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Odessa Story: Reading Isaac Babel in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Black Sea port has lost most of its Jews, but not the vestiges of the muddled, criminal city Isaac Babel imagined

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Odessa, 2010. (Klaus Pichler)
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Odessa was the epicenter and staging ground not only of the Russian Jew’s secularization but also of his masculinization. The great voice and chronicler of this dual evolution was Issac Babel, whose stories I re-read with great pleasure while sitting in cafés on tourist-thronged Deribasovskaya Street, in a post-Soviet Odessa that has lost most of its Jews but is in many ways unchanged from the city that Babel described with such pungent and precise language, and to such mythic effect. The title character of the “Rabbi” story in Babel’s Red Cavalry cycle is the crooked and ancient Hasidic Rabbi of Zhitomir. This wizened last representative of a dying dynasty tartly interrogates the protagonist of the story—a traveling Jewish war correspondent who has dropped in to share a Shabbat meal and to drink the wine that “won’t be offered”—about “where this Jew has come from?” The answer, “Odessa,” propels him into knowing perorations of lyrical exasperation: “The Godly city, the star of our exile, that reluctant wellspring of all our troubles!”

The rabbi’s sickly-idiot son is in the corner of the room desecrating the holy day by smoking. It is apparent even to our passing Jewish war correspondent that he will be of no use in continuing the family line or propagating the law. The rabbi and the other men in the room spit words of toxic condemnation on him but the traveling war correspondent pleases the rabbi with his erudition—“What did this Jew study?” he is asked; “Bible,” he answers—and his comportment. The pathos of the scene is to be found in the mutual understanding between the rabbi and the soldier-intellectual, one lucidly perceiving the new path his people must take, the other regretting the passing of ancient traditions. At the end of the story the war correspondent returns to his unit of the Red Cavalry to write an article for its newspaper. Like me, he is behind deadline and he must spend the entire night at his typewriter.

Yet Odessa was never just the wellspring of all our troubles. Built by Italians and Greeks, its original ruling class was the cream of mendicant European Aristocracy. (The first several governors were French.) Populated to this day by hundreds of nationalities, it was the Black Sea gateway to Constantinople. It was the regional outpost of European trade and thought, and every idea, innovation, caprice, and whim of Europe was there taken up, second hand, from the holds and decks of the ships docked in the port on their way to being spread, along with the occasional bout of plague, throughout the Russian Empire. Demographically the most Jewish city besides Minsk at the edge of the empire, Odessa was the only place inside the pale of settlement where Jews weren’t prohibited from living in town. In fact they had been actively incentivized to do so, and Odessan Jewry was among the most emancipated and disabused throughout the Russian Empire. Babel’s ancient rabbi was not wrong to be suspicious of his guest.

The “star of our exile” is, along with Alexandria, Thessaloniki, New Orleans, and Naples, one of a constellation of glittering and flamboyantly raucous port towns that fascinate and inspire the continuous composition of enough history books and reminisces to fill whole libraries. Odessans are curators of their own mythic past par excellence. One Soviet-era Odessa professor made his vocation in writing 30-odd books about “Criminal Odessa.” (Naturally , I was warned off by other historians from using these as source material, as half the stories had been made up.)

The latest English addition to this literature and an excellent guide to the city is Charles King’s 2011 chronicle, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. A readable distillation of Odessan folklore and yarns nimbly unspooled by an academic clearly having fun on his sabbatical abroad, it is a treasury of salty anecdotes, such as the unlikely tale of the Sioux circus performer traveling with a Russian troupe in the Crimean port town of Sevastopol. The native American had found himself sacked after a night-long vodka-fueled bender; the circus had departed, and his costume had been stolen so he walked naked through the city. The British Consul took pity on him and lent him the ferry money to Odessa, where, as a member of the Sioux nation, he was entitled to services from the American consul. The American diplomat then took him to see an Orthodox Jewish tailor who made him a new costume. We know all this from diplomatic archives: The consul had requested an official reimbursement of $75 from the State Department to cover the cost of the costume.

King’s book also unearthed for me the amazing fact that Catherine the Great’s 1792 campaign to wrest control of the Crimea and the surrounding territories from the Turks was waged by a ragtag assortment of regular army, irregulars, conscripts, and mercenaries that also included “a company of Jewish lancers” drawn from regional farmers who owned horses. Jews of what would become the Odessa region were in fact the first Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army.

Built on the dusty steppe amid borderland anarchy and casual banditry, Odessa retains the entrepreneurial scheming spirit that has always been its most beloved characteristic. Babel’s most famous and adored literary creation is the swaggering wiseguy Jewish gangster Benya Krik of the Odessa Tales. As the scene of some of the worst pogroms of the Russian Empire, Odessa harbored Jews who had to get tough fast. Marvelously, and sometimes not, much of the character of the city remains unaffected: Picaresque kleptocracy and violent crime have remained steady features of Odessan life for two centuries. The talk of the town this summer was renewed efforts by the local authorities to expropriate businesses and redistribute them to members of the president’s Party of the Regions. From the largest corporate enterprises to my fiancée’s friend’s graphic design shop with its four employees, no one was safe. The tax police come first asking for the receipts, and the goons arrive shortly thereafter.

The current president of the country, Victor Yanukovych (aka the head of the so-called Donetsk mafia) has been tried and convicted and jailed for multiple violent crimes, including assault. After the 2004 uprising known as the “orange revolution,” 2007 marked the Ukrainian public’s one concerted effort at democratic intervention into a political process it feels it has no control over. Viktor Yushchenko’s ineffectual reign, after clawing back the presidency in the wake of mass demonstrations over a rigged election, and the collapse of the government from infighting between him and fellow revolutionary, braided former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, dampened any further enthusiasm for democratic politics amongst the Ukrainian people. Tymoshenko’s politically motivated trial for corruption in signing off on Russian natural gas contracts as prime minister was this summer’s televised grand spectacle. (Sample dialogue from the proceedings: Judge: “You will stand when addressed by this court and refer to me as ‘your honor’ as legislated by the Ukrainian Law codex!” Tymoshenko: “Honor cannot be legislated; it must be earned.”) This month, she was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Over dinner, I asked a TV journalist friend who understands the Ukrainian and Odessan political situations intimately to explain the specifics of the corruption and graft to me. He spent the rest of the meal drawing an intricate Venn diagram with sub-graphs and charts on the white table cover to illustrate the mind-bogglingly complex interrelations of the various oligarchs, local political fiefdoms, competing mafias, rogue intelligence services, London-based gangsters, Russian political machinations, and operations of the state. Every time I spoke with a young person about what they thought of the political situation, what was reflected back was apathy and exhaustion. Everyone made the comparison to Russia. In almost every case the person making the comparison would tell me that Ukraine used to be better off politically and economically, but now the situation was approaching what they called “Russian levels of corruption and political instability.”

The dreaded regional prosecutor’s office was across the street from my Odessan apartment on graceful, cobblestoned Pushkinskaya Street. While eating my lunch at the café on the corner one day, I asked the owner of the café why no one protested the ongoing usurpation of their businesses. She just shrugged fatalistically as if I had asked her why she did not flail at the trade winds, and then said with typical Odessan brio, “What am I supposed to do? Not serve them soup?”

Odessa’s last Jewish mayor, the infamous and flamboyant Edourd Gourevitz, who served three terms in the 1990s, began accumulating his fortune during Perestroika when he was the manager of the city’s paint factory. (In the late ’80s he would often be seen walking the streets of his wealthy cul-de-sac hocking paint.) A constant thorn in the side of both regional and national authorities, he was swept from power for a second time this past November. Already holding an Israeli passport, he absconded to the land of milk and honey immediately after the elections. Safely out of the reach of the authorities, he finances the city’s only legitimate anti-government, dissident television station. This summer, my fiancée, a native of the city, would occasionally come home from an evening out with her Odessan friends to tell me that another acquaintance or a friend of a friend who had worked as an aide to Gourevitz had been jailed.

On another occasion, my fiancée’s friend invited us to attend the local Chabad synagogue and the Shabbat dinner afterwards. His name was Yoel, a pleasant, black-frocked Chabadnik who teaches math at the university. His parents live in Denver, and he is waiting to immigrate to the United States with his young bride and their daughter. The crowd at the synagogue was split between the black-coated Hasidim and the rougher looking gentlemen with arm-length prison tattoos. When I marveled at the sheer quantity of prison tattoos exposed by short-sleeved shirts, Yoel explained that the Odessan community’s unique nonchalance and acceptance of “problematic social pasts” was one way it distinguished itself. This respect is a prerequisite for reestablishing a functioning community when the majority of Odessan Jewry is to be found in New York, Haifa, Montreal, and Berlin. Mass immigration has brought the proportion of the city’s Jews down from a high of 41 percent between the wars to the estimated 4 percent they make up today. There are not that many Odessan Jews left. It is a way also, he told me, to integrate the community’s base of potential donors.

“Men in this community who have not done any time are the exception to the norm,” Yoel told me as I gawked across the hall at a gentleman with a boxer’s face and a tattooed neck “Since the professions were closed off to us, many here had to figure out alternative ways to make a living. The breakdown really runs along generational lines. The guys here in their twenties sat in jail for making money, that is, for the prosecution of economic crimes. Those in their thirties sat in jail for the anti-Semitic prosecution of economic crimes. The ones in their forties who did time were ‘politicals.’ Anyone older then that who spent time in jail—the dissidents—those guys immigrated.”

Hearing of my exotic travels, occasional Russian passport problems, and serious interest in crossing over to the Transdniesterian border to buy false Moldovan papers or acquire a Romanian passport under an alias, Yoel very kindly offered to make introductions to the Chabadnik whose business it was to acquire “any papers in Eastern Europe you might need for less than 800 American.”

As we walked slowly to his house after services, I was introduced to Yasha. Handsome and strapping in his late forties, he had come to pray wearing a sailor shirt, designer jeans, and sandals. A naturalized Dutchman, he had made his money importing luxury cars from Europe and often commuted between Amsterdam, New York, and Odessa. He extended a powerful hand, proffered a steely stare, and greeted me with a barrage of piercing questions: “Bro, you circumcised? If not, it’s time. You aren’t a boy anymore. I did it at 42. Why do you keep using their name? You should carry your real name with pride!”

I was later told that the wrong answer to his question could have had perilous ramifications: During the alcohol-drenched revelry of the previous year’s Simchat Torah party, he and a group of the congregants, carousing with the zeal of the newly religious, had seized an uncircumcised teenager and had prepared to perform the operation with the kitchen knife they had been cutting meat with. Only the timely physical intervention of the Israeli rabbi had saved the kid from entry into the covenant.

After the kiddush at Yoel’s apartment, I spoke with his brother-in-law, a journalist and spokesman for a political party. The contrast between him and the effete, evenly spoken, intellectual Yoel could not have been more striking. His head was shaved down to military-length stubble, and his enormous muscles strained his tank top. He had sat all through dinner with a Glock pistol tucked into the back of his jeans. He told me that journalism was a different vocation here, carrying a weapon was mandatory, and that the rules and values of the profession were not ones I might understand. I pressed him to explain, but he refused to elaborate. We spent the rest of the night talking about our mutual love of Muay Thai boxing and resolved to go to the gym together.

A few nights before I left, my friends and I were again standing in the middle of Deribasovskaya during the annual klezmer festival. We stood in a ring at the side of the stage speaking with the king of Russian klezmer, Psoy Korolenko, after his show when a group of passing young men turned and without breaking their strides screamed at us, “One grave for all the Zhids.”

This is when I realized that things change very slowly in Odessa, and that it was time to get back to New York.

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JCarpenter says:

Surely there was at least one more appealing photograph to accompany the article—

Miha Ahronovitz says:

This story is eerie. I read Isac Babel stories from Odessa fifty years ago, while in Romania. Odessa Tales, a series of short stories set in the Odessan ghetto of Moldavanka. The idea of Jewish gangsters was an anti-everything I thought we Jews are. From Davidzon’s story, and most Jews gone, there is strange osmosis of Israeli and Russians, the local gentiles in power. The story of the local Chabad tattooed followers trying to circumcise a young boy with kitchen knife seems more surreal than a medieval depiction of Isac’s sacrifice.

Isac’s Babel Benya Krik says it all: “This is my idea: A Jew no longer in the prime of life, a Jew who used to go about naked, barefoot, and filthy like a convict on Sakhalin Island! And now, thank God, he’s getting up there in years, it is time to put an end to this life sentence of hard labor—it is time to turn the Sabbath into Sabbath.” Odessa still lives this Sabbath Benya Krik, yet not the real Shabes.

apikoyros says:

In the list of “Jewish” port cities, New York is a glaring omission.

Not Michael says:

Yeah, New York. It’s always got to be about New York, even when it’s not actually about New York!

a world class article. well done.

olterigo says:

To Miha,

Moldovanka was not a Jewish ghetto in the traditional sense, because Jews were not confined to settling there. For example, my ancestors owned houses in the city itself. Moldavanka was more like a poorer and less urban, less polished area, where most of the Jews lived.


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Odessa Story: Reading Isaac Babel in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Black Sea port has lost most of its Jews, but not the vestiges of the muddled, criminal city Isaac Babel imagined