from a Cohen? Is not the duty to bless ALL? Thank you for such deep intent... Only G-d sees and knows the heart. Reply

Shmuel Marcus December 22, 2008

Dear Sarah of New Zealand Good Point.
Thank you. Reply

sarah new zealand December 21, 2008

buying the coke I am surpried you bought a coke, wouldn't it have been a mitvoh to give the money to charity, as a cohen had given you a type of blessing by recognising the importance of going to the shul and not charged you the fare. Reply

Howard London, UK December 21, 2008

Thank you Thank you for an inspiring story. Reply

Alexandra Malamud New York, NY November 20, 2007

Kharkov I left Kharkov for Brooklyn in 1994. My first Shabbat candle lighting instruction I got in that shul in Kharkov in 1990. My oldest daughter celebrated her bat-mitzvah there with a group of other girls the year the shul re-opened in 1990; another daughter went to yeshiva run by the shul since it opened in 1992 until we left; my little daughter who was born in 1990 does not remember Pushkinskaya street, but we light our Shabbat candles and celebrate Shabbat together! Thank you Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz and your lovely rebbetzin and your devoted yeshiva boys! Happy Chanukah! Reply

Debbie December 19, 2005

stories Your stories are very well written and inspiring... Reply

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