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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.