United and Invincible: In Kyrgyzstan, Celebrating Chanukah and Jewish Renewal

Irina Stvolova, a JDC volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, talks about what Chanukah looks like in her native city of Bishkek, and what lessons this holiday can teach us in pandemic times.

By Irina Stvolova - JDC Volunteer | November 18, 2021

A lifelong member of Kyrgyzstan's Jewish community, Irina Stvolova has been rediscovering and rebuilding Jewish life in her native Bishkek.

Over the past few decades, Kyrgyzstan’s Jewish community has been rediscovering Jewish life, building a Jewish future while also supporting the most vulnerable members of their community. Irina Stvolova, a JDC volunteer, is a lifelong member of the Kyrgyz Jewish community. In this reflection, she talks about what Chanukah looks like in her native city of Bishkek, and what lessons this holiday can teach us in pandemic times.

In Hebrew, the word “Chanukah” means “purification” or “renewal.” This meaning makes sense to those of us in Kyrgyzstan’s Jewish community, where the pandemic has been its own kind of renewal. 

Over the past two years, we’ve had the chance to put everything on pause and take advantage of this quiet to look around, think about who we are, where we are, and where we’re going next.  We’ve been able to clear our minds, reflect on our past, and think about what our community wants for its future. 

Most of our community here in Kyrgyzstan is relatively secular. Because of our history, and the legacy of Soviet repression, it doesn’t always feel like we have a long history to look back on. But thanks to JDC and the many programs they support, we have the chance to get closer to our roots.

Each day, we’re building a Jewish Kyrgyzstan, both by imagining and building our future and supporting the most vulnerable among us.

This means that we’ve been able to learn about Jewish history, everything from weekly rituals like Shabbat and havdalah to time-honored Jewish traditions for holidays like Sukkot and Passover. We’ve brought traditions from the larger Jewish world into our home, making them our own. Each day, we’re building a Jewish Kyrgyzstan, both by imagining and building our future and supporting the most vulnerable among us. 

Times have changed since I was child. Now, on Chanukah, we sing Banu hosheh legaresh (“Light the Fire”), a song of unity about dispelling darkness. JDC is the light that has dispelled the darkness, supporting Jews in every corner of the world.

Like all Jewish communities across the world, the pandemic has changed how we celebrate Chanukah. Rather than crowded celebrations, we now gather around the menorah in our small family circles. We send warm holiday greetings to each other by video rather than in person. 

But these restrictions haven’t dampened our spirit of celebration. Even during the pandemic, we shared recipes, cooked together, and played dreidel over Zoom — even arranging a digital “flash mob,” called #Dabudetsvet2020.

#Dabudetsvet — which means “let there be light” — is now a Jewish tradition across Kyrgyzstan. Each night of Chanukah, every family takes a picture of their respective candle-lighting ceremonies. Next, we post the photos on Facebook and Instagram. Using the tools at our disposal, we increase the amount of light in our hearts and share it with others. This year, we’re adding one new tradition: a Chanukah gift-giving circle, where each family gives a gift to another.

Stvolova (left) with her husband and daughter.

In addition to celebrating community, Chanukah also teaches us about the strength and worth of the individual. It’s very important to believe in yourself and not give up, despite the difficulties you may face. Chanukah is about triumphing over obstacles. G-d often sends us obstacles, but if we do what’s right, we can overcome them. And, after going through them, we’ll become stronger, more compassionate, more united! 

Chanukah is also a time when we help those who need it most. My favorite Chanukah memory is when I participated in Holiday to Every Home, a program where volunteers prepare Chanukah treats and greetings for isolated and elderly members of our community. I was responsible for all stages of the program: preparing the donuts, delivering them, and greeting our Jewish seniors. 

As good as this made me feel, I felt even better that my daughter, Alice, could participate. That day, she saw that Chanukah was about more than just lighting candles and playing dreidel. She spoke with the elderly, hearing their stories and enjoying their company. It was such a pleasure to spend this day with her — tzedakah is a value we pass on to our children, by example.

Here in Bishkek, JDC helps us live these values. I liken JDC to the Maccabees, whose ancient victory became a symbol for the triumph of the Jewish spirit over oppression. Because of the Maccabees’ courage, Jewish communities were able to grow and thrive around the world. JDC helps Jewish life thrive, day in and day out.

But I also like to think of JDC as a menorah: The candles are the problems that JDC helps to resolve — hunger, loneliness, poverty — and the shammash are the people and their work. With each candle we light, there is more hope and goodness in the world.

This Chanukah, I wish the world would blaze with light. I hope we can love and support each other, and be that light for someone in need: After all, when we are united, we are invincible.

Irina Stvolova is a JDC volunteer in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories