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

(page 2 of 4)

Standing at the intersection of Zaporizka and Bogdan Khmelnitskii streets, Misyuk conjured a picture of Odessa 100 years ago in which Moldavanka rivaled New York’s Lower East Side as a melting pot. Misyuk pointed out four buildings on each corner of the intersection that, according to a 1901 census, were inhabited by a German speaker, a Russian speaker, a Bulgarian speaker and a Yiddish speaker. Along this short, two-block street, the census registered 14 native languages, including Moldovan and Swedish. The census did not, however, mention Ioska Samuelson’s brothel, immortalized by Babel in “The Father,” when Babel describes a line of Jewish bandits, “the kings of the Moldavanka,” riding in carriages towards the brothel in single file, “dressed up like hummingbirds in colored jackets.”

Moldavanka’s Russians, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Swedes and Jews were attracted to Odessa for many reasons, but chief among them was its port. By the early 19th century, Odessa had established itself as a major link between Black Sea and Mediterranean seaports and inland trading centers. Jews, restricted elsewhere as potential competitors to their Christian counterparts, were valued in Odessa precisely for their links to other Jewish communities across the Russian Empire’s western edge, the swathe of land known as the Pale of Settlement.

Odessan Jews became “critical middlemen in Odessa’s commerce,” Charles King writes in his recent book, “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.” They dominated industrial and trading companies, and transformed Odessa into what King calls “the preeminent port of the Yiddish-speaking world.” By the turn of the 20th century, according to a map in Odessa’s Jewish museum, the 140,000 Jews of Odessa outnumbered the 64,000 Jews of Vilnius and the 130,000 Jews of Warsaw.

But it would be overly simplistic to call Odessa a Jewish town. Captured from the Turks in 1789 by a Spanish major general serving under the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, Odessa was governed and designed during its formative years by two Frenchmen. The town feels more like St Petersburg (another “foreign” city of the former Russian empire) than, say, Kiev. Its cosmopolitan roots are most apparent to the east of Moldavanka, in the center of the old town, where the city’s elegant 19th century buildings are decorated with ornate French- and Italian-inspired bas-reliefs and balconies, and where streets have names such as Greek Street, Great Arnaut (Albanian) street, French Boulevard and Italian Boulevard. Even the famed Jewish district, Moldavanka, derives from the word for a “Moldovan girl.”

On Jew Street today you can find the Choral Synagogue and, not far from there, the Brodsky Synagogue and the Hasidic Eishes Chayil hair salon, where women can get a haircut or buy a wig. At Migdal Jewish community center, housed in a gloomy old synagogue building that smells of cigarette smoke, board chairman Kira Verkhovskaya noted that Odessa has two kosher restaurants, several kosher stores, two yeshivas and two mikvehs. Across town, the gleaming, three-story Beit Grand Jewish cultural center, which opened in 2009 with the help of a large donation from American philanthropists Nancy and Stephen Grand, would be the envy of most Jewish communities across America.

Verkhovskaya said although Jews make up a smaller percentage of Odessa’s population than before they are more visible today “because they are businessmen and politicians.” A significant proportion of the city’s 120-member council are Jewish, she said, as is Eduard Gorvitz, Odessa’s former mayor.


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!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • 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.