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Odessa Memories (review)

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 97, Number 3, Summer 2007
pp. e94-e99 | 10.1353/jqr.2007.0043

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Odessa's place in Russian Jewish modernity as it emerges from the research of such scholars as Steven Zipperstein, Michael Stanislawski, Olga Litvak, and Mikhail Polishchuk might be summarized along four main axes. First, since Zipperstein's pioneering history of Jewish community building in nineteenth-century Odessa, the city has taken its place in the historiography as an early site of substantial Jewish civic and cultural integration in imperial Russian society: later than "port Jews" elsewhere in Europe (or for that matter the arriviste Jewish elite of early nineteenth-century Warsaw) but earlier than counterparts in other Russian cities, Jewish merchants, clerks, and writers of Odessa were able to parlay their various forms of economic or cultural capital into partial integration by the grace of tolerant local authorities and by dint of the fluid status structures of a multiethnic and merchant-dominated local society. Second, and moving forward in time, Odessa is understood to be an especially significant incubator of a distinctive Russian Jewish commercial bourgeoisie (with its attendant lower-middle-class clerks and its educated Russian-cum-cosmopolitan intelligentsia children), and of what may be an equally distinctive (certainly more colorful) Russian Jewish "lower depths." Third, Odessa is understood as an environment which, like Petersburg, allowed for new forms of Jewish community but also, like Warsaw, saw constant and accelerating communal breakdown through both "defection" by local elites and the uncontrollable influx of impoverished Jewish migrants. Finally, Odessa looms as both a center of elite [End Page e94] Russification in which local civic patriotism, imperial identification, and cosmopolitan sensibility comingled and as a center of Zionist and Hebraist cultural politics born, for some maskilim-cum-Hebraists, of a relationship of tension with the enticing and dangerous freedoms of Odessa and, for others, born of that very Russification and "Europeanization," either dialectically or directly.

It is against this backdrop that Odessa Memories must be judged here. Odessa Memories is an attractive collection of scholarly, memoiristic, and visual perspectives on Odessa built around a rich album of visual materials from the city, particularly in its last pre-Revolutionary years: postcards, posters, advertisements, photographs, even candy-wrappers. These visual images, gathered by editor Nicolas V. Iljine, are interspersed with the editor's own preface, brief memoirs by Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter Bel Kaufman of her Odessa childhood, and two general essays by Odessa's leading American historian Patricia Herlihy and by two of Odessa's own resident local history experts, Oleg Gubar and Alexander Rozenboim, respectively. These latter essays offer complementary sketches of the history of Odessa as Russian frontier city and commercial center, an ostensibly unique meeting ground of imperial ethnicities, a locus of a distinctive commercially driven Russian modernity and everyday life, and the object of a rather expansive and hypertrophic "memory" (to the further production of which this book perhaps inadvertently contributes).

The liberal spirit, capacious local knowledge, and in some cases personal affiliations of the book's contributors ensure that Odessa Memories devotes much space to Jewish life in the city, much of it drawn explicitly from works by Zipperstein and Stanislawski. Unfortunately, in addition to errors—Odessa did not have the biggest Jewish population in Europe in the 1890s (pp. 59–60); Barkai was a Hebrew rather than a Yiddish weekly (p. 114), and countless mistransliterations from Hebrew—the book's contributors tend to conflate unrelated or even opposed cultural phenomena into a single "vibrant Jewish culture," thus undoing through good will precisely what recent Jewish historical research has achieved in its focus on the centrifugal trajectories of Odessa's Jewish experience. Yet Odessa Memories has no pretensions to groundbreaking analysis in Russian Jewish history, so it would be merely perverse to judge it on those grounds. Rather, the question is, first, in what ways does this book enrich the current historical understanding of Odessa as a site of distinctive late imperial Russian Jewish trajectories? Second, how does the book suggest new lines of further analysis on such emerging topics as the culture of empire and the culture of commerce in late Imperial Russia? [End Page e95]

Odessa Memories is most interesting when it avoids trying to delineate the shape of Odessa's Jewish "culture" and "community...

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