The tale of Tel Aviv's Little Odessa

Street names and eclectic architecture reveal the history of the Little Odessa community in TA.

FSU at Little Odessa 311 (photo credit: Gil Shefler)
FSU at Little Odessa 311
(photo credit: Gil Shefler)
When the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, heard the news that a young Winston Churchill, then secretary of the ministry of colonies of the British Empire, was planning a visit he worried that the ramshackle settlement wasn’t up to muster to receive such a distinguished guest. So the mayor from Odessa had trees brought in and planted along the barren, dirt road he had grandly named Rothschild Boulevard only a few years earlier. However, as fate had it, the trees didn’t take root in the sandy soil, and when a strong wind blew on the day of Churchill’s visit, it knocked a few of them down just as the future British prime minister arrived.
“The trees in Tel Aviv need roots,” Churchill is said to have told Dizengoff, according to local lore.
The episode of Churchill’s visit to Tel Aviv and history of its Little Odessa community was brought to life on Monday evening during a walking tour organized by Limmud FSU, a group dedicated to promoting Jewish education among Russian-speaking Jews.
“Long before the German Jews awoke from their slumber and started arriving in Tel Aviv in the 1930s the Odessa gang was already here tearing up the city and constructing mad buildings,” Nathan Roi, an author, historian and former journalist – who also volunteers for Limmud – said. “These streets which are now named after many of them were where they lived and worked and the city bears their indelible mark.” The Limmud tour took in some of the homes and hangouts of the city’s famous Odessa-born residents including Asher Ginzburg, better known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am; Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s national poet; and essayist and translator Shaul Tchernichovsky, and was meant as a follow up to a Jewish seminar it recently held in the Ukrainian city by the Black Sea.
“Last month we saw where they came from when we were in Odessa,” Chaim Chesler, the founder of the educational organization, said. “Now we’ll learn about what they did when they came here.”
The olim from Odessa who arrived in Tel Aviv between the 1910s and 1920s brought culture and industry to the then small suburb of Jaffa. In a sign of things to come, they set up the first dancehall in the city – now renowned for its nightlife.They even constructed a tramway, which might have helped relieve the nowadays congested streets had it lasted. But not all of their endeavors were eventually in the cityscape’s best interest.
For instance, if you’ve ever wondered why Allenby Street, one of Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfares, runs parallel to the sea for most of its length before making a near 180-degree turn ending abruptly at the beach then that too is their doing.
“Dizengoff was persuaded by another expat from Odessa to have Allenby Street end at his casino which he built on the sea,” Roi said. “The casino is long gone, washed away by the sea, but the sharp turn remains.”
Perhaps the most famous native of Odessa to have made Tel Aviv his home was Bialik. When the Hebrew poet made aliya in 1924 he built a lavish mansion which now houses a museum on his life and work -not exactly the kind of place you’d imagine one could afford on a poet’s salary.
“Bialik struggled to construct this building,” Ayelet Shlonski, the director of the Bialik Museum, said standing in its expansive reception area. “He built it with money he raised from selling a special, silver-encrusted anthology of his poems and with the help of his wife’s rich family. Still, he needed Dizengoff to get him a favorable mortgage to pay for its construction.”
While their impact on the city was huge, the Odessa gang’s hold on Tel Aviv was short-lived. Soon, it began losing its influence to a group of new arrivals of educated and relatively affluent Jews.
The clean-cut angles and minimalism of the building on 9 Bialik Street, just down the road from where Bialik lived, signifies the change of guard which took place.
“This is where the Odessa gang took their first uppercut,” Roi said. “This is the first building built in the International Style, which people in Tel Aviv call Bauhaus, constructed in 1931 by some of the first German Jews to arrive in Tel Aviv.”
In the 1930s, the city grew rapidly as a result of increased Jewish immigration. In his final years it had become too big for Bialik, who was often pestered by passersby asking him to give names for their newborns or for general advice. He disliked his celebrity so much that in the last two years of his life he left Tel Aviv altogether for Ramat Gan, then a faraway suburb of a suburb.
Just before he left for Europe in 1934 to undergo a surgery, a trip he would never return from, Bialik issued gloomy prophecies about the Jewish settlement which still resonate today.
“This is the sign of sickness which is upon us: Internal disintegration, internecine fighting and brotherly hate,” he wrote in Oneg Shabbat. “It gnaws at us all and is the ruinous and destructive work of extremist factions.”
Despite Bialik’s fears, the trees lining Rothschild Boulevard which were planted by Dizengoff stand tall and firm. Tel Aviv, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, has turned into the center of a sprawling metropolis of over three million inhabitants, and the colorful exploits of the large contingent of Odessa expats who built it have become an integral part of its history.