Tamara Okun Woolfe left behind friends, family and all that was familiar when she emigrated from Leningrad to Washington three years ago. What she got in trade, as a Jew moving into a culture tolerant of religion, was "a deep sense of belonging," said Woolfe, now a teacher at St. Albans School for Boys.
Hanukah, which begins tomorrow, is a celebration of freedom for all Jews. But it is a time that has taken on special meaning for Woolfe and her husband, Anatoly Woolfe, both 33.
It marks the anniversary of their arrival in this country after a long and difficult period of being denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. They were part of the first wave of glasnost-era Jews who left for America, a wave that has swelled to about 50,000 people a year. Each year, about 500 Soviet Jews immigrate to the Washington area, according to local Jewish social service agencies.
In Leningrad, there were open celebrations of Jewish holidays, Tamara Woolfe said. But, she recalled, "We could only dare to whisper greetings on the street."
Tomorrow night, as they light candles commemorating the victory of the Jews over the Syrians in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, the Woolfes and their two young daughters will be surrounded by new friends. Many are members of Adas Israel Congregation who helped them resettle in Washington three years ago, in an apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW.
At 9:30 tonight, a documentary tracing the family's journey to America will be shown on WETA-TV (Channel 26) and on stations in Chicago and New York.
"Dosvedanya Means Goodbye," a documentary by Washington filmmaker Roberta Hantgan and director Daniel Bailes, is about the pain of leave-taking and the longing for a new home. It is scheduled to be seen on television stations across the country during Hanukah.
Coming out of Russia meant coming to a place that was "very light and bright, and where people wore different expressions on their faces," Tamara Woolfe said. "Everything was very, very peaceful and pleasant, and I had the best feeling."
Religion, once a secret part of her life, has not lost its allure now that it is "available and so easy," she said.
"I do feel a very deep sense of belonging to my people, especially when I am at the synagogue and at the holidays," she said. "The very idea that everybody is celebrating the same thing is very exciting to me."
Their daughter, Hannah, who will be 6 this week and is named for the holiday that begins tomorrow, attends classes in Jewish culture at Adas Israel's day school.
The Woolfes begin this Hanukah season with new surnames, acquired last spring when they got their green cards from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They arrived in the United States as Tamara Okun and Anotoly Stotsenko, but decided that as Americans they would use the name of Stotsenko's father, who hopes to emigrate with Woolfe's mother from Leningrad.
Tamara Woolfe, a systems analyst in the Soviet Union, teaches Russian at St. Albans and said she is delighted to have entered a profession that had always interested her.
"I never dreamed about doing something I enjoyed," she said of her student days in Leningrad. As a Jew, she was barred from studying at a language institute, she said.
Her husband, an artist whose illustrations have appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler and other publications, had a showing of his paintings at a Georgetown gallery earlier this year.
In the Soviet Union, where Jewish themes in painting were considered inappropriate, "I felt like I was in a cage," he said.
Here, he has had to learn to market his skills, and says he is beginning to feel the pinch of recession as publications cut spending.
The Woolfes say rent on their Connecticut Avenue apartment takes up much of their income, but they were able to buy a car recently. They say they can find more books written in Russian in Washington than they could in Leningrad.
They worry about finding the money to educate their children, given the uncertainty of freelance work. Tamara Woolfe's job at St. Albans is part time.
Except for their concern about his parents -- who have been denied permission to emigrate for several years but recently were granted immigrant status by the American Embassy in Moscow -- they say they miss very little about Soviet life. Anatoly Woolfe said he sometimes dreams of the peace and quiet of the summer dacha they used.
But for the most part, Tamara Woolfe said, "I pity people so much in Russia. I would like to be excited" about recent political changes in the Soviet Union. "But . . . it is physically so dangerous there now, and it is being devastated by terrible antisemitism. People there write to me with such desperate feelings."