Odessa and Tel Aviv. Two Cities; One Heart

by Chaim Chesler

Limmud FSU organizers and presenters visit the Tel Aviv-Odessa connection

This week the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel is meeting in order to discuss and ratify the vision of the new chairman, Natan Sharansky, who has issued a call for the strengthening of the connection of the Jews of the Diaspora with Judaism and Zionism. Sharansky’s vision meshes perfectly with that of Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), which I have the honor to lead.

Last week, the final Limmud FSU event for 2010 came to a triumphant conclusion, concentrating as always, on strengthening the connection of young Russian-speaking Jews to their Jewish heritage and the State of Israel. This Limmud conference took place in Odessa, Ukraine, a city which many people regard as one of the great historical centers which nurtured the modern Zionist revolution.

The 700 or so participants in the Limmud conference had the unusual opportunity to walk in the paths of some of Odessa’s leading Jewish personages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and see their homes and surroundings. Many of these people subsequently immigrated to the Land of Israel and played a key role in its cultural and political development.

The dining room in Chaim Nahman Bialik's Tel Aviv home

When I studied the map of Tel Aviv, I realized that the linkage between citizens of Odessa in particular and Ukraine in general and the first Hebrew city, is illustrated to perfection in Tel Aviv’s place names. First of all there is Meir Dizengoff, the Odessa-born first mayor of Tel Aviv. The names follow on, one after the other: Jabotinsky Street named for Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am (the philosopher, Asher Ginzburg), whose street intersects with Ben Zion Boulevard (father of the painter Nahum Guttman), which leads to Chaim Bograshov and reaches Ber Borochov, (two leading Zionist theoreticians and educators) – all born in Ukraine. Other street names to be found all over Tel Aviv include the writers and poets Yehoshua Ravnitzky, Joseph Klausner, Shalom Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Ludwig Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, and of course, our national poet, Chaim Nahman Bialik. Bialik Street lies parallel to Shaul Tchernikhovsky and near Menachem Usshishkin – who lived for years in Odessa, and devoted his life in pre-state Israel to the redemption of the land in the name of the Jewish people. Shalom Aleichem, one of the iconic figures in Jewish and Yiddish literature, lived and wrote in Odessa, as did Moshe Leib Lilienblum, the historian Shimon Dubnov, and many other luminaries whose streets are dotted around the city. As I write these lines, I discover that both parents of Natan Sharansky were born and grew up in Odessa. Another circle is completed.

No quote is more apt to describe the link between Odessa, the port on the Black Sea, and the port of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea, than the call by Bialik to create a park in the heart of the city, (which later became known as Gan Meir). “Everyone knows of Odessa as the beautiful southern belle which is mainly due to its trees and boulevards. A young city like Tel Aviv is in great need of this, because God should take mercy on a young woman who is bald.”

(l-r) Leonid Blechman - Israel channel 9, Matthew Bronfman - Limmud FSU steering committee chair, Chaim Chesler

Coming again full circle, Limmud presenters and organizers had a parallel visit to Tel Aviv, accompanied by intriguing anecdotes, intellectual discussions and fascinating wanderings around the streets until late at night. They had the chance to investigate the links between Odessa and Tel Aviv and soak in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Odessa that influenced the early Zionist pioneers in the young city of Tel Aviv. That too was the vision that inspired Limmud FSU last week in the older of the two cities – a direct link between the young Russian-speaking generation of Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Belarus, with their peers in Western Europe, the USA and of course, Israel.

Chaim Chesler is the founder and chair of the Organizing Committee of Limmud FSU, and former Treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel.