Hanukkah lights offer new Soviet emigres love

December 13, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Maya Fishman, one year and two months out of the Soviet Union, listened with tears welling in her eyes while the yeshiva boys sang the ancient Hanukkah melody Maoz Tzur.

"It touches her soul," said Tanya Kolchinsky, who came from Moscow two years ago. "It's incredible for us to see freedom for the Jewish people.

"Her heart is warm for American people who help us to be Jewish," Kolchinsky said. "She can't speak. She can only cry."

The second night of Hanukkah belonged to Soviet Jewish immigrants at Beth Isaac Adath Israel synagogue. About 200 Soviet immigrants came to watch the lighting of the second candle of the menorah at the modest shul on the edge of the Millbrook, an apartment complex behind Reisterstown Road Plaza that is home to many Russian emigres.

Paysach Diskind, an energetic 32-year-old Orthodox Jew, told the story of the Maccabee victory over the Hellenic rulers of Israel 2,000 years ago as the triumph of Jews over assimilation.

Diskind runs Achim, the outreach program of the Orthodox Jewish community to the Soviet Jews who have come to Baltimore. He organized the Hanukkah program with help from Eva Barenbaum and her daughter, Rochelle, who teach the Russians English at the Ezras Achim Institute. Achim means "brothers" in Hebrew and Ezras Achim "helping our brothers.

"This is our way of showing our students that we love them," said Eva Barenbaum, "that they're part of our community and we'd like them to have a happy holiday. And we're giving them some traditional Hanukkah food -- doughnuts."

The sweet aroma of the doughnuts filled the large, square and plain assembly room. Children zigged and zagged among the folding chairs. The program had a happy informality.

Benzion Dzhanashvili, an 18-year-old rabbinical student from Soviet Georgia wearing a rakishly Orthodox black fedora, translated while Diskind spoke. Benzion left Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian republic, just two months ago. He came to Baltimore to study specifically at the Ner Israel yeshiva.

Diskind's telling of the Hanukkah story as a tale of the Jewish people prevailing over assimilation had particular poignancy for his Soviet Jewish listeners, whose Judaism had survived often forceful attempts to integrate them into the communist system.

Maya Fishman, 55, a doctor with 31 years of experience in physical therapy in a big hospital, came to Baltimore from Dniepropetrovsk with her husband, Lazar Gafinovich, their two daughters, the two sons-in-law and one granddaughter.

"My family very happy," she said, "very like the United States. We are very happy to have around us good American people, Jewish people.

"We don't have Jewish history in Russia. Only when we came to Baltimore can we learn our Jewish heritage."

"In Russia," said her husband, "we don't have much of a Jewish life."

The audience joined in cheerfully as the boys choir swung into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping version of a Sabbath song.

"Many people see Hanukkah for the first time here," said Tanya Kolchinsky, a handsome woman who works as a chemist for the state. "It's prohibited to be Jewish in Russia."

Or it was until President Mikhail Gorbachev changed the rules.

"From childhood they try to erase from our minds all thought of God," Kolchinsky said. "Only here in this country can we be true Jews.

"We try to keep kosher, to keep Shabbos, to go to synagogue during the holidays. All these things we can do, thanks to the Jewish people here in Baltimore.

"It's hard to express our feelings," she said. "We have so many emotions. It's hard to find the voice for them."

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