The Jewish History Russia Is Trying to Destroy in Odessa

One of the greatest Jewish historians on the clash of civilizations that played out within the psyches of young Odessan Jews.

A Jewish man prays in the Chabad Synagogue in Odessa on March 9, 2022. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images.

A Jewish man prays in the Chabad Synagogue in Odessa on March 9, 2022. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images.

Observation
July 27 2022
About the authors

Brian Horowitz, the Sizeler Family professor at Tulane University, is the author of several books, including most recently Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Russian Years.

Conor Daly, a linguist, comments regularly on Russian and Ukrainian affairs for Irish television and radio.

Since Saturday, Russia has subjected the Ukrainian city of Odessa to a steady bombardment. Even before this latest assault, the fact that the city lies some 80 miles behind the frontlines didn’t translate into safety for its residents: a missile strike on July 1 had left 21 dead. Its usually bustling harbor, meanwhile, has seen a cessation of activity thanks to the Russian blockade. As the city remains in this parlous state, we might remember an earlier time when its Jews attained skyscraper heights in culture and politics. The “Wisemen” of Odessa—as the great Jewish intellectuals at the end of the 19th century were known—were among the first to conceive of both Zionism and such alternative nationalist movements as Territorialism and autonomism, and contributed immensely to the development of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish literary modernism.

A bit about the city as an introduction: founded in 1794, Odessa (the Russian spelling of what in Ukrainian is Odesa) was the administrative center of the agriculturally rich region of southern Ukraine known as New Russia—so called because of its recent addition to the tsarist empire. Its location on the Black Sea made it a natural hub for trade, and an international city that hosted a mixed population of Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Tatars, French émigrés, other assorted adventurers, and Jews, the latter making up over 30 percent of the population by the 1890s.

Jews began to play a crucial role in Odessa’s economic life in the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps even more importantly, the city occupied a vital place as the innovative engine of Jewish politics, especially nationalism. It was the home of proto-Zionism (Ḥibbat Tsion) and then Zionism proper, and the beating heart of the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish literature, led by such Odessan intellectuals as Ahad Ha’am, the Yiddish writer Mendele Mokher Sforim, the Zionist theorist Ben-Ami (born Mordechai Rabinovich; ca. 1854–1932), and the Hebrew literary pioneers Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, Yehoshua Ravnitsky, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, and Joseph Klausner. Other outstanding Jewish figures who hailed from Odessa include Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s founder and first mayor; Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist Revisionist leader; and the Soviet writer Isaac Babel.

Besides this intellectual Odessa, one sometimes hears of another that spotlights gangsters, thieves, and prostitutes. This transgressive place became famous for its humor and language—a broken Russian-Yiddish parlance of the hardscrabble Moldavanka neighborhood. Jabotinsky noted that Odessa wasn’t actually Russia; geographically it was closer to Israel than to Moscow. Besides the lack of snow, it was anything but a dour city, reflecting joy, youth, vitality, and prosperity.

Yet it was not without its troubles. In the late 1860s, Jews began to dominate the grain market, formerly the monopoly of Greek merchants. Such economic competition seems to have contributed to an 1871 pogrom, which served as a prelude to the later outbursts violence that would strike Odessa along with many other Russian cities in 1881, and again in 1905, 1914-17, and 1917-20. And in two terrible days in 1941, German and Romanian soldiers would slaughter some 30,000 Jews in Odessa.

None of these episodes, however, dissuaded Jews from migrating to the city in search of religious tolerance and the promise of higher living standards. While some rabbis anathematized Odessa as demonic—“seven miles around Odessa burn the fires of hell” went a popular Yiddish saying—one should reject the conventional claim that Judaism withered there. It is nevertheless a fact that Odessa boasted of a Jewish life that differed from that of Lithuania or western Ukraine, and equally from that of Western Europe. Even as the city became famous for its cosmopolitanism, it retained a thick Jewish community. Its intelligentsia fostered modern philanthropic and educational institutions, providing food, housing, medical care, and mixed religious-secular schools for poor Jews locally and throughout Ukraine. This same intelligentsia led a cultural renaissance that shaped modern Jewish consciousness.

It is this renaissance that is the subject of the passage below, by one of its leading lights, Simon Dubnov. While 18th-century Paris had its salons, 20th-century London had the Bloomsbury group, and New York the Algonquin Roundtable, the closest things to a Jewish equivalent were at the Odessa homes of Ahad Ha’am, dean of cultural Zionism, and of the Yiddish writer Mendele Mokher Sforim in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mendele (born Sholem Yankev Abramovich, 1836-1917), whose Yiddish-language stories and novels would shape generations of writers, was interested primarily in conversation and the cultivation of literary careers. By contrast, Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) had a more distinct political purpose as the founder and leader of B’nei Moshe, a secret society—Dubnov repeatedly compares it to the Freemasons—created to cultivate Hebrew language and to encourage settlement in the Land of Israel. Both men attracted some of the finest Jewish literary talents of the day to their tables.

Before getting to the passage, a few words about its author. Undoubtedly the greatest Jewish historian of his time, Dubnov (1860-1941) was born in Mstislav, Belarus into a deeply religious family. He studied Talmud intensely, but in his teens became attracted to the Jewish enlightenment, or Haskalah. Like many of his contemporaries, he was an autodidact in every subject besides Torah and Talmud, with expansive intellectual horizons. Early on in his career he developed a special passion for history.

Previous scholars of Jewish history focused primarily on great rabbis and writers, or on persecution and government regulations; Dubnov was the first to make social and political history his main subject. In addition to numerous historical studies—including his ten-volume History of the Jewish People—he shined as an innovative literary critic, political philosopher, and politician. He was murdered during a forced march from Riga in 1941 by a Nazi policeman fully aware of his identity—according to legend, while carting the remnants of his library.

This excerpt comes from Dubnov’s unfinished three-volume memoir, Book of Life, which has yet to appear in English translation—although it ought to be considered one of the great works of Russian Jewish literature. Dubnov wrote it as a diary over the course of his life, publishing the first two volumes in Riga, Latvia in 1934 and 1935; the third and last volume appeared in New York in 1957. To get a feeling for the author’s intentions, one should know that he gave it the subtitle Materials for a Study of My Epoch; in other words, he envisioned his successors using it as source for further historical research.

In painting a picture of the Odessa he discovered upon his arrival in 1890, Dubnov brings to life the historical figures whose presence attracted him to that city. But he also hammers home a more general point about the dynamism that emerged from the conflict between (religious) fathers and (freethinking) sons, especially in his depiction of the Hebrew novelist Micha Josef Berdichevsky. Like Dubnov himself, members of this younger generation were formed by the yeshiva, but then forced open the door to Western education and Russian culture. This clash—or, perhaps, collision—of civilizations played out within the psyches of young Jews, and led to huge achievements in culture and politics, but also massive changes in Jewish life generally.

During his years in Odessa, Dubnov transformed himself from an amateur to a professional, from a romantic chronicler to a scholar. So too, Odessa was where Jewish philanthropy and social activism evolved into politics, and where brilliant young Jews went from furtively reading secular treatises and novels behind their volumes of Talmud to producing original works of their own. It is no exaggeration to say that Odessa’s Jews founded modern Jewish culture and politics, starting a process that would lead to the Jewish state in Land of Israel and modern Hebrew literature.

—Brian Horowitz

 

Simon Dubnov on Odessa

 

Translated by Conor Daly.

When I went to Odessa in the fall of 1890 I knew that this most unhistorical of cities, the capital of New Russia, would not offer a historian the same academic facilities as St. Petersburg and that in general the atmosphere of a southern commercial port was not conducive to the development of a literary center. What attracted me to Odessa—apart from its southerly natural environment—was its status as a major Jewish center, with its European cultural sheen, as well as the considerable scale of its Jewish intelligentsia, albeit mostly assimilated at that stage. As it transpired, Odessa’s intelligentsia found itself at a crossroads: its literary circle, which was augmented somewhat by my arrival, would play a major role in molding it into a national movement.

At midnight on October 17, 1890, as our family travelled by carriage from Odessa’s railway station along Pushkin Street toward our hotel near Primorsky Boulevard, that patriotic city of the south still bore traces of the one-time “tsarist ceremonial day” that had marked the “miraculous” salvation of the tsar’s family after the Kharkov railway accident of 1888. The decorative candles in the windows of the houses had burned out, but the street air still reeked of recently extinguished resin fire-bowls—“the stench of patriotism,” as the acerbic Odessan commentator Ben-Ami cruelly described it. Members of the public were still out strolling along the broad sidewalks, between rows of mimosa trees; and, with only the slightest touch of October cold, the southern night seemed soft and tender to this northern visitor. We pulled in to the Yuzhnaya Hotel on Langéron Street, situated in the shadow of the city’s beautiful theatre. We took up our lodgings in two hotel rooms and the very next day started looking for an apartment.

…..

I was not yet personally acquainted with Asher Ginzberg when the first intellectual dispute between us took place. Ginzberg hid behind the pseudonym Ahad Ha’am (Hebrew for “one of the people”). I had already been in Odessa for more than a year when I first visited him in the fall of 1891. As I recall, he was living at the time with his father’s family and was involved in his father’s business affairs. Our discussion took place within the circle of his friends from B’nei Moshe. He struck me from the outset as a person with a strong and crystalline intellect. Among the many things we talked about was the chapter on the Chabad movement from my work on Ḥasidism which had recently appeared in the journal Voskhod. Ginzberg turned out to be exceptionally well informed on both the theoretical and the practical aspects of Ḥasidism, as he had grown up in a strict Ukrainian ḥasidic family and was married to the granddaughter of a tsadik from the Schneersohn dynasty.

Besides an extensive knowledge of Hebrew, he had a solid general education, he knew a number of foreign languages, and his philosophical outlook, like my own, was aligned with that of the English evolutionary school. His spoken Russian was perfectly fluent and he only made the occasional mistake with his word stress. Ginzberg was four years my senior—but in literary matters he was still a novice, while I had a whole decade of literary practice behind me. Later I admitted to him that I was not at all proud of my literary seniority: if I had been more mature when I started out, I would not now be suffering the encumbrance of the many immature articles I had written.

Much as I respected Ginzberg, I found it hard at first to get close to him: between us always stood his circle, at first those members of the Masonic order of B’nei Moshe, then subsequently the “spiritual Zionists” who would gather in his apartment every Friday for intimate discussions. For them he was rather like a ḥasidic rebbe, and they paid the closest attention to his every word. Only later on, during those years when he was battling against Herzl’s teachings and when I was writing “Letters on Old and New Judaism” did we become close friends, though we continued to argue about literature. That is another story.

—-

I remember well my first meeting with the person who soon became the patriarch of our Odessan literary circle: Solomon Moiseyevich Abramovich, or as we then used to call him, Mendele—the literary pseudonym he went by subsequently. Sholem Aleichem coined the nickname “grandpa” for him (der zeyde in Yiddish), meaning the patriarch of a new “vernacular” literature, although Abramovich was only old enough to be our father: in 1890 he was fifty-five or sixty years old—fifty-five was his official age, but sixty was closer to the real figure because in his later years he used to subtract five years or so from the real total. He was still full of vigor and creative energy.

It was at the beginning of November that I paid Abramovich my first visit. Being the head of the reformed Talmud Torah school, he lived at the time in the school building itself, on the “proletarian” end of Bazarnaya Street, adjacent to the flea market, whereas I lived on the “aristocratic” maritime end of the same street. I have already described in my memoirs that first meeting with my old friend, so I will not repeat the details here. I will just say that it was on that fall evening that the foundation stone of our enduring friendship was laid, a friendship that lasted 27 years, right up to Abramovich’s death.

What first brought us together was the fact that neither of us was a member of any political party or influenced by any particular circle. What is more, Abramovich could tell from my reviews of contemporary literature that I held his work—in both of our languages [i.e., Hebrew and Yiddish]—in the highest regard. The very day before we first met he had read my review of his wonderful epic prose poem Dos Vintshfingerl (“The Wishing-Ring”) in Sholem Aleichem’s journal Biblioteka, which I compared to Gogol’s Dead Souls for its blend of epic qualities and lyricism—a comparison that seemed to please him.

Talking with Abramovich in person was always a very pleasurable experience, though I cannot say that the pleasure was ever an easy one: he did not consider any discussion complete unless it lasted three or four hours, and what’s more he was not averse to the genre of monologue. For me, being a highly structured person, it was most instructive to converse with someone who was constrained by no system whatsoever but who could improvise with original thoughts as the conversation progressed. Abramovich always had his own take on every issue; if his conversation partner tended to take a broad view of a particular problem, he would force that person to confront the problem’s internal essence. Oftentimes his convoluted train of thought would leave you exhausted, you would be angered by his paradoxes, but at the end of the day grasp the issue with greater depth: it would emerge bathed in a new light, as if seen from a new and unexpected perspective.

Although Abramovich only wrote in the two languages of the Jewish people, he spoke to everybody in Russian, which was the sole everyday language of the intelligentsia; he spoke Russian fluently, with only the occasional grammatical error. He only began speaking Yiddish in his later years, when the third generation of intelligentsia who could speak the national language had reached maturity, that is, they were his “grandchildren” in the proper sense of the word.

What had started out as private conversations soon became collective ones, the kind of conversations that occur in a literary circle. We started to come together as a threesome, the third member being Ben-Ami, and then we were joined by his friend, the Hebraist, teacher, and writer Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Ravnitsky was taciturn but well-read and had a razor-sharp mind. He was also a good listener and whenever he chimed in what he added to the discussion was very much to the point. At the same time he would frequent the Masonic circle of Ahad Ha’am and Abramovich would ask him teasingly: “So, Ravnitsky, how are things coming on with your little red-headed Jews?” (This was an allusion to both Ahad-Ha’am’s and Ravnitski’s red hair, as well as to the name “B’nei Moshe,” which was a name given to the legendary “little red Jews” exiled beyond the mythical River Sambatyon). A few more people joined our circle later on; I remember in particular the fine young doctor Mikhelson, who was laid low some years later by consumption, that dreadful disease. We would usually meet on Saturday evenings, either at Abramovich’s place or at mine or Ben-Ami’s.

Of the various chance encounters that I had in the early days of my time in Odessa there is one in particular which sticks in my memory, although I did not consider it significant at the time. It so happened that I was visited by a poorly dressed young man, who looked like a yeshiva student and said his name was Berdichevsky. He mentioned that I had corresponded with him two years previously on the subject of collating materials for my history of Ḥasidism. I could remember our correspondence, because there were some remarkable circumstances connected with it: at the time I had sent a letter to Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who was setting out to become a writer, care of his father’s address (his father was a rabbi in a small town in the Kyiv province); a long time later I received a reply that his father had kept the letter from him, not wanting to hand it over to his free-thinking son, who even back then, as a mere youth, had a millstone around his neck in the form of a wife and children. And now this young man had cast off the family yoke and had taken himself off abroad, via Odessa, with the aim of acquiring there a European education.

When I met him, he did not know a single European language, except for a Ukrainian dialect of Yiddish, and it was in this “non-intellectual” language that we were forced to converse. Who would ever have imagined that this son of the yeshiva would in time become a serious-minded writer, an advocate for “revaluation of values” in the spirit of Nietzsche?

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More about: History & Ideas, Odessa, Politics & Current Affairs, Ukraine