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.