In 1912, Odessa was still a very new city: it had only existed for a little more than a century, and surprisingly, was dominated by Jews -- most of them secular. In recruiting a founding population the Russians had lifted the restrictions on both Jews and foreigners, and both arrived in large numbers, looking for opportunities that weren’t available in older and more rigid places. Odessa’s Jewish population had “played a pivotal role in the creation of Odessa’s dominant culture. Indeed … a secularized Jewish culture in a very real sense became the dominant culture.” (Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves, p. 5)
The vast majority of Jews in Russia a century ago lived under severe restrictions. Not so in Odessa. A third of its population of over half a million were Jews. Most spoke Russian; however, Yiddish from the Pale of Settlement and the eastern Austrian provinces, where most had come from, influenced the Odessa dialect which included many Yiddish words.
A large number of Jewish children in Odessa attended Russian schools. Jews were a majority of doctors and lawyers. Jewish members of a new middle class founded businesses and banks, played the stock exchange, went out to eat, listened to klezmer in taverns, and enjoyed (or pretended to enjoy) Italian opera in the city’s stylish opera house. Jewish journalists wrote both satire and serious articles in a number of newspapers, and Jewish fiction writers created a legacy of stories, leaving a nice record for modern scholars.
In Odessa, Jewish women aspired to be ladies with more freedom than they had enjoyed elsewhere – they dressed up to attend musical and theatrical performances, to drink coffee in the many cafes, and to eat in the European-style restaurants. Some worked as teachers or nurses; many led a pampered life.
And the Jews did all these things side by side with the non-Jews of the city.
A Jewish underworld was another widely noted presence in the city, especially in Moldavanka, the impoverished and overcrowded lower-class Jewish district. Odessan Jews thrived as thieves, con men, white slavers (who kidnapped young women and sent them to nearby Turkey or as far as Brazil), forgers, counterfeiters, fences of stolen goods, and other criminal types. The Jewish underworld fit well into the colorful and overheated atmosphere of the busy and multi-ethnic port city. Of course most Jews from Moldavanka worked at miserable but honest jobs: for example, they unloaded freight at the docks, provided household service, and worked in shops.
While Odessan Jews enjoyed freedom to worship in the city’s synagogues, they often dropped more committed religious practices, shocking visitors from villages by their casual attitudes towards dietary laws and Sabbath observances.
I’m currently at the beginning of what I hope is an ambitious project about Odessa and eventually other cities. So far, I’m reading:
• Charles King, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
• Roshanna P. Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves
• Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa
• Steven Zipperstein, The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794-1881
Coming soon: Jewish writers and revolutionaries in Odessa a century ago.