Second day in Odessa. Steely sky over our heads, damp cobblestones under our feet, we head out to explore our host city. “Do you know that Sholom Aleichem, used to call himself a Russian Mark Twain. He was very modest– a typical Odessit. ” “Look at this house. Here is where Chekhov wrote his Cherry Garden based on a real scandal in the neighborhood. ” “How do you like the fact that Brodsky synagogue once sat between Police and KGB headquarters on Jewish Street?” ” Yes, odessa has its own Wailing Wall: what the locals call their  court house.”

This is Lena, our guide, a middle school teacher, a bubbly blond Ukrainian woman who skips from history to legend of which there is an endless source everywhere we look.  Everything in Odessa embodies hybridity, mixture of culture,languages, traditions and its evidence evident in every encounter. Since its foundng in 1794, Odessa was an anomaly. Initially a Turkish fortress conquered by the Russian Empire, the fertile coast was colonized by Catherine the Great with foreign merchants and Jews from the Pale of Settlement who could quickly build up a vibrant trade  economy. Before the time of its founding, Odessa was a totally new Russian territory with no dominant indigenous culture and language. Yet among the  few Greek and Ottoman colonies there were six Jewish families. Within 30 years, there were 12,000 Jews, twenty percent of the population. Mid-century saw the arrival of Galician maskilim who built the first Jewish schools, communal institutions including a highly controversial choral synagogue, the first of its kind, named Brodsky after the town of Brody in Poland.

We saw no Jewish quarter in Odessa. Odessa’s Jews built clinics, music concervatories and founded institutes open to everyone. At the same time they met at Italian cafes, drank Greek wine and went to opera sung in five  languages.  Their daily lives were always mixed with their multilingual neighbors. The cultural exchange was not onlways friendly and there were violent outbreaks between Greeks, Ukrainians and Jews competing for monopoly in trade.

The  cultural hybridity is often visual and physical. Our fist stop was the Main synagogue, recently reconstructed from its interim state as a sports complex under the Soviet authorities. The beautiful  mosaic still betrays the remnants of the Russian aesthetic. Meanwhile, the legendary Brodsky synagogue  is taken over by the city archives. Our tour took us through Imperial and Soviet, then Ukrainian Odessa, from the city of  magnanates and maskils to the hub of artists and volutionaries. We passed the largest maket in town, Privoz– “two miles of food” where no one leaves hungry. A walk to Arcadia beach took us along the summer homes, dachas, of diamond dealers who funded the construction of the tram who wanted a convenient commute to the beach resorts.

Our tour with Lena was a whirwhind of places and names many of whom are world legends but here their presence is marked by smal plaques: the spiral staircase  in a tiny courtyard immortalized by Zhabotinsky, Meir Diziengoff’s modest apartment (now neighboring the Moishe House. Cafe Francone where once forefathes of Zionism held court is now a night club.

Much of this history we found in a small but mighty museum of Jewish Heritage which traces family lives of famous and ordinary Jews of Odessa. It’s full of personal objects– books, photos, clothes (a pair of Pesach pants captured my imagination)– each telling a small, personal chapter that is part of a large, mostly untold history of the Jews in Odessa.

Our next stop was at Migdal Jewish Center that predates virtually every modern Jewish institution in the city. Founded by its current director, Kira Verhovskaya, it started as a musical theater for Jewish kids  and grew into a cultural center supporting virtually every form of art and music education. Most of all, the center prides itself on being a family where kids literally grow up, learn to be Jewish in an informal (although Kosher) environment until they go on to make families of their own. While funded in part by JDC, Migdal insists on independence refusing to loose its unique grassroots character. As a mastermind and center force, Kira claims she can respond to the needs of the community better if they maintain this freedom. But shes not afraid of competition and sees no contradiction in having many venues for Jewish life in Odessa. As Kira puts it, “my husband is a Chabadnik, I’m a chain smoking musician wearing pants and our daughter has become a  Litvak.” Talk about hybridity.

A very different type of “Jewish home” was a brand new JCC Beit Grand, established by the Grand family and supported by fairly costly facility rentals. In look and feel it resembles an American style JCC with beautiful design and cultural programming from Salsa classes to camp to Krav Maga. In one of its modern rooms, lined with books and art, we met with a group of teens for whom Beit Grand has become a gateway toward their Jewish journey. Some are Jewish and some are not– at least not Halahikly. Some discovered their Jewish identity recently. Most come from families wherenthe parents have little conscious connnection to Judaism. But this is Odessa where the boundary between Jewish and not is not always clear. What brings these teens together is the yearning for a community with values and substance. The Jewish part is almous incidental. They take part in daily programming and are “mentored” by madrichim in their early twenties, college grads who themselves are addicted to each other and Beit Grand.

It is hard to derive a single theme from this days experience, in part because Odessa’s cultural life is full of contradictions. But they only appear so because of the mental boundaries we enforce. If anything it made me consider the deficiency of our familiar framework of divisions we live with in our communities in US.


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