To sum up the exotic history of the Black Sea port of Odessa, Charles King, in “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams” (Norton: $27.95), describes “a city that had been scouted by a Neapolitan mercenary, named by a Russian empress, governed by her one-eyed secret husband, built by two exiled French noblemen, modernized by a Cambridge-educated count, and celebrated by his wife’s Russian lover.” The Yiddish phrase Lebn vi Got in Odes! (“Live like God in Odessa!”), according to King, “could be a blessing, a curse, or a jab at the puffed-up pretensions of city folk.”
A new Jewish cultural center was dedicated in Odessa.
Kiril Alexandrovich's Cafe Hillel, which was expected to open last week, is the first effort in Odessa at co-branding undertaken by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The partnership aims to transform Jewish youth organizing in the former Soviet Union, leaving behind the club model and heading out into the cities, where young Jews work and play.
Reading "The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel" (W. Norton & Co., 2002) in paperback, edited by Babel's daughter, Nathalie, got me thinking about Jewish gangsters and tough guys.
Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. He wrote of Odessa's Jewish underworld and its gangsters in sparkling prose. Fifty years before Mario Puzo gave us "The Godfather," Babel offered up Benya Krik. Benya, Babel tells us, had "gangster chic" -- a century before Tupac took the stage. Babel's Odessa was home to a universe of Jewish murderers, pimps and crooks. Before there was 50 Cent, Babel wrote of a millionaire named "Yid and a half."