Light Over Darkness: Hannukah in Odesa
As Russian shelling plunges Ukraine into blackout, the Jewish community celebrates a miracle that has particular resonance amid the war.
Photographs by Zhenia Pedin
At sundown, dozens gather in frigid weather by Odesa’s landmark Duc de Richelieu statue to light a giant menorah to mark Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The candlelight gleams in the city’s main square, otherwise shrouded in near-darkness.
Hannukah - representing the miracle of light over darkness - has a new, powerful and even more symbolic meaning for the southern port city’s Jewish community this year.
The eight nights of the festival commemorate the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks in 167 BC and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the Jews only had enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and eight nights. The miracle is particularly resonant today as Ukrainians face an existential threat: Russia’s 11-month invasion of Ukraine is seen by many as a war of darkness against light. Russian shelling has left Ukrainian cities with no power, forcing millions to endure freezing temperatures without heating.
“[Today] the festival is highly symbolic,” Polina Blinder, deputy director of the city’s Mygdal Jewish Centre. “A small group of Jews defeated a large army. They fought for freedom… I hope this will happen again now with Ukraine, which is fighting for its freedom but also, it seems to me, that of the whole of Europe.”
Odesa has a rich Jewish history. At the end of the 19th century, it had the world’s third largest Jewish population, after New York and Warsaw, although by the turn of the 20th century Russian pogroms, Joseph Stalin’s purges and the Holocaust had decimated the vibrant community. In the early 1990s, as the USSR fell apart, thousands moved to Israel.
Jews, who once constituted nearly half the population of Odessa, made up only six per cent; of the reported 40 synagogues of the late nineteenth century, only one remained.
But the community grew in strength again until, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of February 24 2022, it numbered 35,000. Since then, many have found shelter in either Israel, western Europe or the US - but the majority have remained.