Mark Naidorf has never celebrated Hanukkah.
The 46-year-old Jewish college professor just learned about the holiday five years ago.
That's when the Soviet Union began to dissolve, barriers to ethnic and religious freedom began to fall, and Jews such as Dr. Naidorf -- who lives in Baltimore's sister city, Odessa, Ukraine -- began rediscovering their lost cultural heritage.
Yesterday, Judaic Academy students in Baltimore set out to show Dr. Naidorf and other Odessans -- by mail -- how much fun Hanukkah can be. With the Baltimore Jewish Council videotaping the event, students in grades eight through 11 sang, wrote letters and drew pictures about the eight-day holiday, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem in 165 B.C.
"I can't imagine not having Hanukkah," Erica Marks, 14, said. "At lunch we talk about Hanukkah. I'm going to have a Hanukkah party with my friends. It's so much a part of my life at this time of year."
Life in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, has changed for Jews such as Dr. Naidorf, but Hanukkah is not yet a part of it.
A professor of cultural history at Odessa's polytechnic institute, Dr. Naidorf has joined a group of Jewish professionals who discuss religious issues twice a month. Instead of lighting a menorah this week like Baltimore's Jewish families, Dr. Naidorf participated in his group's discussion about Zionism and a comparison of Jewish and Christian beliefs.
"This is our way to celebrate the Hanukkah festival," he said from Odessa yesterday. "This is our reality."
In truth, the existence of a professional club represents a major step for the city's Jewish community, which was decimated by Stalinistic pogroms and Nazi purges.
Jews once thrived in Odessa, which in the 18th century was a center for Jewish cultural and intellectual life in what was known as the Pale of Settlement. They made up one-third of the city's estimated 600,000 people and developed into some of the city's famous artists, writers and musicians.
Today approximately 70,000 Jews live among Odessa's 1 million residents. Most of them have no contact with their religion, after spending years fearing government reprisal. Only 3,000 Odessan Jews participate in religious activities, said Rabbi Ira Schiffer, of Baltimore's Beth Am synagogue.
Rabbi Schiffer has worked with the council's Odessa Task Force to help the city's Jews. The group has sent food, medical supplies and educational materials to help them rediscover their religion.
The council intends to mail the pictures, letters and videotape of yesterday's event at the academy as a way of teaching Odessa's religious schoolchildren to love Hanukkah the way Baltimoreans do.
"I think they would really want to celebrate it if they knew the meaning of it," Jaime Kottler, 14, said.
Dr. Naidorf said Odessa's Jewish community is easing its way back into religion. Wiping away years of Soviet repression, he said, will take some time.
"It's a problem for us," he said. "It's difficult for you to understand."