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.
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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.


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