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Commentary: Celebrating in the capital of our oppression

By Michael Sefanov, CNN
Hundreds join in the Hanukah festivities in Moscow.
Hundreds join in the Hanukah festivities in Moscow.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hanukah menorah celebrations in front of the Kremlin, symbol of Soviet era
  • Mayor and rabbi stood together for the service
  • At nightclub, Jewsish students attempt a world record for lit candelabras

Watch more from Russia on CNNi's "BackStory" at 2100GMT

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- It was well below freezing as I stood in line to pass through the metal detector and get searched, but a warm sensation came over me.

The lighting of the Hanukah menorah I was about to witness in front of the Kremlin was something my parents and grandparents would never have though possible when they lived in Ukraine.

But there I was, the first family member born in the United States, now living in the capital of their oppression -- openly celebrating something they officially could not.

For the seventh consecutive year, Moscow's Jewish community has marked Hanukah openly and festively in the heart of Russia with the support of the government.

Though hate crimes against Jews and other minorities still occur all too often, people are free to practice their religion.

For my parents living under Soviet rule, all religion was banned. Those who practiced did so secretly. And some like my great-grandfather, who had a Jewish sounding surname, changed them due to discrimination.

Standing there among 500 or so other people I watched Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar recite the prayer for lighting the candles next to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzkkov.

Video: Hanukah in Moscow

It didn't escape me that my being there was a sort of slap in the face to my parents. After all, they often told me they left the Soviet Union so that their children could live freely, without persecution.

They even feared my coming to Moscow two years ago for the same reasons. Still, I couldn't help enjoy how much attitudes have changed.

Indeed, Jewish people make a significant impact in Russia today. Some are powerful members of the government. Some are influential businessmen. Others are well known scientists, authors and entertainers.

The change in attitude really hit home when I left the ceremony for a nightclub. There, the Jewish student organization Hillel was attempting to break a Guinness World Record by having more candelabras simultaneously lit than the previous 250.

Hillel's director in Russia, Alexander Shlimak told me it was their way of encouraging Judaism among people whose parents were "cut off" by the Soviet system.

"We've been trying to change the attitude toward the local Jewish population. We want to do more outreach," Shlimak said. "The event was an absolute success."

In the process, 358 participants broke the record. Official confirmation from Guinness won't come for about another month.

I should note, all fire safety precautions were in place: Recently as many as 149 people died, with at least 80 seriously injured in a night club fire in the Russian city of Perm. Faulty fireworks were cited as the cause. Donations for the victims were taken at the event.

Many stayed late into the night after the candles were lit, dancing and socializing.

As I went to bed that third night of Hanukah, I was glad in some small way I got to be a part of a major positive change in Russia. I only wished my parents could have seen it too.