‘It happened in Odessa’

Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s line captures the essence of Eshkolot’s latest Festival of Jewish Texts and Ideas in this famous Ukrainian city.

The house in which Sholom Aleichem lived 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The house in which Sholom Aleichem lived 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Whoever has not been In the beautiful city of Odessa Has not seen the world And knows nothing of progress. Who cares for Vienna or Paris? They’re puddles, jokes – no comparison. Only in Odessa is A paradise, I say.”
Thus reads the beginning stanza of Odessa Mama – a traditional Ukrainian Yiddish song sung for generations by the citizens of Odessa, Ukraine.
This beautiful city, situated on the north shore of the Black Sea across from Turkey, is unique in a myriad of ways. At first glance, the city is on par with some other European metropolises. The streets are clean and the grass is well-tended. The buildings are beautiful with their ornate decorations. Parking spaces are occupied by Mercedes and even Bentleys.
Yet there is another layer to Odessa. Beyond the streets closest to the port, where tourists roam, you begin to notice a visible deterioration in the condition of the city. It is literally crumbling. The sidewalks are treacherous with uneven pavement, and you need to look down when walking to avoid tripping. Building façades are literally falling apart, and large chunks of cement and plaster seem ready to fall at the slightest breeze onto the heads of unwitting passersby. The luxury cars have been replaced with Russian-made Ladas and Volgas.
And yet, if you can see past the deterioration, past the deep snaking cracks and chipped plaster, you begin to see the beauty that once was.
While the modern city of Odessa was established by Catherine the Great in 1794, Jews have long held a presence there. As early as the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE, Jews were forced to emigrate from the Land of Israel and some may have headed north to what is today Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the Crimea, Moldova and Ukraine.
In The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets, Salo W. Baron writes, “Later Jewish traditions ascribed the first settlements of the Jews in southern Russia to the period of the First Exile.” Baron explains that there are also “Greek inscriptions pertaining to Jewish communities settled on the northern shore of the Black Sea in the early centuries of the Christian era.”
After taking over power from Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna, Catherine II began to institute very minor changes making life easier for Jews. With the partitions, and subsequent annexations, of Poland’s territory in 1772, 1793 and 1795, large numbers of Jews came under the jurisdiction of the expanding Russian Empire.
Beginning with the first partition in 1772 and lasting through 1917 when the Tsarist regime was overthrown, Jews were forbidden to move from an area known as the Pale of Jewish Settlement into the rest of Russia. This area included what is today Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
At the same time, the Haskala movement, which lasted from approximately 1770 through 1880, saw the drift of a large number of European Jews towards secular education and enlightenment. In many countries, Yiddish was abandoned for the local language and in some areas, Hebrew began to make its way into the lingua of Zionist Jews.
In Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, Shachar M. Pinsker writes, “Nineteenth-century Odessa was perceived as the Russian empire’s city of new Jewish freedom... To live in Odessa was to live, as the Yiddish popular dictum indicates, ‘Vi Got in Odes’ (Like God in Odessa), but the city was simultaneously imagined as the place where ‘the fires of hell burn for 40 miles around it.’ This double image of the city is highly significant because there seem to have been two very different ‘Jewish Odessas’: God’s Odessa and hellish Odessa, the Odessa of Ahad Ha’am and the Odessa of Isaac Babel, the Odessa of the sages and the Odessa of Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster.”
It was Babel who dubbed Odessa “the city made by Jews.”
In A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson writes, “This wealthy grain-exporting port on the Black Sea had a special place in Jewish history. It was, to be sure, in Russia, but it had a strongly cosmopolitan, almost Mediterranean flavor, a breath of the warm south... By the 1900s there were about 170,000 Jews in Odessa, a third of the city’s population, and it was therefore a center both of anti-Semitism of the most brutal kind and of Jewish culture. But the culture was secular; Odessa’s was the first Jewish community to be run by the maskilim [adherents to the Haskala movement]. The Orthodox rabbis hated it and warned pious Jews not to set foot in the place, which they said attracted the sweepings of the Pale and had become another Sodom.”
Pinsker continues, “The origins of the Jewish population in Odessa go back to its establishment, when merchants and workers left their families behind and came to the city to find their luck. They were supplemented later by maskilim from Galicia who brought with them secular education and a bourgeois sense of respectability. This new Jewish population of Odessa created educational and public institutions, as well as an intellectual elite that had no parallel in the Russian empire of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1860s, teachers, public figures and writers who had absorbed the spirit of the Haskala flocked to the city.”
In the 1880s, with the emergence of Hibbat Zion – a pre-Zionist movement advocating Jewish life in the Land of Israel – Odessa became its organizational and intellectual center. Leading Zionist and Hebrew writers gravitated to the city. Judah Leib (Leo) Pinsker, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Shalom Rabinowitz (Shalom Aleichem), Sholem Yankev Abramovich (Mendele Mocher Sforim), Osip Rabinovitch, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am), Haim Nahman Bialik, Simon Dubnov and Ze’ev Jabotinsky all settled in Odessa.
Other famous figures including Meir Dizengoff, Menahem Ussishkin and Joseph Klausner also made Odessa their home at some point.
Indeed, the young Bialik left the Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania in 1890 and arrived in Odessa seeking social and intellectual freedom. He soon became a member of a circle that became known as “hachmei Odessa” (sages of Odessa). In the early 1900s, Bialik, along with other writers, founded the Hebrew publishing house Moriah, which eventually sent the first Hebrew-language literature to Jewish schools in British-controlled Palestine.
As Shachar Pinsker writes, “Odessa became famous in the history and geography of Hebrew and Yiddish literature by the virtue of these ‘sages,’ who allegedly created the Odessa nusach (Odessa style).”
In his recent book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu (father of prime minister Binyamin) also documented Jewish intellectual life in Odessa, but described the dawning realization by Zionist intellectuals of the time that Jews must return to the land of their heritage and create a state of their own in order to survive. “In 1869, the Society for the Advancement of Enlightenment in Odessa founded a new Russo-Jewish weekly, Den (The Day), whose principal aim was to cement Russo-Jewish relations. [Leo] Pinsker and his associates were very optimistic about the possibilities in this direction.
“In the midst of these optimistic dreams about Russian-Jewish collaboration, there came, like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky, the Odessa pogrom of 1871. This was not the first anti-Jewish outbreak in Odessa. Anti-Jewish riots were a yearly occurrence there, and in 1821, 1849 and 1859, they assumed the proportions of mass attacks. The outbreak of 1871, however, was a far more serious affair. It could not be seen as a spontaneous outburst, since it bore all the earmarks of an organized pogrom... A careful observer like Pinsker, one can assume, could not fail to see that the events of 1871 spelled doom for these hopes.”
Netanyahu described various events that may have softened Pinsker’s outlook on Russo-Jewish relations, “but the new wave of bloody terror in 1881, which swept, like a hurricane, across scores of Jewish communities, convinced him of the true character of the Odessa riots... It became appallingly apparent that his activity up to that moment was based on nothing but false assumptions and unfounded hopes. He was 60 years old when he discovered the grave and tragic mistake of his generation.”
Vladimir Jabotinsky was under no such mistaken illusions as Pinsker had been. “Jabotinsky,” to quote Netanyahu, “demonstrated political realism and a sense of reality – with an understanding of worldwide historical processes – more than we can discern in any other Jewish leader in his time.”
The annual anti-Jewish riots and violent pogroms convinced many Jews to leave for Palestine, and Odessa, being a port city on the Black Sea, became the portal through which hundreds of thousands of Jews escaped persecution.
Thus, Odessa went from being the “Gateway to Enlightenment” to the “Gateway to Zion.”