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 3 of 4)

An Odessan Jew of 100 years ago would be horrified to think such statistics offer cause for hope. Back then, as Verkhovskaya explained, there were more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses. But compared to 20 years ago, when the city had just one synagogue and when Jews were fleeing in their thousands, it seems almost miraculous that Jewish life has revived at all.

The number of Jews in Odessa remains elusive. During the last census, in 2001, 12,500 people self-identified as Jewish. But the real number, in a country where for decades being a Jew could prevent entry to university or kill a career, is thought to be higher.

One afternoon, near the statue of Pushkin on Odessa’s waterfront, I met Rosa Khasina, 85, who spent ten minutes telling me about the famous Jews of Odessa: the writer and journalist Lev Slavin, the poet Eduard Bagritsky, the violinist David Oistrakh. As she talked I suddenly realized that her face looked a lot like my grandmother’s. “I can say I am Ukrainian, or I am Russian,” Khasina said when I asked what nationality she was. But she admitted towards the end of our conversation she is an Odessan Jew.

Maksim Shteisel also showed ambivalence towards his Jewishness, but for a totally different reason. Born in Odessa, educated at a Scottish Presbyterian boarding school in Australia, Shteisel, 25, was more concerned with making money and finding a girlfriend than in Judaism.

When I met him in Gogol-Mogol, a shabby chic cafe, Shteisel showed genuine surprise that American Jews would care about Odessa’s Jewish roots. The following night at Pivnoi Sad restaurant, Shteisel recounted how during his MBA classes in Sydney, Australia, his lecturers insisted that a 50% return on investment is almost unheard of. But in Ukraine, before the world financial crash, it was possible to make much more.

Today, he and his friend Michael, an Odessan Jew who accompanied us to the restaurant, work in their families’ construction firms. Neither young man gave their share of the 300 hryvnia ($38) check ­— about what the average middle-class Ukrainian earns in a day — a second thought.

After dinner, they took me to the hookah bar on Sobornaya square where conversation turned to renting a house in the country or flying to Turkey for the forthcoming holiday weekend. It was there that I realized Jewish life in Odessa was as freewheeling today as it was in Babel’s time, if only on a smaller scale.

On my final day, I took a walk through Shevchenko Park, which occupies a bluff overlooking Odessa’s busy harbor. There, I met Sergei, 52, who had spent most of the past 20 years working on construction sites in Europe. Sergei returned to Odessa recently to look after his elderly mother. “It’s a very special city, you know,” he said. We walked on, past the park’s crumbling walls covered with graffiti, the sound of birds drowned out by the clanking of the industrial docks below.


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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "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:
  • 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.