Family, Immigration, and the Festival of Lights

by Lana Alman / December 17, 2020

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my family’s immigration to the US from Moldova.

We arrived in Cleveland, Ohio on December 22, 1990 to snow covered streets and homes decorated with Christmas lights. I felt like I stepped into a real life snow globe. Everything was different. From the language, to the empty streets. The supermarkets that felt more like museums rather than grocery stores. As an eight-year-old, I discovered many new things in the US, one of them being Hanukkah. And while Hanukkah is one of the least religious Jewish holidays, to me it’s the one that has the greatest meaning. 


Magic, Miracles, and Grandfather Frost

I grew up in a Jewish family in Moldova where Yiddish was my grandparents’ secret language and gefilte fish was the centerpiece of most family gatherings. But being Jewish was something that wasn’t spoken about outside the home. I had never seen a synagogue or quite understood why matzah appeared in our home each Spring. The biggest holiday for us, just like most Soviet people, was New Years Eve. December 31st was a time of magic, miracles, and ded moroz (grandfather frost) who brought gifts and left them under the New Year’s Tree. While this sounds a lot like Christmas, this was a holiday that all people, regardless of religion, celebrated in the USSR. 

Lana in Moldova right before leaving for the US

Discovering Hanukkah

Our first New Year’s Eve in the US was certainly not much to brag about. My parents and older sister worked as dishwashers at a restaurant, their first paid jobs in the US. And I spent the evening with an 85-year-old relative and her 3-year-old grandson. There was no New Year’s tree, no grandfather frost, and certainly no gifts. As we moved into our first apartment, our downstairs neighbors, who arrived from Mariupol, Ukraine a year before we did, welcomed us to the building. 

Their daughter Natasha, who was just a year younger than me, invited me to light candles with her. 

“For what?” I asked. 

“Hanukkah” she explained. 

“You light candles every night for eight days, and you get a present for each of the nights,” she explained. 

“How had I never known of this holiday before?” I wondered. “How did I miss out on so many presents all those years?”

It turned out that my parents and grandparents knew about this holiday, but never told us about it. I realized that growing up in Moldova, I heard references about Hannukah that now made sense. I recognized the word “gelt” and grew up eating “latkes,” but didn’t know that any of these things were associated with a particular holiday. Natasha gave me a small plastic spinning top with sparkles on the outside and chocolate coins on the inside and explained that it was called a dreidel. Each night, we sat on her living room floor spinning the dreidel and saying the Hebrew letters out loud. 

Light From A Vintage Brass Menorah

That same year, the Jewish Family Service Association Of Cleveland matched us with an American family who had a daughter my age. They gave me a box of colorful candles, and a small vintage brass menorah with the words “Hen Holon Israel”engraved on the inside. I learned about the Hanukkah story and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights. Every night that I lit the candles, I would turn the lights of and watch the tiny flames dance in the shadow, hoping that I too would witness a miracle, and that the candles would at least burn through the night. While the candles quickly melted into a puddle of colorful wax, we certainly experienced our own Hanukkah miracle that year.

Immigrating is hard, and deciding to leave home, like my parents did, without any way of returning is unfathomable. But discovering Jewish traditions, meeting kind people along the way, and finding light in a difficult time were all part of my family’s Hanukkah story.

The Real Miracle of Light

Still today, I light the candles on that small menorah that I received as a gift 30 years ago. I still wish for miracles to happen as I watch the flames dance in the shadows. No matter where I lived, whether in DC or in Santiago, Chile, my menorah has travelled with me to every corner of the world. And while we still put up our New Year’s tree to celebrate Soviet traditions, we also light Hanukkah candles and freely place our menorah in the window, like ancient Jewish tradition calls. 

And while I’m rather certain that the candles won’t burn for all eight nights, celebrating all of our traditions openly and freely is truly a miracle!

Lana celebrating Hanukkah this year!


Lana AlmanAbout the Author: Lana Alman is originally from Moldova and has lived in DC for the past 12 years. Her personal immigration experience led her to Latin America where she’s lived and served as a Fulbright Scholar. Most recently, Lana facilitated a training on Giving Circles for LAZOS, a Latin American Jewish network for young professionals, and has taught bilingual culinary education classes for kids and families in the Bronx. Lana has a passion for food, travel, and languages and speaks, thinks and dreams in Spanish, Russian, and English.





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