Odessa Still Throbs With Jewish Life

In Babel's Hometown, Community Is Vibrant as Ever

Drab No More: Odessa has left the Soviet era behind with a vengeance. The city’s fabled Jewish community is experiencing a Renaissance.
paul berger
Drab No More: Odessa has left the Soviet era behind with a vengeance. The city’s fabled Jewish community is experiencing a Renaissance.

By Paul Berger

Published May 21, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.