Odessa, the Jews, and the Ladies at the Bar

One evening last week, before a session as a volunteer for the Capital Fringe Festival, I stepped into an Asian restaurant, sat at the bar, and ordered a drink and some food. I had brought a book with me, a soft cover publication of the Stanford University Press, “The Jews of Odessa: a Cultural History, 1794-1881” by Steven Zipperstein. I was sure no one would bother me.

I was wrong.

There was a lady sitting two seats to my left, a middle aged woman who looked sort of Hispanic and was on her second drink, it appeared, who said to me (a good question), “How can you read here?” It was dark and noisy and I had yet to figure that out myself. She asked to see the book and when she saw the title, she said: “I would love to read that book. That is a topic I am very interested it. It is very close to my heart. You see, my mother is from Spain. And I think I am Jewish.” Then she added, “By the way, where is Odessa?”

Overhearing this fairly one-sided conversation, the bartender, a young woman whose ethnicity was not apparent from the nature of her tattoos, entered our conversation and said: “I want to read that, too. My good girl friend just converted to Judaism. She had an orthodox conversion; it took her two years. So, you see, during that time I learned a lot about Judaism.”

So, Steven Zipperstein, you don’t know how close you are to having a best seller on your hands.

Now, what did I know about Odessa, I wondered. I knew that it was on the Black Sea, now in the Ukraine, formerly the Soviet Union. I knew a lot of Jews came from there and have friends who will tell me that their grandparents came from Odessa. I saw the Eisenstein movie, “Potemkin”, and remember that wonderful scene on the steps leading to the water. I knew that a lot of musicians came from Odessa, especially violinists, especially Jewish violinists. That was really about it.

I now know a little more, thanks to this quite interesting book. For instance, I know that Odessa did not exist as a city until the very end of the 18th century. This makes it the same age as, say, Pittsburgh or Cleveland, I would think. Younger than Boston or New York. I know that Odessa was always an unusual city for Russia/USSR – it did not develop from the typical Russian nobility/peasant culture, but was formed to provide a port for the Russians on the Black Sea, and so was, from the beginning, a commercial city, populated by whomever the Russians could get to move in this relatively uninhabited area – Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews. It didn’t matter.

I learned that the Jewish population, therefore, was not built on the pious Jews moving from the established shtetls of the north, bringing their religiously directed habits with them, but that the Jewish population consisted primarily of people who wanted to put those shtetl environments behind them, and to strike out to a new frontier, so to speak, creating a new identity.

I learned that there were in fact a variety of Jews, some who had become atheist, some who did try to replicate the yeshivas and synagogues of the northern Pale, some who thought that acculturation or assimilation into a Russian society was the goal (keeping Judaism primarily as a faith), and some who were looking to westernize both Russia and Russian Jewry.

I learned that the civic actions of the Jews of Odessa exceeded those of any other part of Russia – yes, there were artisans, but there were retail establishments, traders, and manufacturers. That a greater percentage of Odessa Jews went to Russian schools than in any other Russian city. That there were traditional and “German-style” synagogues, often at odds with each other, often supporting each other. That, yes, Jews did become the patrons of, and later the participants in, Odessa orchestra and operatic performances, perhaps as one way to bridge into a larger Russian society. I learned that there were many civic leaders and politicians who were Jewish and that, unlike in most of Russia, Jewish charitable institutions served non-Jews as well as Jews. I learned that there were many Odessan newspapers for the Jewish community, including one of the only Russian language Jewish newspaper (something the country discouraged, for fear that non-Jews would read it).

And, most of all I learned that there was a sense of optimism, of progress, and of the inevitable westernization of Russia and consequent demise of anti-Semitism, which fueled all of these changes in the Jewish population.

And then I learned about the pogrom of 1871, which shattered all of these illusions and ended this era of good feelings. It looked like the pogrom did not have a religious rationale, but rather a commercial one, and that not only the ethnic Russians but the ethnic Greeks were involved, their feeling being that the Jews were monopolizing commerce, that they were conspiring to take advantage of everyone else, and that they were all in this together.

The government did little or nothing to stop several days of looting (this had a lot to do with the personal feelings of the officer in charge of the city), and the reaction in the Jewish community was one of shock and bewilderment. How could this have happened?

Apparently, things were somewhat repaired, but the myth of a progressive Russia had been broken, never to come back.

In 1881, as a new repressive tsar took power, and large scale emigration began, the book ends. How Odessa prospered through the remaining 35 years of capitalist Russia, I am not certain.

One thought on “Odessa, the Jews, and the Ladies at the Bar

  1. The saga of Odessa’s Jews continued in Tel-Aviv and Israel. Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of the city, was from Odessa, as were a number of its leading citizens. Ze’ev Jabotinsky was from Odessa, as well. I went on a tour of houses in Tel-Aviv where the guide made quite a point of the influence of Odessa on the city — one of the architects of the “eclectic” style was from there, and she assumed that what we were seeing on Sderot Rothschild had its references in Odessa.
    As for Odessa: “Isaak Babel’s family survived Odessa’s 1905 pogrom with the help of Christian neighbors, but his great maternal grandfather Shoyl was one of about 300 Jews murdered.” Babel and the great poet Ossip Mandelstam were probably the last of Odessa’s great Jewry.

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