From Odessa with love

The Odessa Festival was comprised of 10 events; all original works.

The march in the spirit of the Soviet Union (particularly Odessa): Models parade through the museum, joined by festival attendees. (photo credit: TAL GLICK)
The march in the spirit of the Soviet Union (particularly Odessa): Models parade through the museum, joined by festival attendees.
(photo credit: TAL GLICK)
On September 14, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv hosted a cultural festival inspired by the Jewish history of the city of Odessa and its connection to Tel Aviv. The festival included musical performances, dance, interactive theater, video and other art installations, as well as various lectures. For 31-year-old festival co-founder and manager Alex Rif, it all started three years ago.
“I was going in a totally different direction in my life,” Rif shares. “I had 25 years or so of being totally Israeli. But I have this memory of my first day in kindergarten shortly after we immigrated to Israel, when my mother dressed me up in a white lace dress with white sandals and a big red bow. I came to kindergarten and everyone laughed at me. So I decided from that day on that I didn’t want to be Russian anymore. I didn’t want to speak Russian or have Russian friends, and from then, I did everything I could to become Israeli.”
After high school, Rif did a year of community service volunteering, then went on to become an officer in the army. She attained both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Israel and started working for the Economy Ministry in what she describes as a very interesting job.
“I was 27 and I had everything that I apparently wanted, but something wasn’t right,” Rif recalls. “I started looking for what was wrong and discovered that I was living someone else’s life; it wasn’t mine. So I began looking for who I am and who I really want to be. For the first time, I started writing poems about my immigration experience when I was five and about my parents and what they had been through.”
Rif’s poetic exploration turned into an Immigration Poetry event, where she and some newfound Russian/Israeli friends spoke about their immigration experiences through artistic expression: poetry, spoken word, and music. It was the first time that Rif had let those kinds of feelings out publicly and she was amazed at how many people attended and were moved by the event. She and the other performers understood that they really had something and that they were not the only ones who shared similar thoughts and feelings.
That evening led to others. During one such evening, Rif met with Barry Rosenberg, who was working for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in the municipality. Rosenberg expressed an interest in collaborating on something bigger. They put together a project for Israeli Russian speakers to open up their homes to their Israeli friends on the holiday of Novy God, the Russian New Year celebration. They reached approximately one million people on Facebook with no funding, just colorful advertising and an engaging event. From the Novy God event, a group was formed. They called themselves the Cultural Brigade.
“Our mission is to tell the story and the culture of the Russian Jews and make it part of the Israeli culture,” Rif adds.
The Cultural Brigade’s next project was Operation Veteran, which involved telling the previously untold stories of their grandparents who fought in World War II in the Red Army. It was this event that led Rif and the rest of the Cultural Brigade to Odessa.
“I had heard about Odessa at home,” Rif says. “There was such a myth around this city; the city of Jewish humor and food. But I never really wanted to know more. We decided to get to know Odessa. Some 12 of us, all members of the Shusterman Foundation’s ROI program, traveled there.”
For five days, the group learned about Odessa from a local guide. They found out that Odessa is a beautiful city that was established by many nations: Turks, Ukrainians, Russians and Greeks. At its peak at the end of the 19th century, Jews comprised a third of Odessa’s population. In a sense, it was a very Jewish city. Many people conducted business in Yiddish. Jews living there left the beit midrash (study hall) for the first time and started mingling with the enlightenment movement. Leveraging their knowledge of the Bible, they wrote new literature. Famous authors such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and poets Haim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernikovsky were all part of this movement. Around the same time, Zionism began to burn with a passion in Odessa.
“People were dreaming about the first Hebrew city in Israel, which would be called Tel Aviv,” Rif explains. “They dreamed of it as a mirror of Odessa; a free city, secular, on the beach with a harbor. They came to Israel on what you could call the Israeli Mayflower and built Tel Aviv.”
Pioneers such as architect Yehuda Magidovich, who built more than 80 buildings in Tel Aviv, and Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, came from Odessa by boat. The Odessa Festival was born from a desire to tell these stories, while not veering too much into the territories of nostalgia or dry history. The Odessa Festival would focus on culture.
Rif and her team returned to Israel and initiated a call for artists to send in ideas of cultural works of art, music and performance in the spirit of Odessa or concerning its connection to Tel Aviv. They received many proposals and initiated a few with artists who they thought would add to the festival in a significant way.
The Odessa Festival was comprised of 10 events; all original works. There were also eight lectures that gave different points of view on the Odessa-Tel Aviv connection. There was Sarah, the Bride from Odessa; an interactive play where the audience entered the space with a mysterious closed suitcase on a table. They then went on a journey from Odessa to Tel Aviv with the bride. There was also sound and video artwork in the museum’s planetarium, inspired by the song “Shir Hama’alot,” sung by the renowned cantor Pinchas Minkowsky. Another event was a Hebrew ulpan for Hebrew speakers.
“In Odessa, there was a revival of the Jewish language,” Rif adds. “They were meeting in each other’s homes and speaking Hebrew in order to revive it. A lot of the changes in the language during that time were shown through games and interpretations. It was learning a new language, which is Hebrew but not.”
The festival featured two large musical events, including “Sub Odessa,” featuring musicians Amir Lev, Eran Zur, Shlomo Gronich, Kosta Kaplan, Hila Ruach and Ella Daniel singing songs from Odessa. The festival’s lectures took a more academic approach. Professor Israel Bartal spoke in honor of the centenary of th death of Mendele Mocher Sforim, a.k.a. author Sholem Yankev Abramovich, whose celebrated stories painted a picture of life in Odessa and the Jewish world in Yiddish.
“He was a major figure in the Jewish cultural arena of Odessa,” Bartal explains. “Mendele depicted Odessa’s Jewish life in most of his works. Many of the classics of modern Hebrew literature are based on his prose. He was from a shtetl near Lithuania, about 100 miles north of Odessa. I spoke about how he ended up in the big city and how he became the founder of modern Yiddish literature and Hebrew literature.
“Most of the roots of modern Israeli Hebrew culture go back to this kind of urban, cultural environment depicted by Mendele. I studied his works in high school. Today, nobody understands the language because the Hebrew is so high and outmoded, so young Israelis can’t read it, unfortunately. But Mendele himself contributed much to the revival of the modern Hebrew language. Many words we use today are ones that he coined.”
Other lectures included “Odessa for Beginners,” a crash course in Odessa’s Jewish history, and “Tastes from Odessa,” which was all about the city’s culinary world. The entire festival was in Hebrew, except for one stand-up comedy routine, which was in Russian. Jewish comedy, it seems, translates itself.
“It’s been quite a lot of work over the past year and very interesting for me,” Rif states. “It’s been a journey for me too. For the first time, I read Jabotinsky. Everyone on the team was thrilled about the festival, which I think came through. This is our identity. We have one foot in the past, which is very important to us, and one in the future. You don’t have to erase your history or your identity, whoever you are.
“Some of these famous writers, like Bialik, erased their past because they wanted to be this new Israeli character. We’re saying that you don’t have to do that anymore. These are different times; you can have both.”
For more information on the Cultural Brigade and upcoming events: