I came to Odessa chasing a myth. I found it around midnight in a hookah bar on Sobornaya Square, where the music segued effortlessly from trip-hop to a medley of Hebrew songs, “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov,” “Hava Nagila,” and then back to an electronic beat.
Several days earlier and 300 miles north, in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, I met Jews who said they were afraid to wear a yarmulke in the street or to admit to strangers they were Jewish. But here, in a trendy, smoke-filled bar on the Black Sea coast, Odessites were playing Jewish music because it was cool.
During Soviet times Odessa was perceived as a Jewish city. At its peak, soon after the Russian Revolution, more than 40% of Odessa’s populace was Jewish. But World War II, the Holocaust, Soviet repression and, finally, the collapse of Communism in 1990, reduced Jews to just 3% of the town. Where once almost 200,000 Jews fought and argued and wrote and played music, there is silence. Or at least I thought there was. And it was this silence that I had come to capture and to lament.
Yet almost everywhere I went during three days in Odessa, I found Jews or remnants of Jewish life. On my first morning in the city, while dragging my suitcase along a damp Richelevskaya Street from the train station, I came across an octogenarian street musician who warmed up his accordion to the sounds of “Hava Nagila.”
Where did you learn that tune? I asked. “Here, in Odessa,” the accordionist, Simon Minchuk replied. Minchuk, 81, played to supplement his monthly pension of about $150. Minchuk’s father was Jewish, he said, yet he referred to Jews as if they were alien. It is a shame the Jews all moved to Israel, he told me. “It would be better for Odessa, if they came back.”
Though far fewer in number now, Jews are still a force in Odessa, particularly in politics and business. Each morning, I watched the daily procession of long-legged women, their high heels clip-clopping over the cobblestones of Deribasovskaya Street, from a table at Kompot, a popular French cafe owned by a Jewish businessmen. During two separate evenings at what is — at least by Ukrainian standards — a lavish restaurant on Gogol Street, I was drawn into conversations with groups who turned out to be Jewish. Whether by design or by chance, I met young Jews and old Jews, rich Jews and poor Jews, intellectuals and businessmen, as rich a mix of characters as in any of the Odessa Tales told by one of the city’s favorite Jewish sons, Isaac Babel.
True, Moldavanka, the rambunctious Odessa ghetto which Babel brought to life in his Odessa stories, has disappeared in all but name. Most of the Jews are gone; the synagogues and shtiebels converted into homes or businesses. To explore Babel’s Moldavanka today requires imagination and a guide, which is why I hired Anna Misyuk who has been digging into Odessa’s Jewish literary past since the fall of the Soviet Union.