A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine



Hanukkah in Dnepropetrovsk isn’t too different from Hanukkah in the States, really. We light the chanukkiah each night and say the brachot. We eat latkes and suvganiot (although here, suvganiot are much more popular than in the US, since “ponchiki,” as they’re called in Russian, are already a popular fried dessert). We sing songs and spin the dreidle, and although I didn’t see any gelt, I did see some Israeli dreidles that say “A great miracle happened here” instead of there.

There are a few differences. For starters, since there’s no crazy American Christmas to compete with, Hanukkah isn’t about gift giving. New Year’s is the time for presents, actually. Most Jews own yolkas (the Russian New Year’s version of the American Christmas tree) in their homes and wait for Ded Moroza (“Grandfather Frost”– the Russian New Year’s equivalent Santa Clause) and his girlfriend, Snegurichka to bring New Year’s gifts. This holiday is completely secular, by the way. New Year’s, yolkas, and Ded Moroza have nothing to do with Christmas or Christianity (there is a religious Christmas celebration on January 7, but it’s pretty much a church service from what I understand). While I was in Israel last week, I saw lots of homes with yolkas in them. Even Jews in Israel observe this time-honored Russian tradition.

Like in America, Hanukkah is a highly publicized and well celebrated holiday. I personally participated in no less than six Hanukkah celebrations. The first was the Sunday exactly a week before the first night. The Jewish community, as a whole (meaning that all the major figureheads– Kaminetzky from Chesed, Amir from JDC, Liana from the JCC, and others– were present to welcome the participants) held Maccabean games in Globa Park. I went with the Sunday school kids. The event lasted about two hours. It began with speeches and a small singing performance, followed by a very high tech scavenger hunt through the park. Each child or team was given a map of the park with the locations of 11 checkpoints, as well as an electronic scanner. We then had to run to each checkpoint, scan in, and run to the next one. It was a timed race, as it were. The fifteen fastest teams won prizes at the end. While we waited for all the teams to return (we were sent in waves) and for the times to be registered, we ate suvganiot (really, ponchiki, a Russian version of the pastry) and drank tea. There was another small performance, and a bunch of us started Israeli dancing. It was a fun event, and everyone received a goody bag on our way out with a flag, a dreidle, and other stuff that I don’t remember now. I was very impressed at just how public an advertisement this was for the Jewish community.

The second major event was one that I was very well acquainted with. On the first night of Hanukkah, the JCC, with the aid of the entire Jewish community, put on a Hanukkah concert. This was a project that I had been involved with from the beginning. At first I had thought that I might produce it, like the good old theater days from college, but I soon realized that I was in way over my head. I was writing grants, even though I knew that no one would give money to such a short term project. My fundraising ideas wouldn’t work in Dnepropetrovsk because of complications that I still do not quite understand between the government and charitable organizations. I quickly rescinded my role as producer and became an advisor of sorts, attending rehearsals and giving Liana advice on posters, advertising, and especially on cutting the budget. In the beginning, the JCC wanted to rent a theater, sets, and costumes for the performance, but given the fact that there was virtually no money available for this project, I was able to help convince them to scale down the concert. Additionally, the script was originally twice as long as the final product (which was still ran embarassingly overtime), so I helped cut some of that. In the dress rehearsal, I helped with a few technical questions on sound and lighting, and I performed (poorly) a song. That was happily all I ended up contributing to the concert.

It was pretty good, actually. It began with speeches, as everything in the Jewish community does. These lasted at least a half hour. Then the giant chanukkiah was lit by a prominent member of the community, and the concert was ready to begin. There were performances not only from all the JCC groups, especially the theater group and the chorus, “Evreisky kolombur,” but from the Beit Chanah (institute for women training to be Jewish teachers) chorus and a Sochnut singing group, among others. Some of the groups were quite talented, but every group performed at least three pieces, if not many more, and the concert itself lasted over two hours. I sang a duet with Yulia, a madrichah in the JCC, but since I was given the song only three days beforehand, I ended up forgetting the words in the middle of my solo and Vika, the director of Evreisky kolombur, ended up rushing onstage to rescue me. It was a little embarassing, but no big deal. At the end of the concert, some of the volunteers were handing out still more suvganiot/ponchiki and chanukkiot and candles.


That night, on my way home, I noticed that a new supermarket had just opened in the mall around the corner from me! This is very exciting news, as it would save me a ten minute walk with heavy bags in my hands from the next closest store. I went in to investigate, but before I could make it past the main entrance to the mall, a bunch of Hillel kids (whom, a week later, I would get to know very well at the Hillel Shabbaton in Lesnoy) had set up a table and were giving out apple juice, suvganiot/ponchiki, and chanukkiot and candles. I again found myself very impressed at the publicity of the Jewish community.

Monday night, Amir and Sharon invited me, Ina (from the office), Liana and her daughter, and Anatoli Mikhailovich (director of Chessed) to their house for latkes, suvganiot (homemade sephardic suvganiot, not ponchiki this time), and of course wine and vodka. I played with the kids, ate some good food, and listened to Anatoli Mikhailovich’s jokes (he’s a funny guy).

Tuesday night, Lena (my colleague in Do Good, Ukraine!) invited me to her son’s Hanukkah play at the kindergarden (ages 2-5). Her son is in the same class as Ori, so I got to kibbitz with Lena, her husband Genia, and Sharon, and I got to see both boys perform. It was really cute. Mostly the teachers put on an elaborate play, with a giant menorah, all kinds of cool Hanukkah puppets, piano, CDs, singing, poetry, dancing, and a parachute. The kids sang when it was their turn, but mostly the show was for them, with all kinds of activities to participate in, as well as a visual spectacle to watch. After it was done, we all went upstairs for another feast, replete with latkes and suvganiot/ponchiki.

Wednesday afternoon was the JDC office Hanukkah celebration. Sharon came in and prepared sushi with us (we LOVE sushi in this office), and Amir had ovens specially brought in so that we could make his famous pizza. Preparations began at 10 am and didn’t finish until 2 pm, and in the end there was enough food for two lunches. We toasted, ate, and played some party games that Anya had prepared. Sushi, pizza, wine, and of course more suvganiot/ponchiki– just like in the days of the Maccabbees.

Friday afternoon I went with the Hillel kids to Lecnoy for a Shabbaton. We were scheduled to return Sunday night, but Tolik, Ksyusha, Sveta, and I left early that morning (tired and hung over) to make it back in time for the Sunday school Hanukkah play. We had been rehearsing for months. Anya wrote the script and assigned the parts. There was a reenactment of the Hanukkah story, poetry readings, and even a film. I taught the kids a Hanukkah song in English (Hanukkah, o Hanukkah, come light the menorah), which they sang at the end. Tolik, a boxer, taught the Maccabbees and the Greeks a fight sequence (really cute), and Ksyusha taught the girls a dance. The entire community was invited, and quite a few members showed up. The Evreisky Kolombur was part of the action, singing a few choice songs throughout to spice the program up. It was a lot of fun and a real success, the perfect way to end the holiday.


  гoлЬeтти wrote @

Даа… По моему мнению, об этом пишут уже на каждом заборе 🙂

  Xoзяин wrote @

Занятно, откуда подобное чудо-юдо вылезло?

  Michelle Frizza wrote @


I’m living in Kiev, Ukraine and am Catholic. I am working with our priest on some fundraising and we have created a series of greeting cards to be printed in English and Ukrainian. We are struggling to find someone to help us with the following…how do Ukrainian Jews say “Happy Hanukkah”? Would they say it in the Hebrew “Hanukkah Sameach” or in a Ukrainian way?

I am searching on the internet and found your blog (thank you!). If you have a chance to respond I would really appreciate your input.

Thank you!


  chanteuse428 wrote @

Hi Michelle,

In the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, we mostly said “Chag sameach” (Happy holiday in Hebrew), but you could also wish someone “С Ханукой / S Chanukoy” (Happy Hanukkah in Russian). Hope that helps!


  Williams Ellerbeck wrote @

This is my first-time visiting here. I uncovered a lot of useful stuff within your blog especially the on-going talk. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I’m not the only one taking pleasure in reading through your blog. Keep up the excellent work

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