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In Odesa, Ukrainians celebrate Hanukkah in a city without power

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure have left millions of people without power. Without electricity, the difficult circumstances of everyday living - it gives new meaning to the Jewish Festival of Lights. NPR's Tim Mak shows us how they're celebrating Hanukkah in the southern port city of Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATOR WHIRRING)

TIM MAK, BYLINE: There are a few primary sounds associated with Odesa nowadays - generators cranking out power for shops to operate and, in the cafes that are open, some holiday music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

MAK: The sound of construction is also in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

MAK: That's the sound you're greeted with at the Orthodox synagogue in Odesa, along with the chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff.

AVRAHAM WOLFF: (Through interpreter) People came to me and said, rabbi, so many Jews have left here. Is there a future for this synagogue, the community, the country?

MAK: Odesa has deep Jewish roots, but the Jewish population has shrunk. Before World War II, about a third of the city's population was Jewish. Now, Wolff estimates that number at about 5%. But he's expanding the synagogue, originally built in the 19th century as a message.

WOLFF: (Through interpreter) People say, let's rebuild a hall in the synagogue while praying in a small hall for now so we can show God that we believe we need a big hall. God will hear us and bring war to an end in this country. And people will come back because we show them that we believe there is a future.

MAK: Wolff gives us a tour of the temporary space people are using for prayers.

YOSSI NAFTALIN: (Singing in non-English language).

MAK: Here he introduces Yossi Naftalin, a volunteer from Jerusalem who is helping during the holidays.

NAFTALIN: So today, we are celebrating Hanukkah. So Hanukkah - the point of Hanukkah, why we are celebrating, because it's a miracle what happened for the Jewish people.

MAK: Hanukkah marks a Jewish rebellion that retook the temple in Jerusalem during the 2nd century BC. When they lit the temple's menorah, they found that the one day's worth of oil they had miraculously lasted for eight days. To celebrate this, the holiday is marked over eight days, in which an additional candle is lit each successive day.

WOLFF: (Through interpreter) The meaning of this celebration is much bigger than any other year. Normally, we give sweets. We give more than is needed. This year, Hanukkah for us is about fundamental living necessities.

MAK: Odesa gets very dark at night nowadays due to a lack of power. Many people are living and dining and working by flickering candlelight. It feels like the whole city is celebrating Hanukkah, along with the members of Wolff's community.

WOLFF: (Through interpreter) We will be victorious as we had been 2,000 years ago when Jewish people were fighting for their freedom. Then, they also wanted to destroy our spirit. And we are not giving up. Ukrainian people are not giving up. We are not going to give up because we adding the light.

MAK: He told a story that showed just how deeply connected Odesa is to its Jewish traditions. Wolff and some of his assistants have bolted battery-powered menorahs to the top of their cars. Each light is supposed to light up to correspond to the day of Hanukkah. This week, as they marked the holiday, his driver was pulled over by a police officer.

WOLFF: (Through interpreter) Police stopped him and said, you've set the lights wrong. It is the third day of Hanukkah. Today should be three, and you've put eight on.

MAK: Wolff said that he's a big believer in the butterfly effect. When people add warmth, joy and good deeds of the world, Wolff said, it will reach them here in Ukraine, and there will be peace.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Odesa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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