This path was created by Sara Bobok. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Odessa - Jewish History

October 27, 1905

    “Rummage through the bins in the attic, see if you find any winter coats. Pack them, but hurry.” Following my mother’s orders, I grab one of the last empty sacks and set out to find our winter clothes.

We’ve been packing for the last several days, ever since the violence right on our block. My parents, brother, and I are unharmed, but the same can’t be said for many of the people from our synagogue. Governor Neidhart’s delayed response left my family with only one option: to leave Odessa.

As I sort through moth-eaten shawls and blankets, I come across a small wooden chest. Picking at the knob, I pry it open. Inside, a pair of earrings, a drawing of the moles on the ocean, and countless letters. I skip to the bottom of the page, and find my great-grandmother’s name scribbled hastily. The date: 1835. I start to read.

 

Dear Abby,

My trip to Vilna was most eye-opening! I felt fully unprepared for the degree of religiosity and ritual practiced there. My piety was well below that of my peers. We interacted solely with other Jewish families. In fact, I don’t think I even saw a non-Jewish person on the streets. Every restaurant and park seemed to have only Jewish visitors. We did little aside from spending time with one another and discussing our studies -- another area in which I felt completely unimpressive! Yet, people understood very little of the grain trade, which was surprising to me since if my Jewish peers are well-spoken in anything, it is the ins and outs of the grain trade.

    There was a rigid and nervous feeling throughout the entire trip, as if there were places that were meant for us, and some that were not. My host mother would hurry as away from certain blocks and visibly ease in majority Jewish spaces. I had never felt this before, not in all of my years in Odessa. It made me miss the openness with which I visit any cafe, park, or theaters. It made me realize that the conversations I have with my Greek, German, and Russian peers would not happen in Vilna -- that here, we would be seen as an other.

    Additionally, though it pains me to say this, I do not think I am accustomed to that level of piety. My experiences revolve much more around art and culture and the trade. I feel as though my family is much more relaxed in our religious observance.

    As I sat with my host mother in Vilna, I made a comment about the funny crooks back home (Tanny 2). My host mother gave me a mortified look and asked me to stop speaking immediately. Perplexed, I asked her why. “We cannot equate our own people with criminals,” she answered. “But they protect us, they use their criminality for good,” I responded. She did not appreciate my tone and quickly changed the topic.

    My time away from Odessa made me greatly question whether my experiences at home are unique. Do Jewish girls abroad not enjoy the same art? The same friends? Are they considerably more pious than I? Is this just in Vilna, or elsewhere as well?

    All my love,

        Elise

 

I run my eyes along the last lines of the letter countless times. How much has changed between her lifetime and mine. Her life was brimming with empowering Jewish humor. The myth of the Jewish criminal in Odessa was used as a way to lift up my people, not as a way to scapegoat and deepen cleavages (Tanny 12). We once felt so much validation from Benya Krik and the stories of Isaac Babel (Babel). Little did she know what that trope would look like within just a few generations.

The acculturation she speaks of as a way of uniting different ethnic groups is lost today almost entirely. My family’s focus on grain trade as opposed to our religion was once seen as our way to integrate, but is now perceived as our greatest flaw. They claim the economic downturn is our fault (Herlihy 304). What once added so much to our city is now seen as its detriment. As they isolate us further and further, they claim we are not patriotic enough. The Ignat’ev laws have restricted us to positions of second class citizens (Herlihy 304). There is little that we can do right in their eyes.

Last week, this tension grew stronger. With no discouragement from the government and the physical support of the police, the Jewish people of Odessa were physically attacked. For days, between October 19th and October 21st, the violence continued, on the streets and in the homes of innocent civilians (Herlihy 306-307). Today, there is little we can do but question our future in this city that was once a welcoming home to Jewish families like mine.

Reading my grandmother’s letter makes last week’s violence seem more absurd than before. What has happened to this once harmonious city? What dark path must we endure next?

 

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