Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Light a Candle In the Name of Judaism

Hanukkah has arrived, but there were not so many candles lit in Jewish households in Russia or anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

A relatively small crowd of two or three thousand people gathered in the courtyard of St. Petersburg Synagogue on a November evening to celebrate a holiday most of them did not know much about. Children -- those who came early enough -- were clutching small tickets in their hands waiting for the Hanukkah presents; grown-ups listened to the quest cantor chant and, all wrapped in winter clothes, clumsily danced in the frost trying to emulate joy.

No matter what the turns of history, sorrow and sadness seem to be inseparable companions of people and things Jewish. Never forgetful of their Jewishness, Soviet Jews hardly ever identified themselves as a religious group. For the most part ignorant of Yiddish or Hebrew, as well as Jewish history, traditions and customs, people even with a fraction of Jewish blood were nevertheless for better or worse united by some ineffable thing that was almost a curse: Jewishness. Some were embarrassed; others were scared by it; many shunned their heritage.

Synagogues were few and far between. Where I grew up, in a Southern Ukrainian city of 300,000 people with a large Jewish population, there were none. The only thing religious I remember from childhood was matzoh, which we received by mail packed in big cartons from distant relatives who lived in places where there was a synagogue and matzoh could be bought. For us kids, though, more than anything else it was just another kind of cookie, stripped of any ritual significance.

Twenty years later, in the same courtyard of the synagogue in Leningrad, I waited in line for four hours in the frost to buy some matzoh to send to my folks in my hometown.

On my first trip to the West, to the United States in 1988, I remember how strange it was for me to find out that there Jewishness was mostly, if not exclusively, religion.

Nowadays my hometown has a synagogue. There, as well as here in St. Petersburg, Jews can steep themselves in Jewish culture through books and tapes, synagogues and cultural centers, souvenirs and matzoh on Passover. Wonderful -- except there are fewer and fewer Jews to avail themselves of all this "luxury."

East European Jewry as an ethnic and cultural group -- decimated by the Holocaust, drained the mass exodus of emigration and dissolved into non-identity by assimilation -- is becoming an endangered species. The language and culture are virtually dying out, with a few meager attempts at survival. There are more Jews from Eastern Europe in its artificial, newly-formed niche in Brooklyn than in all of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland taken together. Chances for revival? Most likely, none.