Reclaiming Temple on Hanukkah : Emigres: Russian Jewish family find its way back to its religious roots, suppressed but not vanquished in its homeland.


At the Kalimans’ old household in Moscow, the menorah lights went out two generations ago.

This Hanukkah, the Russian emigre family is celebrating in an East San Diego apartment--a refuge for four months since they left their native country.

In an enclave of Russian Jewish emigres in the college community, Mila and Gennadiy Kaliman are learning about a religion and identity long suppressed because of discrimination in their homeland.


Their 12-year-old son, Boris, recites traditional prayers in Hebrew, learned while studying at a nearby day school run by Orthodox Jews. From just a few blocks away, Gennadiy’s parents have been visiting and observing holiday rites during the eight nights of Hanukkah.

“Our grandmother and grandfather found it very difficult to be religious people in the Soviet Union,” Gennadiy Kaliman said. “Not a lot was passed on to my parents. They try now to be religious, but it is difficult for adults to learn when they were taught nothing in their youth. . . . My son has a chance now. I am happy about that.”

Mila and Gennadiy, both trained as systems analysts and mathematicians, are studying English at a Jewish community center and looking for work. Despite reports of a waning job market, their dreams of success are strong. The Kalimans said they are hoping for the best this holiday season.

And the menorah lights are back on.

Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, is a time to celebrate the reclaiming of the Jewish temple in ancient Jerusalem after it had been captured by Syrian Greeks, said Helen Kaminsky, director of the Russian resettlement program at the East County Jewish Community Center.

The historical event holds a spiritual connection with the sojourn of more than 800 Soviet Jews who have immigrated to San Diego since 1986, said Kaminsky, who arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union 11 years ago. The holiday and the journey are seen as triumphs of Jewish faith over oppression, she said.

According to legend, the Jews found a cruse of oil in the temple, enough for only a day. The oil lasted for eight days, until a fresh supply of consecrated oil could be prepared.

“The story of Hanukkah is about the miracle of the special oil,” Kaminsky said. “The message we get during the holidays is that we can hang on through a difficult time. The miracle can happen for us, if we believe.”

Mila Kaliman’s “miracle” began, she said, when her family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The approval came more than two years after their application to emigrate.

Arriving here, she said, she felt her family had been set free. Free to observe their religion, for her son to pursue his education, and for her and Gennadiy to advance in their careers.

“I think I’m a well-educated woman,” said Kaliman, who completed graduate work in mathematical modeling and designed computer programs for a Moscow water-treatment institute. “What I want is a good job and to be well off. It seems to me that means independence here. This is important, this sense of self freedom. We couldn’t have such a sense in the Soviet Union.”

The Kalimans’ job searches have been frustrating, she said, and serve as a reminder that their miracle is not complete.

“We are used to working and working hard,” she said. “I have (gone through) many interviews, and I feel I need to learn more English. . . . I know my weaknesses.”

But, to the Kalimans, the language skills, employment and eventual prosperity are just matters of time and faith.

Friends made at the Jewish center have helped the Kalimans adjust. Mila also volunteers at the center, designing computer programs for administrative tasks.

On Monday, the second night of Hanukkah, the family celebrated with 400 recent Russian emigres at a holiday feast in the center’s gymnasium. The room was lighted by 40 menorahs, or candelabra, on the dinner tables. The night was filled with dance, prayer and song.

“Hanukkah is different here,” Gennadiy Kaliman said. “When I was a child, the (gathering) was much smaller. We didn’t bring a lot of attention to ourselves. Maybe two or three families came to our flat. No dancing, no singing. Our Russian neighbors couldn’t know about it. We had to be quiet.”

For the first time, the Kalimans’ household has a menorah. It is simple, and it rests on the only table in the apartment--in the kitchen.

“Lighting the menorah, doing it with family, is new for us,” Mila Kaliman said. “To know this is the same thing that has been done for so many generations before, you begin to feel a part of your people. This is quite a nice feeling.”

For many emigres experiencing the holidays anew, thoughts drift back to the country they fled, Kaminsky said.

“As we light 40 tables of Menorah, we believe maybe next year our brothers and sisters in Russia can come join us,” she said. “Even after so many years of disappointment, we are believing.”