It was a shock, less than a month after immigrating here from the Soviet Union, to see a large "Happy Hanukah" banner stretched across the aisle of a local store, said Tamara Okun Stotsenko. And the dozens and dozens of Hanukah cards, crammed in next to the Christmas cards and decorations, were bewildering but heart-warming for a woman who said she would have dared only to whisper holiday greetings to a fellow Jew on the street in Leningrad.

"I thought to myself, 'It's normal here; people say it loudly,' " the 30-year-old systems analyst said.

On Tuesday evening, after a struggle of eight years, Stotsenko lit her first Hanukah candle in America, in the company of her husband, daughters, brother and a dozen new friends.

"It's symbolic tonight of the {Hanukah} story of the Maccabees fighting for freedom that we have a newly arrived Russian family" for the holiday, said their hostess in an Adams-Morgan row house, film maker Aviva Kempner. "We welcome you to Washington, a new-found home."

Jewish people this week began celebrating the eight nights of a centuries-old observance commemorating the victory more than 2,000 years ago by the Jews, led by the Maccabees, over the Syrians in Jerusalem.

As the celebration unfolded, there were emotional reunions all over the Washington area for the newest of the emigres from the Soviet Union. Some had been in living in frustration and oblivion since the late 1970s as "refuseniks," denied permission to leave the Soviet Union and stripped of their right to work in certain jobs or prestigious universities. Several who are now celebrating their religion openly recalled that they had been freed in one sense during those past years: As refuseniks who had declared publicly that they wanted to leave the Soviet Union, they felt free to reinstitute in private the Jewish traditions that had been suppressed in their families since the Russian Revolution in 1917.

In the Kemp Mill area of Silver Spring Tuesday evening, Lev and Inna Goldfarb laughed at the pleasure of their 2-year-old granddaughter Liza with her new white teddy bear, bestowed on the first night of what is traditionally a children's celebration.

"Tonight we light a candle for freedom," said Lev Goldfarb, 50, a neurological researcher at the National Institutes of Health. In past years, as the family and acquaintances had gathered for Hanukah in apartments in Moscow, "We remembered our friends in the West who were working for us very hard. The result of their work is that many of us are in freedom."

Liza, the daughter of the Goldfarbs' son Boris and his wife Helena, was born a month before the family was allowed to leave Moscow for the West. But the child and her mother were denied permission to leave until this year, and had communicated with the family through weekly telephone calls. Boris Goldfarb left his wife and child behind because he was on the verge of being conscripted into the Soviet army; ultimately that could have had the effect of barring him from emigrating for decades, Lev Goldfarb said.

Tamara Stotsenko, whose brother Alex Okun came here 12 years ago at the age of 23, said that the Hanukah celebration Tuesday night brought home to her what she had begun to realize during her long wait in Leningrad, "that people really do care about Soviet Jews. I think that these are really sincere feelings." This became apparent to Stotsenko and her husband Anatoly when they took part in a rally and march on behalf of Soviet Jewry just before last week's summit meeting in Washington.

"It is incredible for us" to be living in such a place, said Anatoly Stotsenko, 30, a graphic artist who lives with Tamara and their daughters Hannah and Elana, ages 3 years and 6 months, in a three-room apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW. In Leningrad, the Stotsenkos and their extended family of seven lived in accommodations less than one-third that size, he said.

They are working to bring their parents and his sister to the West, said the Stotsenkos, who arrived in this country with some clothing and not much more. In the meantime, they are being supported temporarily by the Jewish Social Service Agency. Their apartment is being furnished by members of their synagogue, Adas Israel in Northwest Washington.

During the years of struggle to get to America, their newly reactivated Hanukahs evolved into occasions of happiness, the Stotsenkos said.

In the last years, as people became more desperate to leave the Soviet Union, long-time refuseniks tried to make more fun out of the celebration, Tamara Stotsenko said. It was a question of "if it's bad, you laugh," she said. She and her friends began to invent comic skits, and her husband would create the scenery.

"They tried to make fun -- not to cry but to laugh," she recalled.

For the family of Vyachislav and Hana Ryaboy, after living for decades as "common Soviet people" with no religious observances, the holidays such as Hanukah, Purim and Passover took on new meaning. The Ryaboys emigrated from Moscow three months ago and now live in Rockville.

When they burned bridges to their old life in 1979 by declaring their intention to leave the Soviet Union, it became "very important for us and our daughter to understand, what does it mean to be a Jew," said Vyachislav Ryaboy, 52, a geophysicist. "It's very important to understand where are you going and where did you come from."

Fellow Jews "encouraged us and helped us to understand our problems; that they are only a small part of the problems of Jewish people, and that we have a very long, very interesting history," he said.

The family, which includes Ryaboy's parents, his geophysicist wife, and daughter, 23, a computer science student, celebrated Hanukah in America with a new circle of friends Tuesday night.

By becoming refuseniks, they had begun a journey to Tuesday night's gathering, Ryaboy said.

"Psychologically," he said, "we understood we were not a part of Soviet society; that we had decided to start a new life."