Happiest Hanukkah Jewish immigrants celebrate miracle of new religious freedom

December 19, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

At the bakery in Owings Mills where she works, Larissa Gozenput is often asked, "Are you ready for Christmas?" Each time, her answer is: "No, I'm Jewish and I'm ready for Hanukkah."

Mrs. Gozenput came a long way to say that. Six months ago, she and her husband Boris and daughter Diana lived in Moscow, where under the former Soviet regime, Jews were afraid to practice their religion. Now that she is here, Mrs. Gozenput, 28, wants to share the fruits of her new freedom with others. "I'm so proud to give such an answer," she says with the aid of a translator.

Today at sundown, when the eight-day Festival of Lights begins, the Gozenput family will joyously light their menorah as they initiate their lives as observant Jews. It is "the first time in our lives we are able to put the menorah in the window and not be afraid of doing it," the young couple says.

For the Gozenputs, as well as over 3,000 other Soviet Jews who have arrived in Baltimore since 1989, acculturation has been a vital aspect of resettlement. In the past three years, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has worked to enhance Jewish identity with a variety of programs and courses such as the one at Baltimore Hebrew University.

The story of Hanukkah tells of two miracles: the victory of Judah Maccabee's tiny army over Antiochus and the ability of a day's supply of oil to burn for eight days in the rededi- cated Jerusalem temple. Here, on a dreary Thursday in a nondescript classroom at BHU, some 30 students, including the Gozenputs, believe they are beholding a third miracle, as their teacher, Danielle Roskes, tells them about the dramatic struggle for Jewish identity that led to the first Hanukkah.

The students hail from throughout the former Soviet Union and range in age from the 20s through the 70s. Because many of the younger immigrants have already found work, the class is weighted with middle-aged and older men and women. They wear sweaters, boots, sneakers and an occasional tie. Mrs. Gozenput is young and fashionable in black jeans; one of her classmates is a silent woman with snowy white hair, dressed entirely in black.

Mrs. Roskes speaks to the class clearly and slowly. Hers is a child's version of Hanukkah, tailored to the student's rudimentary English, and punctuated with expressive body language. As she speaks, Bella Gelfand, formerly from St. Petersburg, translates. Some students take notes, most listen attentively.

Hanukkah, Mrs. Roskes says, is the only Jewish holiday that is about a war. But "we are not a fighting people. We do not like killing. Some people would say that that war was a war for Jewish independence . . . that's also not true. We did not go to war over politics. We would have followed Antiochus' laws. We would have paid taxes to Syria. But we wouldn't give up our religion."

Speaking of how the Maccabees outmaneuvered a seemingly invincible army to preserve the right to worship their own God, Mrs. Roskes reintroduces the class to their heritage, lost over xTC decades of oppression in their homelands.

As she proceeds with the story, an inevitable parallel arises. Like their ancient counterparts, Mrs. Roskes' students also had to fight for their freedom. But instead of going to war, they migrated to the United States. And, unlike the inhabitants of Judea, these contemporary Jews, for the most part, had very little idea of what being a Jew was all about.

All they knew, as one student says, is that they were Jewish. And they yearned to know more.

For Svetlana Slobodyanik, who left Kiev one month ago with her husband and young daughter, "Our family never had a chance to experience the Jewish religion. We were Jews but we were not Jews."

A man who is 70 says, "I have lived a long life and I never had a chance to read the history of the Jewish people." What little information he had was acquired secretively in his apartment at night.

Another says, "Now we feel like . . . not people of second class . . . to be Jewish doesn't mean to be a bad person."

There are also technical details to tend to: Mrs. Roskes produces a miniature dreidel -- a kind of top -- and tells the class how its four Hebrew letters advising players to take or put money into the pot also represents the sentence, "A great miracle happened there."

Later, she and Judy Richtor, BHU public relations director, sing the children's song "I Have a Little Dreidel," arm in arm, to the delight of their audience.

Mrs. Roskes also talks about Hanukkah foods, including potato latkes and jelly doughnuts -- sufganiot -- both symbolically prepared with oil. For the students, the idea of openly celebrating any holiday is nearly incomprehensible. It is "so strange for us," one student says through the translator.

Other students have only vague memories of grandparents lighting the family menorah or giving them Hanukkah gelt -- coins -- in celebration of the holiday.

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