In Kharkov, every Jew over seventy claims to have had a grandfather who was a shochet. The problem is the grandchildren don't know a shochet from a mohel.

In the former Soviet Union, ignorance seems to be an entity unto itself, a force with headquarters and plans. To be sure, the average sober Russian is a working engineer; he has read all of Pushkin and has played in at least one chess championship. What I'm talking about is the ignorance that makes the former Soviet Union a missionary's paradise.

In the shul where I grew up, the rabbi gives a sermon after the reading of the Torah, expounding on the text he has just read. In Kharkov the rabbi gives the sermon beforehand, explaining in Russian what soon will be read in Hebrew. One sermon I shall never forget is about Lavan the Swindler.

As usual Rabbi Moskowitz is telling the story. And Jacob awoke and behold it was not Rachel his beloved, but Leah, the eldest.

Oy! The congregation gasps out loud, visibly in shock. It was the first time they had heard the story, and they are upset.

The rabbi does not gasp; he is not shocked. He knows all about the ignorance. That's why he lives in Kharkov.

I think of my mother at the weirdest times. Once I was in the back seat of a taxi. My thirteen-year-old student was crying in the front seat. Anesthesia does wear off. His parents don't keep kosher and he goes to shul alone. And today when he faced the mohel, he was alone.

Have you ever held hands with someone on the operating table? Or stood close enough to look him in the eyes? I've become a mother.

My visit is unplanned and unusual. I wanted to make sure Igor, now Moshe, got home safely, and I went without my constant partner Yossi.

The apartment building looks like any other, and without lighting, the staircase feels like any other. Are the light bulbs stolen? Or simply never put in? We climb three floors in utter darkness.

The first door on the third floor leads to a hallway with about six doors, three on each side. Igor's mother comes out from the last door on the left with a big smile. Zachadeet! she said. Zachadeet means "come in please." Come into what? I thought. The front entrance to the one-room home is, at best, the size of a refrigerator. Three small stools, the table, and anything else that has no place to go are crammed into this all-purpose room. Immediately above us hangs clothing to dry for the next day. In the bigger room, hard working Mr. Vodofsky is sleeping; I can hear the snoring.

Mrs. Vodofsky is the secretary at a nearby metal factory. She has red hair that lights up her face. She tells us to sit. Would you like something to eat? Igor is too embarrassed to eat his non-kosher dinner in front of me, so he lies and says he isn't hungry. I ask for coffee. She gets up and leaves the apartment. The kitchen cannot be that far because soon she is back with a kettle. We sit around the small table sipping and whispering jokes about men who snore.

The local bakery in Kharkov doesn't sneak any extra ingredients into the bread, and I tell Igor that the mini-rolls on the table are kosher. He was later angry with me for saying that, claiming his mother buys those exact rolls ever since.

Mrs. Vodofsky asks about what one can do about working on Shabbat. We speak, and after a while I ask to use the restroom. It is small, but not too small. Above the toilet are hand-built shelves filled with pots and pans. I wonder how many people live like this; then I flush.

We speak some more, but this time I ask the questions. Each floor has one communal kitchen and one communal shower. I ask the obvious and practical question: What happens if you and your neighbor both want to shower at the same time? She actually answered and said something in Russian. Words that I cannot translate but understand. Her sad smile was enough.

It is getting late, and they invite me back to see the big room. I say I will come back, and I do.

Recently, the city managers of Kharkov have come up with a great way to conserve money and energy: simply shut off the city's power for an hour when it is used and needed the most. Incredible. District by district, the electricity goes dead. But they don't leave us exactly like the olden days; the phones still work.

Our apartment building is spared, thanks to an important factory nearby. But lights out is common and people have candles and patience.

This time Yossi comes along, and by candlelight, plays chess with Mr. Vodofsky. The man of the house is a muscular guy who loads and unloads trucks for a living. He is either built for the job or from the job. He shows me trophies from lightweight boxing. Igor is so proud. Only ten more minutes, and the lights will go back on and allow us to see the big room, the home, the Vodofsky residence.

The time comes, and the lights go on. The room is big enough for the couch bed and a reclining chair that becomes my student's bed at night. Things are neat enough not to make me feel as if I'm in a bedroom. Igor shows us his computer game that is hooked up to the black and white television, and we play a shooting game. I'll never forget their smiles. In Kharkov, you can fit a lot of people into a small room, providing they all smile.