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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Sergei told me that soon after the collapse of Communism, most of the ships in the harbor were sold for scrap metal and the proceeds plundered. We walked on to Odessa’s memorial to the unknown sailor where Sergei recounted the heroic tales he remembered from school and he pointed out memorials to two submarines that sank nearby.

Finally, we made our way down to the beach where a cold wind whipped in off the sea. Sergei said that in the summer he liked to swim from a point near here, five miles east along the coast to his home. He seemed despondent about Odessa’s future and that of Ukraine. The construction industry is dead, he said, and it doesn’t look like it will come back any time soon. “The worst thing is the loss of human rights,” Sergei said in broken English. “A few at the top make all people slaves.”

I walked back into town, past the fancy storefronts and the crumbling buildings painted in pastel blues, greens and yellows. Along the way I passed businessmen in suits, fashionable couples in bleached and ripped jeans, sports cars, strip clubs and an advertisement for an agency that pairs Ukrainian brides with American men.

At Gogol-Mogol restaurant I settled into a chair to type up my notes but I was soon disturbed by a table of almost a dozen people who became more boisterous as the evening wore on

The party was a mix of Jews and non-Jews. The matriarch of the table, wearing a dark outfit and stylish glasses, fussed over everyone, ordering soup and crayfish.

At one point, she declared that she never wanted to immigrate to Israel. “If you want the real Moldavanka you must go to Brooklyn,” her husband said. “In Brooklyn they’re all our people.”

Someone must have noticed me eavesdropping because shortly afterwards a plate of crayfish arrived at my table. I politely declined, explaining that I was a Jewish reporter from Brooklyn working on a story about Odessa’s Jews.

“Ah, a pure Moldavanka Jew,” one of the guests half-sneered.

“I’m sorry we’re so rude,” the mother said. “We were quiet so long.”

She explained that many of her friends and family lived in America, including three grandchildren in San Francisco.

With a night train to catch for Kiev, I had only time to ask her a single question: If she had so many loved ones in America, why didn’t she leave Odessa too?

“I wanted to,” she replied without missing a beat. “But this piece of shit,” she said, pointing at her husband, “wouldn’t let me.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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