When Odessa became a Jewish ‘utopia’
Scholar recalls a time when barriers fell, and art and Zionism thrived
Odessa, with its cosmopolitan and Greek influences, became in the 19th century a place where Jews could interact with other cultures. Yet it also became an incubator for a revival of Hebrew and political ideals that would give rise to a modern vision of Zionism.
This seemingly incongruous scenario belonged to a city, now part of Ukraine, that sat “at the juncture of the western, Muslim, and the Christian Mediterranean“ and “at the edge of the entrance to the Russian Empire,” said Dr. Olga Litvak, a professor of history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
She spoke at Rutgers University Sept. 14, delivering the annual Toby and Herbert Stolzer Endowed Lecture for the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Litvak, who specializes in Eastern European and modern Jewish history, said Odessa “was in a different universe geopolitically than everywhere else in the Russian Empire.”
Closer to what is now Istanbul than to either St. Petersburg or Moscow, and with a port on the Black Sea, the city was heavily influenced by other cultures, from its architecture to its open society.
“It was a place where people drank Turkish coffee in cafes and listened to Italian opera,” said Litvak, and where residents reveled in classical Greek culture.
Jews became immersed in the cultural tapestry of the city. Just as local writers experienced a revival of classical Greek, Jewish writers enjoyed a classical Hebraic renaissance, producing writers and artists into the 20th century who had a profound influence on modern Zionism.
They included Hayim Nahman Bialik, whose Zionistic works in Hebrew and Yiddish inspired many Jews within the Russian empire, and Saul Tchernichowsky, whose 1899 Hebrew poem, “In the Presence of Apollo,” used imagery from Greek mythology to rally fellow Jews. This new image of masculinity and self-determination carried over to the fledgling kibbutz movement.
After the Russians conquered the region, Jews came to Odessa — often for financial reasons — from throughout the Pale of Settlement, Romania, the Ukrainian “hinterlands,” and Galicia in Germany.
They found that for the first time they could participate in a culturally and ethnically mixed society.
“It became the kind of place Jews from the Pale could only dream of,” said Litvak. “Can you imagine what it was like for a Jew from the Pale to go to the Italian opera or sit in a cafe meeting others? But the same Jews who went to the Italian opera also patronized the beginnings of what was the Yiddish theater, which started in Odessa.”
Litvak said the creation of modern Jewish culture began in 19th-century Odessa as its Jews absorbed their surroundings and became more secular.
Litvak, author of Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry and Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism, is currently working on a study of Russian Zionism.
“As you can imagine, the political and cultural temperature of the place was not very temperate, but rather hot in all kinds of ways,” she said. “Jews did all kinds of things in Odessa much to the chagrin of the rabbis.”
The city had a superficial, even promiscuous side, and as Jews sat in cafes, conversations eventually turned to politics, finances, and culture.
“This was the first time Jews had the opportunity to talk to strangers and, more importantly, to non-Jewish strangers,” said Litvak. “You’re not going to go to your rabbi if you want to know what’s going on in the stock market.”
Odessa’s influence can be felt even in modern Israel. Showing photos of present-day Tel Aviv and Odessa — including remarkably similar beaches, buildings, courtyards, and outdoor cafes — Litvak asked the stumped audience to guess in which city they were taken.
“The idea of a Jewish utopia, particularly democracy, was born in Odessa,” she said.
The program was held at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the New Brunswick campus, which cosponsored it in conjunction with its current exhibit, “Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth,” which features the works of a number of Jewish artists (see sidebar).