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Alexei Bychenko, Israeli who skated to Hava Nagila in 2018, taking opera to third Olympics

In the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Alexei Bychenko thrilled the Jewish world by skating to Hava Nagila, the ubiquitous Hebrew folk song based on a Hasidic tune. To this day, the Ukrainian-born Israeli figure skater calls it one of his favorite performances.

A veteran now preparing for his third Winter Games, Bychenko won’t be skating to any homegrown melodies in Beijing. His short program is Edvard Grieg’s mischievous, ultra-recognizable “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” and his free skate is the opera piece “Nessun Dorma,” by Puccini.

Bychenko likes opera. “Music for the eyes,” he calls it.

He’s one of three native Ukrainians who will take the ice for Israel in the 2022 Olympic Games. Evgeni Krasnopolski will skate pairs with Hailey Kops, an American-born Orthodox Jew, and Vladislav Bykanov will compete in short-track speedskating.

Looking for more Olympics coverage from the Forward? Here’s a guide to the Jewish athletes competing, complete with TV schedule information.

Like the Szollos siblings, ski racers from Hungary who became Israeli citizens so they could compete at the national level, Bychenko represented his country of birth before internal politics stalled his advancement within the sport.

Israel, which allows Jews of any country to become citizens, gave Bychenko, whose mother is Jewish, a path to competition.

“One day my Ukrainian coach called me,” said Bychenko, “and said, ‘Look, I know you’re from a Jewish family. I know you would like to keep skating. Would you like to keep skating, but for Israel?’ Like, yes, of course. So that’s how it started.”

bychenko jewish

Alexei’s current mood. By Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

In 2010, Bychenko made aliyah; in 2016, he became the first Israeli to medal at the European Championships when he took home silver in Bratislava. He was the country’s official flag bearer at Pyeongchang. He will turn 34 in Beijing.

Though he has never lived in Israel and his knowledge of his family’s Jewish history is admittedly thin, Bychenko remembers his late grandfather speaking “not Hebrew, but — how it’s called — Yiddish!” He has family in Israel — and of course, fans — and in a way, he observes Shabbat, he says, by taking Friday night and Saturday off from his practice routine.

Israeli and Jewish Olympic athletes have a growing legacy of incorporating Jewish music into their routines — American gymnast Aly Raisman used Hava Nagila in 2012; figure skater Jason Brown will use the theme from “Schindler’s List” this year.

Bychenko said his on-ice personas this year alternate between “tricky” in the Grieg and “fighting” in Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.

“Fighting not with somebody, but fighting for,” he said. “For a result, for the future.”

The men’s short program, in which Bychenko will perform to Grieg, will be televised live on NBC on Feb. 7 from 8 p.m.-12:30 a.m., and replayed from 8:15-10:45 p.m. on CNBC. The men’s long program (also called rhythm dance) will be televised live on the USA Network on Feb. 9 from 6:00-9:40 a.m., and replayed from 8:00-11:00 p.m. on NBC.

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