Letter from Odessa: Capturing a Free City's Myriad Legacies

Friday, July 1, 2005

By Naamah Kelman
July 8, 2005 

In March, our eldest daughter took us for a walk in Tel Aviv. A tour guide and educator, she pointed out the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik's home, located on the street that bears his name. We walked the streets of the first Hebrew speaking city, whose first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, had been part of the Odessa crowd. We were most moved when we reached the old Tel Aviv cemetery, where Bialik is buried next to Yehoshua Ravnitzky. In 1908, Bialik and Ravnitzky edited and published in Odessa one of the most significant collections of rabbinic commentaries (midrashim), "Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah." Rendering the ancient homilies into the cleanest and simplest Hebrew they could reconstruct for the modern reader, the pair assembled the stories they had inherited into a single accessible volume. In the Odessa of those years, modern Hebrew was being reinvented by them and by the incredible group of poets, publicists, humorists, writers and thinkers who longed to be free in every sense of the word. Looming above Bialik's tombstone, the gravestone of Ahad Ha'am, the father of cultural Zionism, maintains a watchful eye. 

Contemplating the lives of those who shaped the rich Israeli culture we inherited, we asked ourselves: Will their majestic legacy be sustained in the hearts and souls of third- and fourth-generation Israelis? Or anywhere, for that matter? 

A few weeks later, we stood at Bialik's Odessa home, where he composed his masterpieces of modern Hebrew poetry. My family and I had joined a unique group of pilgrims: 35 Hebrew Union College students who, after completing their first year of studies in Israel, traveled with spouses and friends to 28 cities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. We were sent to Odessa. 

Astonishingly, Odessa was once 50% Jewish. This port city was built about 200 years ago - a newcomer by Russian and Ukrainian standards - as a free city. Refugees from all over the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe flocked to this cultural center, where European arts, letters and architecture flourished. Far (enough) away from the great centers of rabbinic learning, a new kind of Judaism thrived at the beginning of the 20th century. While secular in form and style, it was unabashedly Jewish. 

Modern Yiddish writing was born there with writer S.Y. Abramovitch, also known by the name of his most famous character, Mendele Mocher Seforim. Even Sholom Aleichem sojourned there, sitting in cafés transporting Jewish village life into popular and profound fiction and prose. The beginnings of academic Jewish historical study of Simon Dubnow began in that country. The passionate secular political Zionism of Ze'ev Jabotinsky set aflame the hearts of many in Odessa. Jewish choral and cantorial music was so highly developed, even non-Jews gathered outside of the more liberal Brodsky Synagogue to hear it. In short, a Jewish Renaissance was in full bloom for decades. 

But then grim shadows were cast: the Pale of Settlement, pogroms, blood libels, Babi Yar. From the time Jews arrived in Ukraine, they were both desired and detested. Poor peasants, capitalists, communists, secular, religious - 80,000 of the city's Jews were rounded up by the Nazi occupiers in 1941 to march to their deaths from Odessa. Long before World War I, the 1903 pogroms of Kishinev, followed two years later by pogroms in Odessa, sent waves of Jews to America, the goldene medine (the immigrant experience), and to the Promised Land. From the port of Odessa, there was direct service to Palestine. After three youthful, carefree years in the Jewish theater of Odessa, my husband's grandfather boarded a ship in 1911 to travel and settle in Palestine, the only place he felt he could be a complete citizen of the world. 

Once victorious over Nazi fascism, Communism continued its unrelenting war against religion and culture, almost destroying the body and soul of Odessa. In Kiev, Stalin systematically destroyed the churches and architectural monuments, now being rebuilt since perestroika. In Odessa, while many of the churches and rococo buildings are in disrepair, others are being salvaged and renovated. 

Slowly, Jewish Odessa is being recovered. 

When the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Empire crumbled, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Lubavitch movement rushed in. Yet it was the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel that moved close to 1 million Jews to Israel - 20,000 Jews departed from Odessa alone. With all the hardships and challenges, this aliya is the most successful reclamation project in recent Jewish history. Some 30,000 Jews stayed in Odessa. During the past few years, as the World Union for Progressive Judaism's presence grew in the former Soviet Union, the World Union put Odessa on its map. 

I led Kabbalat Shabbat for about 40 people in the modest storefront facility that serves as the all-purpose synagogue-center for Progressive Judaism. We were heartened when we met the 30 teens and young adults who make up a vibrant Netzer (noar tzioni reformi) Reform Zionist Youth Group. At their Sabbath-afternoon activity, my daughters easily connected the energies of our Israeli Reform youth group with theirs. I watched as they all sung from the Israeli songbook that my daughters brought. They moved easily from Israeli hip-hop to popularized prayers, singing in new harmonies. Jewish holiday games were played out in mime and in the few English, Hebrew and Russian words they all wanted to learn from each other. 

I suddenly remembered the scene at my parents' Seder table. For years, we dedicated one of the four cups to the Jews of Silence, living in fear and repression under Soviet rule. Holding a Seder would put one's family at risk. Now I was singing my heart out with these fellow Jews; we were laughing and dancing for all to see. The Jewish people regenerate, yet again. 

This remains our greatest Jewish challenge worldwide: the ongoing creation of an open, pluralistic, humanistic Jewish culture infused with the gems of our tradition. Perhaps the first step is to follow what our wonderful tour guide suggested, in reverence to Odessa's great writers and artists: "Close your eyes," she said. "Now open them. Isn't that better?" The Odessa legacy bequeaths us, eyes wide open, full of wonder. 

Naamah Kelman is a rabbi who directs the Year in Israel Program as well as the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem's Educational Initiatives.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu