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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I came to Odessa chasing a myth. I found it around midnight in a hookah bar on Sobornaya Square, where the music segued effortlessly from trip-hop to a medley of Hebrew songs, “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov,” “Hava Nagila,” and then back to an electronic beat.

Several days earlier and 300 miles north, in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, I met Jews who said they were afraid to wear a yarmulke in the street or to admit to strangers they were Jewish. But here, in a trendy, smoke-filled bar on the Black Sea coast, Odessites were playing Jewish music because it was cool.

During Soviet times Odessa was perceived as a Jewish city. At its peak, soon after the Russian Revolution, more than 40% of Odessa’s populace was Jewish. But World War II, the Holocaust, Soviet repression and, finally, the collapse of Communism in 1990, reduced Jews to just 3% of the town. Where once almost 200,000 Jews fought and argued and wrote and played music, there is silence. Or at least I thought there was. And it was this silence that I had come to capture and to lament.

Yet almost everywhere I went during three days in Odessa, I found Jews or remnants of Jewish life. On my first morning in the city, while dragging my suitcase along a damp Richelevskaya Street from the train station, I came across an octogenarian street musician who warmed up his accordion to the sounds of “Hava Nagila.”

Where did you learn that tune? I asked. “Here, in Odessa,” the accordionist, Simon Minchuk replied. Minchuk, 81, played to supplement his monthly pension of about $150. Minchuk’s father was Jewish, he said, yet he referred to Jews as if they were alien. It is a shame the Jews all moved to Israel, he told me. “It would be better for Odessa, if they came back.”

Though far fewer in number now, Jews are still a force in Odessa, particularly in politics and business. Each morning, I watched the daily procession of long-legged women, their high heels clip-clopping over the cobblestones of Deribasovskaya Street, from a table at Kompot, a popular French cafe owned by a Jewish businessmen. During two separate evenings at what is — at least by Ukrainian standards — a lavish restaurant on Gogol Street, I was drawn into conversations with groups who turned out to be Jewish. Whether by design or by chance, I met young Jews and old Jews, rich Jews and poor Jews, intellectuals and businessmen, as rich a mix of characters as in any of the Odessa Tales told by one of the city’s favorite Jewish sons, Isaac Babel.

True, Moldavanka, the rambunctious Odessa ghetto which Babel brought to life in his Odessa stories, has disappeared in all but name. Most of the Jews are gone; the synagogues and shtiebels converted into homes or businesses. To explore Babel’s Moldavanka today requires imagination and a guide, which is why I hired Anna Misyuk who has been digging into Odessa’s Jewish literary past since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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.

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.

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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