Tel Aviv on the Black Sea: Odessa, the Cradle of Israeli Culture, Enjoys a Jewish Renaissance

Hand-painted Malkot (racquets), by Russian-Israeli artists, used in Israel’s national beach sport. From an exhibit at The Museum of Odessa Modern Art; photo by Dan Brown / eJP.

By Rebecca Greig

If you know where to look, the ghosts of Odessa’s Jewish past are everywhere, haunting and playful: in the pizza restaurant blaring “Hava Nagila” across from the Potemkin Steps; in the forshmak (chopped herring), tzimmes and gefilte fish served in the city’s oldest eating establishments; in the Jewish jokes and Yiddish words that pepper local patois; to the sign above an overgrown courtyard that reads “The State of Israel was born here.”

But for much of the latter half of the 20th century, Jewish Odessa was a city in retreat. On the eve of World War II, a third of the population (some 200,000 people) was Jewish. Now it’s more like 3 percent (45,000) and mostly assimilated. The majority of Odessa’s Jews are secular and from mixed families. People will tell you, “My mother is Jewish” or “My grandmother is Jewish,” with little understanding that, according to halakha, they too are Jewish.

The Holocaust, where some 100,000 Jews were shot or burned alive in the first month of Romanian and German occupation in October 1941, swiftly followed by decades of Soviet rule, decimated and then suppressed what remained of the Jewish community. Those who had the means to leave did – seeking new lives and freedoms in places such as New York and Tel Aviv. Today, some half a million Israeli citizens trace their origins back to Ukraine – there isn’t available data for the number of Jews who moved to Israel specifically from Odessa in the 1990s – around half of Israel’s Russian-speaking population.

Marat Parkhomovsky, an Israeli film and theater director, is one of those citizens. His special interest is the history of Israeli cinema, from documenting its origins in British Mandatory Palestine to Israel’s contemporary film industry. He was in Odessa for the city’s annual international film festival in July, celebrating 70 years of Israeli cinema.

It is the first time he has been back since leaving as a 10-year-old, 28 years ago. He is here with his Israeli-born wife Avital Bekerman, who is head of development at the Israel Film Fund. They are attending a party marking Israel’s contribution to world cinema.

The setting is somewhat incongruous: a private beach at sunset, palm trees, gazebos – and the acerbic clucks of Netta Barzilai’s chicken noises in recent Eurovision winner “Toy.” The cheesy Israeli tunes emanating from the DJ booth have the festivalgoers convinced that the man behind the music is an Israeli import. One of the guests suggests the atmosphere is more akin to a Jewish wedding in Malibu than an international film festival.

As guests quaff champagne and nibble finger foods, conversations switch with ease between Russian and Ukrainian, Hebrew and English.

For Parkhomovsky, the two-and-a-half-hour flight was a three-decade trip back in time.

“It was very strange. When I came to Israel from Odessa, it was still the Soviet Union. I didn’t think I would ever return,” he says.

The Soviet city of his memory – a city of austere lines and decaying neo-baroque architecture – has been replaced by a bustling commercial and tourist center, where gaudy neon signs advertising pizza and strip joints compete with fashion boutiques and hipster coffee bars on historic Derybasivska Street

“It’s a very intriguing city. I want to know it better. It’s part of my puzzle. I want to understand my roots, my history, my heritage. Odessa is a really important part of who I am today,” Parkhomovsky says.

Tel Aviv on the Black Sea

The history of Odessa is also the history of Tel Aviv. Long before the State of Israel was founded, the Jewish community in Odessa raised money for the land where Tel Aviv was established. Odessa was the birthplace of Revisionist Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, of essayist and Zionist intellectual Ahad Ha’am and Israeli national poet Haim Nahman Bialik. And it was in this Black Sea port city that modern Hebrew was born in the poems of Shaul Tchernichovsky and where Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, spent his formative years.

It is this rich Jewish intellectual tradition that Vladislav Davidzon and his wife Regina Maryanovska-Davidzon draw on in their literary creation, The Odessa Review. This English-language magazine in the style of The New Yorker and The Paris Review is profoundly Jewish and Eastern European. Davidzon, a fast-talking New Yorker, was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Russian-Jewish parents who moved to New York’s Brighton Beach (also known as “Little Odessa”) when he was age 7. Following a childhood steeped in Russian culture and literature, he went on to major in Slavic studies and philosophy before meeting his wife, an Odessa native, in Paris – where they live part of the year.

Galvanized by Maidan – the 2014 pro-European revolution that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – the Davidzons were compelled to play their own part in the evolution of a new Ukraine: “A liberal and cosmopolitan Ukraine where Jews and Ukrainians stand as equals,” Davidzon wrote in an introduction to a recent Jewish issue of the magazine focusing on “the relationship between Ukrainians and Jews – past, present and future.”

“From the Pale of Settlement to the Promised Land,” one headline reads. Another promises “Jewish humor from Odessa’s Moldavanka,” referring to the raucous Jewish ghetto so vividly depicted in Isaac Babel’s “Odessa Tales.”

Davidzon’s vision is of a country “where Ukrainian scholars study Yiddish to read the works of great Jewish writers, where Odessan Jews tell their city’s famous jokes in Ukrainian [and] where Jewish history is recognized as a critical part of Ukrainian history.”

Over tarator, a chilled yogurt and dill soup, and traditional Slavic kompot in one of his favorite Odessa haunts, Davidzon says his dream is becoming a reality.

Odessa, and Ukraine, he says, are both experiencing a “golden age.” The majority of the Jewish population may have gone but the “Jewish experience is everywhere,” he says. The DNA of the culture of the city is Jewish.”

Maryanovska-Davidzon agrees. Her Jewish-Odessan family, assimilated first in Soviet and latterly Ukrainian society, was one that was always culturally Jewish, from the gefilte fish and eggplant her grandmother prepared to the literature and art they consumed.

Now, she says, the Jewish cultural revival is stronger than ever – helped in no small part by a very active Chabad community, and Israeli and Jewish cultural centers that have become a focal point of Odessan Jewish life.

“We have Israeli cinema week and multiple Israeli cultural events in Odessa throughout the year. There are many mixed (Jewish and non-Jewish) families in Odessa – and almost all of them are involved in Jewish cultural life,” says Maryanovska-Davidzon.

Bloody past

Jewish religious life in Odessa has also seen a revival. The city has two synagogues with active congregations: The Main Synagogue, which dates to the city’s founding and the first Jewish community in 1798; and The Old Synagogue, built at the turn of the 20th century and renovated by the Chabad movement in 1996.

A third synagogue, Brodsky – built by Jews from Brody in 1863 – was the largest synagogue in the south of what was then the Russian Empire, famed for the beautiful singing voices of its cantors. Today it is a dusty shadow of its storied past. Two years ago, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community after a century of state control. Once restored, it will host the Chabad congregation and the Odessa Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. This will be a significant upgrade from the unmarked courtyard and four crowded rooms that comprise the current community-run Jewish museum, populated with donations from families who mostly fled Odessa. As a result, it is more an overflowing depository of Jewish domestic artefacts than an organized exhibition that follows a clear chronology.

The optimistic Jewish Odessa of today is hard to square with the city where 300 Jews were killed in a bloody pogrom in 1905 – one of five such massacres that roiled the city’s Jewish population in the 19th and 20th centuries. But despite reports of virulent anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Davidzon is adamant that Odessa, and Ukraine, is more tolerant than its Western European neighbors.

“I had one [anti-Semitic] incident in 10 years,” he says. “But this country is totally safe for us. There is no organized anti-Semitism in Odessa, and I often tell people that I feel safe walking in a kippa in Odessa and Kiev, but not next to my apartment in Paris.

“In my experience, the level of anti-Semitism is the lowest in Europe,” he adds.

Davidzon’s experience is reflected in the robust tourist trade between Ukraine and Israel as growing numbers of Ukrainians and Israelis take advantage of visa-free travel between the two countries. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko announced in September 2016 that this has led to a tenfold increase in tourist flow, with 137,000 Ukrainians visiting Israel last year alone. This cross-cultural pollination is evident in a number of bars and restaurants in the city center: From Allenby – an Israeli restaurant that draws its guests in with signs in Hebrew and English – to Dizyngoff, an ambitious Israeli-Parisian-Asian fusion restaurant that looks out to a monument of Catherine the Great. With offerings including smoked salmon and cucumber cheesecake, shiitake mushroom hummus, sea bass sashimi and baked snails, the menu doesn’t disappoint. A Russian inscription on the restaurant’s Facebook page reads “Dizyngoff – a part of Israel in the center of Odessa.”

Alexander Vlasopolov, 26, one of the restaurant’s four founders, had the idea after spending some time in Israel after a Birthright Jewish heritage trip. He is adamant that Dizyngoff is at heart a Tel Aviv restaurant, multicultural and multiethnic, with strong Jewish roots.

“Our restaurant is influenced by Jewish and Israeli culture, but we also wanted it to be fun and essentially Odessan,” Vlasopolov says. The beautiful young things imbibing the imaginatively named “Boker Tov” and “Damascus Gate” cocktails seem to agree.

Odessa may have given birth to Israeli cultural life, but in one of life’s many twists, it is now contemporary Israeli culture that is returning to the Black Sea.