Written and photographed by Natan Roi
There are cities that just being in them gives the visitor a title of nobility. And that is certainly the case if one was born in them. Never mind their mountain air on their coasts, and in particular the jokes attributed to them, the anecdotal stories about them, and then you are nobility, and your grandchildren are nobility.
Odessa, a beautiful city on the coast of the Black Sea, is one of them.
This is perhaps one of the reasons that the Limmud FSU organization decided to meet here between October 11th and 13th in 2010. The conference, which included more than one hundred lectures during two full days, was attended by more than five hundred young people from all over the FSU (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Russia, Kalingrad, the Russian East, France and the US).
The participants included individuals who were born near the time of the Big Bang – the wave of aliyah during the 90s. These are children whose parents stayed in the FSU and today constitute the intellectual backbone, the next generation of FSU Jewry, the essence of Jewish intellect in the FSU.
Here, in the “window on the Black Sea”, a jumping-off point to the Land of Israel during the Turkish and British periods, and to the Western world, you sense the very special atmosphere.
This atmosphere is created by a number of factors – the coming together of young Jews from all over the FSU; the interesting lectures and the variety of the lecturers. Some of the young people were aware that they had come to a very special city, which had been the home to, in addition to Meir Dizengoff, Ahad Ha’am, the writer Shalom Aleichem, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, Dr. Shaul Tchernikovsky, Mendele, Simon Dubnow and others – Yitzhak Babel, the Russian Jew and one of the great Russian 20th century authors, Ilf and Petrov, the Russian jazz singer Utuosov and others.
Among the lecturers: the Israeli Ambassador to the Ukraine, Zina Kalai-Kleitman; the Chairman of Discount Bank and member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Dr. Yossi Bachar; Director of the Broadcasting Authority, Motti Shklar; the commander of Galei Tsahal, Yitzhak Tunik; the chief editor of Maariv, Yoav Tsur; the CEO and chief editor of Channel 9 in Israel, Leonid Blechman; the Israeli satirist and publisher, Mark Glasnick; the journalist, Menahem (Muki) Hadar, who presented for the first time abroad his new movie on the Holocaust in Ukraine entitled “Neighbors and Murderers”; the Israeli-Russian writer, Yaakov Shechter; an expert on Jewish informal education Dr. Dima Zitser; and many others.
Members of the media participated in the sessions and panels both among the local Jewish population (the Jewish University of Odessa) and in the press conferences with the local Ukrainian media.
One way or another, the magic of Limmud struck again. This organization of volunteers, which has been active among Russian-speaking Jews for the last five years under the charismatic leadership of Haim Chesler (Jewish Agency Treasurer and the head of the first Jewish Agency delegation to the FSU), decided to meet in this city, which is sprinkled with the stardust that covers the shores of the Black Sea coast.
The city, which for 260 years has been part of every facet of international culture, became, for two days, a center for informal education.
And what is the secret of a conference that left no vacancies at the “Victoria” Hotel during a period of economic crisis in Ukraine that was evident everywhere?
Dr. Dima Zitser, a theatrical director from St. Petersburg, an educator and one of the leading lecturers at the Limmud conferences, reveals the secret that from time to time brings hundreds of young people together from all over the FSU – from Kalingrad in the northern enclave on the German-Polish border to Russia, Ukraine and the Russian Far East:
“Young people all over the FSU are looking for channels of personal and spiritual development. It is the intense yearning to develop, the excellent program, the pluralistic presentation and musical and cultural performances that bring them to a conference that is a symbol, a stamp of excellence, something special that is difficult to find in the Jewish milieu.”
Ossik Axelrod, the Chairman of Limmud in the FSU and also the Chairman of the “Hillel” organization in the FSU, makes it clear to me that this is the most important cultural event in the FSU from the point of view of its scope of activity, which constitutes an extension of the Hillel and Birthrite activity and the other cultural activities throughout the FSU.
Vladimir Zelikman, the Chairman of the volunteers organization of Limmud Odessa, who is regarded here as an intellectual genius, views the activity as a wonderful way of learning about subjects that would be impossible for him and his wife, who also attended the conference, to experience during two days in academia.
The conference was organized by more than fifty volunteers who prepared and implemented the conference – from shlepping equipment to helping locate addresses in Odessa.
Olessia Krepenko, a brilliant translator from Russian to English and from English to Russian, is a young lecturer at the Dneiper-Petrovsk University and when she was asked what brought her to volunteer for Limmud Odessa, she said:
“I was captured by the magic of Limmud at the conference that took place in Yalta, and since then I am here.”
I didn’t stop at that point and decided to dig further in order to understand what draws non-Jews to the conference.
Tonya Torina from Kiev in the Ukraine came to the conference and attended every session, every performance, every event, including the huge party that took place at the city’s Congress Center and the huge party at the Youth Center.
What brought her here? She told me, already at the start of the conversation, that she is a “goya” (Gentile in Hebrew) who heard about the conference and decided to attend.
One of the event’s enthusiastic donors, Diane Wohl from the US, asked her why she came to the conference and she answered that her father was a Jew from Poland and her mother was a non-Jew. But her family told her about the conference and she decided to come and enjoyed every moment.
The impressive profile of the participants included young Jews – and even non-Jews or partial Jews – who came here in order to warm themselves by the lamp called “together”. Here they feel equal, more equal, and many – perhaps all – will return to future conferences.
Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU:
“This conference is the concluding event of the Limmud project in 2010. We began the year in Truskavez in Ukraine, we were in Jerusalem, in Moscow and in New York. Now we have returned to Ukraine for a final get-together that is one big celebration. The conference provides a stage for the wonderful Jewish Russian tradition that existed here at the end of the 19th century and which constitutes a new stage in the development of Jewish life in the Odessa of today.”
More on Limud FSU
For more on Limmud and the Jewish Agency, go to:
Limmud Odessa Concludes
Hamptons NY Limmud Photo Album
That is the essence of this fascinating conference. But the big question that I asked myself at the conference was: how did a former spokesman of the Jewish Agency and a current senior editor at Kol Yisrael, Gil Litman, manage to bring senior members of the Israeli media to the Limmud Conference in Odessa, including the Director of the Broadcasting Authority, Mordecai Shklar; the chief editor of the Maariv newspaper, Yoav Tsur; the commander of Galei Tsahal, Yitzhak Tunik; the Israeli television writer, Muki Hadar; and the chief editor and director of the Russian-language Channel 9.
In order to answer that question, I must first tell you a few things.
A Center for Zionist Heritage
The mythological editor and founder of the Maariv newspaper, Dr. Azriel Carlebach, taught the “oylam” (Yiddish for the Israeli world) how to describe a city. This was in his charming book “India”, in which he described India according to the hats seen from a bird’s eye view.
If we borrow that method for describing Odessa and its Jewish population – starting from the 19th century – we are able to say that in this city a man walked quickly, like a young soldier, whose name was Zeev Jabotinsky and a man with a cane walked confidently, like a wise man, whose name was Haiim Nahman Bialik, and a man hunched over and serious whose name was Ahad Ha’am and a man of short stature with his face turned heavenward whose name was Mendele (“the bookseller”), and one whose face is serious to the point of tears whose name is Dr. Yosef Klauzner and one who is frighteningly serious whose name is Dr. Shimon Dubnov. These are some of the figures who lived and worked here and who constituted the catalyst of the Zionist fire that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.
(Jabo, Dr. Yaakov Vinshel, p. 12)
And here at the end of the 19th century was a Jew with a mustache and sparkling eyes who smelled like the sea – his name was Dr. Shaul Tchernikovsky. Dr. Tchernikovsky was a charming man. He came here from Michalovka, a village in the Crimea. In Odessa, at the end of the 19th century, he published his Hebrew poems, the first with a style reminiscent of Greek mythology. The publishing house that published his first book of poems was called “Moriah” and it became part of the great Jewish history of the Hebrew press. Later on, he traveled to Heidelberg in order to learn medicine. He then made aliyah in order to become the pediatrician of the Herzlyia Gymnasia and of the Tel Aviv Municipality.
(A story of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz)
Here, in our Odessa, standing on the steps was Meir Dizengoff, who became the founder of a shipping company and the manager of the first glass factory in Tantura (Palestine) and whose branch on Bostraus Street in Jaffa/Yaffo was long ago torn down.
Here too was born the literary character invented by the writer Shalom Aleichem (who the author David Frishman called a “literature millionaire”), Menahem Mendel Mi Yehopetz who wrote letters to his wife Shayna Sheindel. Menahem Mendel was a speculator on the Odessa stock market. The first letter he wrote to his wife, and which was published in Yiddish at the end of the 19th century, reads as follows:
“You must know that I am unable to describe the city of Odessa, its size and its beauty, the good-hearted people who live here, the goldene geshpetan (golden deals, successful business) that can be done here.”
“The city of Odessa is exceedingly large and everything is expensive here. The buildings rise up to the sky and one must climb metal stairs for a half an hour until one reaches his home literally touching the sky and the window is small like in a prison…Here they eat grapes on Rosh Hashana to say Shehechiyanu, not like where you are in Chatrielvka. Here they eat grapes every day and in the middle of the street – without any shame.”
And here was born Menahem Mendel’s wife, “the wife of”, whose name was Shayna (“beautiful”) Shendel, who wrote to him from her village:
“Your hear – I hope I am lying – but I fear that you will see the rest of the money as you see your ears that you dragged so far to Odessa.”
(Menahem Mendel, Shalom Aleichem, translated by Aryeh Aharoni)
Shalom Aleichem, who was a Stock Dealer from Kiev who went bankrupt, knew what he was talking about, since here he lived and brought up his daughters and grandchildren – one of whom was Belle Kaufman who came here on holiday and to eat nuts and seeds, a national pastime in Odessa. Belle Kaufman describes this in an interview with Limmud:
Here we wandered around, in the markets; the Jewish jokes that were later (1922) collected together by Alter Droyanov in the “Book of Jokes and Witticisms”, which contained classic Odessian jokes.
Here are some of them:
Two important stockbrokers were walking in the square in front of the stock exchange. One of them looked from side to side and then said to his friend: You see the youth following us? He is a minor pickpocket and intends to steal the handkerchief peaking out of your pocket. Let him, said the other, both you and I started small.
(Joke number 7, in the Book of Jokes and Witticisms, adapted by Danny Karmen)
And the following well-known joke:
Two friends, Moshe Pindak and Azriel Korkevan, were sailing on a ship. One day there was a huge storm and the ship was battered by waves as big as mountains. Pindak prayed and cried out to the heavens with all his might. Azriel looked at him and said:
Moishe, why are you shouting? Is it your ship?
(Joke number 765 in the Book of Jokes and Witticisms, adapted by Danny Kerman)
And here is one last one, although not the last in the chain, which is to do with “sex”:
One Jew boasted to his friend: I haven’t slept with a woman for 20 years. His friend was surprised: and what does your wife have to say about this? The first one answered: Do I have to tell my wife everything?
(Joke number 1662 in the Book of Jokes and Witticisms, adapted by Danny Karmen)
Atmosphere & History -This is part of the answer to why senior members of the Israeli media came here. And here is the rest.
Chaim Chesler, who has a classic Odessian soul, took Israeli media celebrities to see close up the houses and the sites frequented by the founders of the State of Israel and told them about the Odessian heritage, which began in Odessa and continued from here to the Land of Israel.
He brought us here to view firsthand one of the wonders of Odessa’s Jewish heritage today: Limmud FSU.
The Jewish Museum, which one enters from a classic Jewish Odessian courtyard, houses pictures and possessions of the great Jewish figures. Here one can find a bookshelf of the family of Yitzhak Babel, the Russian Jewish writer who was born in Odessa and who was murdered by Joseph Stalin. It was in Odessa that he created the charming character of Benaya Krik, the Jewish thief (inspired by Mishke Yapunchik, the Jewish thief from the Moldavneka Quarter). Here one can view documents that describe the life of the Jews, from a time gone by, in a stormy and foolish Odessa.
This is where the well-known jazz singer, Lazar Leonid Weissbein (known as Utuosov) whose statue, with him sitting in a chair, is located in the center of town. Here are some details about him.
This poetry, this atmosphere of Odessa, influenced the new Israeli poetry in the Land of Israel. Here, for those who don’t know, is an example of an Odessian song that came to little Tel Aviv, where in the early 20th century satirical theater, such as “The Broom” or “The Kettle”, flourished and produced uproarious Odessian laughter.
A clear example of a humoristic Tel Aviv love song is the well-know Rina that was performed for the first time at The “Broom” Theater on May 15, 1935. The melody came from a Russian song that appeared in the film “The Happy Gang” (1934), directed by Gregory Alexandrov. The song was written by the songwriter Isak Donayevsky and in the film it was sung by the Jewish singer and actor, Leonid Utuosov, who was born in Odessa.
Researchers of songs point out that from a musical point of view, this is a typical tango, and although it is a comedy and the words of the Russian song are dramatic without any humor, the genius of the new Hebrew poetry, Natan Alterman, produced words for the tune that were funny and witty, in an Odessian sort of way. Each line oozed with humor. For example: “Wear this, wear it in the meantime / Here the dripping of dew is caught”.
During the 216 years since its founding, it has been a city which Jews from all over the Czarist Empire came to, including very religious families. From them came the leading thinkers of the “Maskilim” on the one hand and the leading thinkers in the general Russian culture on the other hand.
In Odessa flourished Zionist thinkers and literary figures, who heralded the founding of the State of Israel on the one hand and were Jewish cultural giants on the other.
This city played a central role in the “Scroll of the Book”, in Hebrew and Russian (which was written by Jews), a history of Zionism and settlement in the Land of Israel before the founding of the Eretz Yisraeli office in Yaffo (the forerunner of the Jewish Agency).
In this city, far from the eyes of the “Supreme Gate” (the Turkish ruler), the “Odessian Committee” of Hovevei Tsion was active starting in 1890. The first settlements and schools and their cultural life were supported by the always-small treasury of the “Odessian Committee”, which couldn’t compete with Rothschild, but were nonetheless very enthusiastic.
Here lived and worked “the most frightening one of all” – Ahad Ha’am – alongside “his favorite son” who he called “our national poet” – H.N. Bialik, Dr. Shaul Tchernikovsky, the revolutionary writer Mendele the bookseller and Dr. Joseph Klausner, who did not shrink from writing highly-detailed volumes on the history of the Jewish people on the one hand and the biography of Jesus on the other hand.
Dr. Klausner, the uncle of the writer Amos Oz, terrorized even Shai Agnon.
It is impossible to understand the founding of the city of Tel Aviv on Yaffo’s coast, both architecturally and culturally, without understanding those who heralded the city and the Odessian thinkers, just as it is impossible to describe the Zionist enterprise without the Odessian intellectuals or those who passed through the “Gate of Zion” (nickname for Odessa) including the “Roselyn” ship, the Israeli “Mayflower”, which left Odessa for Yaffo at the end of the Russian revolution.
The “Roselyn”, which became a legend, has recently received renewed mention in the poems of Haim Guri (“Eival”) who wrote as follows:
Roselyn 5679. Odessa.
My mother and my father.
Thanks to the sea that brought them here.
Thanks to the coast of Yaffo. To the dunes of Tel Aviv.
(Eival, p. 58, United Kibbutz Workers Library)
The story of Roselyn: In 1919, a ship was organized in Odessa to sail to the Land of Israel which was called the Ship of Intellectuals. In addition to the exiles from Palestine from the First World War which were returning on the ship, several dozen writers, artists and intellectuals sailed on the ship. These included: Dr. Moshe Glickson (later the editor of Haaretz), the poet Rahel (Blovstein), the architects Megadovitch, Rechter and Rappaport who built incredible houses in little Tel Aviv, the painters Litvinovsky, Frankel and Navon, the doctors Yaski and Dostrovsky and the businessmen Yisrael Gurphinkel (the father of Haim Guri), Nahum Heth, Rahel Kagan and Rosa Cohen, the mother of Yitzhak Rabin.
And one of those who sailed on the Odyssian “Mayflower” was the founder of the Tel Aviv “Aduloyada”, the Odessa ballet dancer, the legendary Baruch Agadati, who is considered to be one of the founders of Israeli cinema.
The voyage of the “Rosalyn” from Odessa to the Land of Israel took five weeks. When it anchored in the port of Yaffo, the 671 passengers received a festive welcome. Their arrival was considered the opening act of the Third Aliyah to Palestine, which was under British rule.
We have said that this is a city with a label of nobility and Chaim Chesler managed to convince the media people they will experience this nobility.
Mordecai Shklar, the Director of the Broadcasting Authority; Yoav Tsur, the editor of Maariv and his wife Rivka; Yitzhak Tunik, the commander of Galei Tsahal; Leonid Bleichman, the Director of the Russian-language Channel 9; and Mark Glaskin, the wonderful Russian-speaking satirist who is known all over the Russian-speaking diaspora (and who published Limousine, the Limmud newspaper in Odessa), all visited these sites.
Dr. Yossi Bachar, the Chairman of Bank Discount, whose father was an Etzel member, visited the home of Zeev Jabotinsky with his wife Orit and one of the homes of H.M. Bialik in the city. The anecdotes and the little contrasts were filled in by guests who knew the history.
None of those present missed the opportunity to view the stairs on which Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director (whose Jewish father converted to Christianity), filmed a silent movie already in the 20s. The movie was called the “Battleship Potymkin” and was considered to be an innovative movie, particularly because of the cinema techniques used in it, such as the close-up.
More details on the Jewish Zionist heroes (Hebrew)
The Holocaust and the Birth of Israel
Those stormy days, those foolish days of culture and Zionism, came to an end in October 1941, the beginning of the Nazi occupation of the city.
The Jewish-Romanian historian, Dr. Jean Anchel, states that at the beginning of the Nazi-Romanian occupation of Odessa, there were about 180 thousand Jews in the city. Most of them were murdered.
The number of Jews murdered, according to the city authorities reached 99,000 but today it is known that more than 200,000 Jews in the city were murdered.
After the war, Odessa again became an important Jewish center and the 1959 census counted 102,000 Jews in the city.
Most of them made aliyah. There are today about 50,000 Jews in the city, although it is clear that the “numbers game” is very flexible when it comes to defining who is a Jew.
The family story of Tatiana Belkonenko, an Israeli artist born in Odessa who draws the caricatures for Limmud, is the story of all Jews in Odessa.
Her grandmother and grandfather brought up 12 children in Odessa prior to the Second World War. Her grandmother was a woman of strength, who knew how to sow and fix anything. During the famine, she managed to feed her children. Two of her children were killed. The grandfather and grandmother moved eastwards, to the eastern USSR, and settled in Odessa at the end of the war.
The grandfather is buried here, in Odessa’s Jewish cemetery, in which the victims of the 1905 pogrom (the pogroms in Odessa started in the mid-19th century) were also buried. When I accompanied her to the grave of her grandmother and grandfather we had to walk through long rows of a vanished Jewish world. We located the graves.
Over the grave of the grandmother had been a medal that she had been awarded, to a mother who given birth to 12 children, and the medal had been stolen, apparently by one of the visitors to the site.
Limmud, Limmud, Limmud
The learning approach of Limmud Odessa is Odessian: a combination of deep seriousness and uproarious laughter.
I would like to present you with the Odessian spirit in the quotes of one of the best journalists of all time – Zeev Jabotinsky:
“I have never seen such a light-hearted city; and I don’t say that as an old man who believes that the sun went dark in the heavens because it doesn’t warm him like it used to. I spent the best of my youth in Rome, and I lived in Vienna when I was young and could have compared the spiritual “climate” using the same standard: there is nothing like Odessa – that is, Odessa of that generation – the gayness and light-heartedness that permeates the air, without any hint of emotional complication or moral tragedy. I won’t say God forbid that I found depth and nobility in this air – its caressing lightness comes from its lack of tradition; a city was created from nothing about a hundred years before I was born; its residents spoke in a dozen languages and none of them were spoken fluently. Among my many acquaintances, there is only one whose father was also born in Odessa: and is it not so that there is no nobility without tradition and without tragedy. The city – Yonah the Prophet’s castor oil plant and every plant in it – material, moral and cultural – is also a passing event, a jest, a dare. Respect the truth, of course, but the lie isn’t a crime either since the listener also has a hot-tempered, flexible and sparkling imagination. Together with all this, a ravenous curiosity for what the morning will bring: any trivial news is a great event, the masses are in upheaval, hands are lifted to the heavens, walls and the café tables are shaken by the volcano of shouting. Even kisses are cheap: or more than cheap – free (however these young women, as far as I remember, all marry afterward and each of them became a woman of strength).
(A Sea Story, Zeev Jabotinsky)
We maintained this spirit throughout but, together with the lecturers and the students, we added seriousness, which sometimes resembled deep seriousness, particularly when we discussed Jewish issues.
Thus, the conference began with a visit to Odessa’s opera house, which was built as an exact replica of La Scala da Milano, and continued on to the Pankoni café, where the Jewish bohemians of Odessa sat, including our friend – Zeev Jabotinsky, who said that he is not insulted by those who point out that he was born in Odessa, that funny city, since its inhabitants know how to laugh but also to laugh at themselves and there is nothing more human than that.
The sessions and lectures were not at all affected by the air since in fact the “air of Odessa makes one wise”. More than 100 study sessions took place at the Limud conference, from sunrise until sunset.
And here is an example: following an amazing entertainment event organized by the Odessian Congress Center, in which Ukrainian and Jewish Ukrainian entertainers appeared (such as the Jewish-Ukrainian actor Skolnick), the young people returned to studying Judaism until after two in the morning.
Boris Sovolov, a television photographer who recorded the Limmud conference, is a Jew from Odessa who manages a production company in Israel. He lives in Israel and here he feels at home and doesn’t forget to talk about his encounters with the intellectuals in his city.
Boris began his career as a barman and the number one jazz drummer in Odessa. But he did not forget his encounter with the Russian “superstar” Vladimir Visotsky, who died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol and who gave him a tape of his songs when visiting his bar in Odessa at the completion of a scene in a Russian Western in which he starred.
For your information, the head of the Jewish Agency delegation in Odessa, Michael Goldovsky, sings Visotsky’s songs in Hebrew wonderfully long before Arkadi Duchin.
And if we’re talking about the Jewish Agency: Michael Goldovsky, the head of the Jewish Agency delegation, who hosted the group in his home in the city, together with his wife who is an amazing cook of Ukrainian food, explained to us that Limmud is amazing in its effectiveness, since it strengthens Jewish identity and facilitates the activity of the Jewish Agency and other Jewish organizations.
Goldovsky came here, to the Ukraine, for a second term. This time he is in Odessa in which more than 50,000 Jews live.
Limmud partners with all the organizations in Odessa, headed by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, but also including Migdal, a local Jewish organization, which is run by Jewish women who are developing amazing low-budget activities for the study of poetry, music, drawing, etc.
During the visit to Migdal’s main site, one could view an exhibition organized by the Odessian painter Tanya Belkonenko. The exhibition of paintings is called “Between Odessa and Haifa” (olim painters from the FSU in Israel paint Haifa) will be presented at the Joint’s Beit Grand in the city.
This is the atmosphere of Limmud. On the one hand, a connection to culture and Judaism and on the other hand a connection to language, music, culture and art, which was absorbed here, in Ukraine, in Odessa.
The celebrities from Israel, who were encouraged to come by the former Jewish Agency spokesman and senior editor of Kol Yisrael, Gil Litman, calmly observed Limmud from the sidelines.
Yossi Bachar, the Chairman of Discount, who gave a lecture on the Israeli economy, said at the end of the Limmud conference: “I have seen Limmud’s activity and I can promise you that anytime you invite me here, I will come.”
Gil Litman: “I have a feeling of elevation in this place.”
Yoav Tsur, the editor of Maariv: “I come from a world of words and when I see Limud, I have none.”
Yitzhak Tunik, the commander of Galei Tsahal, who has recently been organizing the 60th anniversary celebrations of Galei Tsahal, stood before the audience of students at the Jewish University of Ukraine (in the Tekuma Organization building) and spoke about Israel. It was clear that the Limmud events, the sites from which Israeli society had grown, had created sympathetic feelings in him.
He was very moved when he sat on a chair next to the statue of the singer Utuosov and in the background echoed his answer, from the period when he worked with Raful, who was the Chief of Staff, who would say: “I want Galei Tsahal to have more Hebrew music” and when he asked Raful which Hebrew music he meant, he gave a typical Raful answer: Russian music.
In this atmosphere of learning, participants could delve into Jewish culture, self-searching and the humor of Shalom Aleichem, Yitzhak Babel and Ilf and Petrov.
In the center of the city, on a statue of one of the “12 chairs” (the name of a novel by a couple that wrote together, one of whom was Jewish; his real name was Iliya Arnoledovich, Iliyah Ilf). The celebrities from Israel became familiar, through him, with the foundations of Russia’s satirical culture (many of the Russian satirists were Jewish with an Odessian approach to humor, including Ilf and Petrov and Vladimir Winovich who created the comical and satirical figure of “Chunkin” the brother of the brave Central European soldier Shviek).
Pluralism meets Limud
Contemporary Jewish and Israeli society owes the Jews of Odessa a huge debt.
Without Odessa, the gate of pluralism and Zionism, we would not have had many of the great Zionist personalities, the writers and the entertainers. One of them, the writer Yitzhak Babel, who was born in Odessa in 1894 and murdered in 1939 on the order of Stalin, is Odessa’s senior Russian son (of Jewish origin).
His life story is characteristic of the life of a Russian Jew at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th and is worth telling in order to understand the melting pot that is Odessa.
Grace Filet, who is compiling a memoir of Babel’s last wife, Antonina Pirozekova, describes it like this:
“In his childhood, Babel was preoccupied with the Hebrew language and learning the Talmud. In his youth his head was full of European culture, in the French language, in Russian was an everyday thing, clear and crystallized, the vowels in an armor of consonants. His grandfather spoke Ukrainian. He was born in Odessa. Like every difficult city, it was full of witty chatterboxes; you could listen to it, this city, all day and come back the next day. It was the beginning of a lucky coincidence.
It was in Odessa, on his way to become a real Russian, that the story “Awakening” was created and published in 1931 in the Molodoya Gevardia magazine. He was meant to have violin lessons that would help him become Yasha Heifetz. Then he would play before the Queen of England. Somehow, he did not show up for the music lessons but instead wandered the streets and piers of Odessa. He found, or was found by, a good man of the type that appears in children’s plays who told him very persuasively: Go this way, not that.”
(On his side, A. Priozenkova, Zemora Beitan Publishing)
Isak Emanuelovich Babel, a son of this Odessa, changed direction and when Ernest Hemingway read his stories, he wrote to the Soviet Jewish writer Iliya Arenburg:
“Babel churns butter better than I do.”
(Ann Friedman in the introduction to her translation of Pirozkova’s book from Russian to English)
This good-hearted author – whose last creation called “New Stories”, which was never found, was disposed of by the murderous KGB, which occurred after they tortured and murdered him. He is a “walking school” for the short story and a genius of the brief story in Russia in the 20th century. They say he is a genius of the short story worldwide.
H.N. Bialik, who was known as our national poet, lived here for many years. He was known as a poet but he was the “engine” for the compilation of the Jewish-Hebrew literary heritage for the purpose of creating a “Jewish bookshelf”.
Here, in Odessa, he took the trouble to compile and write the Talmudic legends, together with his partner Huna Rabnitski (the Book of Legend), and the poetry of Spain and the early Jewish theater (Migdal Oz which was written by Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto and which was the first Hebrew play; in this regard see the article by Bialik: The Youth from Padova). And Bialik, a resident of Odessa, caught up to the “intellectuals of the generation and its wonderful writers” in order to gather up everything from the Jewish threshing floor and winery and to publish it. Here, in Odessa, and in other places worldwide, in answer to Bialik’s call, the cultural heritage of the people that had awoken from Exile came into being.
Bialik on the one hand and Babel on the other are the heroes of Limmud Odessa together with the Nobel prize winners of Jewish Russian origin.
And this is due to, among other things, the fact that both of them were cultural figures who blossomed here.
Babel, who loved to read the stories of Shalom Aleichem in Yiddish under the table (as told by Pirozkova in her memoirs), believed in pluralism, loved people, was open, was a Russian and a citizen of the world of Jewish origin who was murdered, even though he was the “master of the silent genre” (as he would say of himself prior to his murder).
Bialik, who left the yeshiva in Volozhin for unknown reasons, became the Jewish national poet.
Here is the pluralism for you, which is so infectious, in its Odessianism, which Limmud FSU has adopted.
Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU, sees the pluralism of Bialik and Babel in the pluralism of Limmud, in Limmud’s openness, the greatest asset in the intellectual context of FSU Jewry. Because, in his words, Torah will go out from Limmud and will sweep all those remaining in the FSU, who were born after the Big Bang in the 1900s, back into the pluralistic Jewish arena, which characterizes the Jews of the new Land of Israel.
Chaim Chesler, the man that led a million Jews to the Land of Israel – does not forget those who remained behind and he embraces them because they are all his children.