The last time Fania Zelichenko, 70, celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukah was as a child in her parents' home in Kiev, Russia.

Growing up in the Soviet Union where attempting to practice Judaism usually draws persecution, Zelichenko didn't know much about the holiday. She remembered only that it falls sometime in December and that one is supposed to light candles. However, candles are difficult to obtain and after so many years, one tended to forget childhood practices.

Last Sunday, Zelichenko sat with friends, their heads wrapped in the Russian babushka, and listened intently to the story of Hanukah told in Russian through an interpreter.

"I never hoped to live to see this," she said, her weathered face wrinking with pleasure and her hazel eyes moistening. "Now I'm happy to be a Jew, only it's too late. I'm only sorry that I'm not young enough to enjoy this longer," she said in mixed Russian and Yiddish.

Amid a boisterous and crowded Hanukah festival at the Jewish Community Center on Montrose Road in Rockville, about 200 recently arrived Jewish Soviet immigrants gathered to hear the story of Hanukah, many of them for the first time.

Hanukah, meaning "dedication," celebrates the Western world's first known struggle for religious freedom. Beginnining at sundown last Friday, the holiday marks the 2,144st observance of the victory of the outnumbered Jews over the well-equipped armies of the Hellenistic Syrians in 165 B.C.

For three years, Jewish farmers led by Judah Maccabbe fought the syrians who had tried to impose the worship of Greek gods on the Jews. The Temple in Jerusalem had been turned into a temple of Zeus and Jewish religious practices were outlawed and punishable by death.

Using the first recorded instance of guerilla warfare, Jews defeated the Syrians and purified the temple.

According to legend, when they wanted to light the menorah, the candelabrum, the Jews found only enough pure oil to burn for one night. Miraculously, the menorah continued to burn for eight days; that is why Jews light an additional candle on the menorah each night until after eight days the menorah is aglow.

After the candle lighting ceremony, it is traditional to sing songs, play with the dreidle -- a spinning top -- and eat latkes, fried potato pancakes.

The theme of struggle for religious freedom struck a responsive chord for the Soviet immigrants, many of whom lost their jobs when they filed for emigration papers.

Vadim Zhinitsky, 19, who left Russia only two months ago, had no opportunity to learn about Hanukah, or about any of his religious and cultural heritage in Russia, where Jewish books are forbidden.

When he wanted to emigrate, his friends told him he should stay in Russia because everyone has freedom there.

"I asked them why I can't have books in Hebrew and they had no answer," he said in his heavily accented English.

Elsewhere in the jammed hallways and noisy rooms in the Jewish Community Center, people sang Hanukah songs, mothers pushed prams and wiped cotton candy off gooey faces and fathers distributed 25-cent tickets to the day's events.

One of the most popular activities among the young was gambling -- Hanukah style -- with play money called "shekels" (for the currency used at the time of the Maccabbes) and a dreidle.

While youngsters played with their dreidles, cashing in their winnings for chocolate candy, their younger brothers and sisters in the next room gave resounding shacks with a stick to a felt dreidle hanging from the ceiling. When it got a healthy blow, the dreidle's seams opened and it spewed out tiny toys.

Daniel Greyber, 8, bragged that he could spin a dreidle upside down. A large pile of "shekels" stacked beside him indicated that he did a good job at spinning it right side up as well.

Greyber, a student at Potomac Elementary School, said he believes in the legend about the oil burning for eight days.

"I believe in it in some ways. It could have happened," he said.

There was a menorah factory where children fashioned the candelabras out of wood, a dreidle cookie bake-in, Hanukah story-telling in the library and a swimming and diving show in the pool.

The day's activities culminated with a torch run from the Washington Monument to the Jewish Community Center and the lighting of a giant menorah on the front lawn.

Mike Passor, 23, went to most of the day's events, ate potato latkes in the "noshery" in the social hall and listened to a percussion ensemble concert in the gymnasium.

"I never was into history," said Passor, who sports a beard and wears a native American torquoise necklace on which he has affixed a small Jewish star, "Judaism is just full of traditions and I have a sense of connection with it. Although I'm not religious, I do have a sense of background," he said.

Giora Hadar, a 43-year-old architect from Israel, said American Jews commercialize the Hanukah celebration to compete with the hoopla surrounding Christmas.

"In Israel it is not so commercial and it's not so heavy into gift-giving," he said.

"Hanukah is not of the same importance to Jews as Christmas is to Christians," said Elaine Mann, the director of Jewish Studies at the Community Center. "The holiday has taken on more significance for American Jews because of the way Christmas is celebrated in this country."

Irene Kholodnov watched her two young daughters frolic through the day's activities and her eyes started to fill with tears. Hanukah was the first Jewish holiday she celbrated when she arrived from the Soviet Union three years ago.

"I think if only my father were alive today to see his grandchildren celebrating a Jewish holiday," she said. "I remember the first Hanukah I celebrated here. It was wonderful. I can't explain. It was something incredible to me. I felt like I am Jewish.