Jewish Sin City: Al Capone’s Chicago Meets Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans – By Jeffrey Veidlinger

Jeffrey Veidlinger on Jarrod Tanny’s City of Rogues and Schnorrers

Jarrod Tanny, Jeffrey Veidlinger, City of Rogues, Indiana University Press
Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa, Indiana University Press, 2011, 288 pp., $27.95

Odessa is one of those cities that somehow never fails to stimulate the imagination. The myth of the city combines some of Al Capone’s Chicago with Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, perhaps with a touch of Hollywood tinsel and more than a dram of Detroit decline. In many ways, it is a gritty port city that, in its late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century heyday, served as a gateway across the Black Sea from one decaying empire to another. The Ukrainian wheat that fed much of central and western Europe fueled the city’s mid-nineteenth-century expansion, but the port was also famous for its black markets. It was often said that cheats learned their profession in Pera — on the Ottoman side of the sea — and practiced it in Odessa. At the same time, this city of dreams lured hundreds of thousands of visionaries, romantics, and wannabes — many of them Jewish —  from the surrounding countryside, who turned to Odessa in the hopes of making it for themselves. In turn, they remade Odessa and much of Jewish history.

It was here, in 1882, that the well-known physician Leo Pinsker wrote his “Autoemancipation,” which would stimulate and provide intellectual coherence to the budding Zionist movement. Countless young pioneers left for a new life in Palestine from Odessa’s shores in the late nineteenth century; many returned, dispirited, to the same port several years later. Sholem Yankev Abramovich, better known by his pseudonym Mendele the Book Peddler, made his home in Odessa, and it was his contemporary and fellow Odessa resident Solomon Rabinowitch (Sholem Aleichem) who dubbed him the grandfather of Yiddish literature. Leon Trotsky went to school in Odessa and lived in a courtyard not far from Hayim Nahman Bialik, who would become a distinguished Hebrew poet. Bialik’s poem about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, “In the City of Slaughter,” stimulated the organization of Jewish self-defense units, which in turn inspired Vladimir Jabotinsky and his militant Revisionist Zionism. Isaac Babel, though, probably did the most to make Odessa famous to readers around the world, with his portraits of Benia Krik and the Odessa underworld. Each of these writers helped contribute to the myth of Odessa, so poignantly explored in Jarrod Tanny’s City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa.

Odessa has been the subject of a number of excellent scholarly books in the past: Steven Zipperstein, Roshanna Sylvester, Patricia Herlihy, M. Polishchuk, Robert Weinberg, and most recently, Charles King, among others, have written histories of the city. Tanny’s story is not so much about the city as the myth of the city, a myth “rooted in fantastic imagery of heroes, outlaws, and enchanted cityscapes, ranging from the idyllic to the apocalyptic.” Odessa is “the archetypal city of gold and sin […] imagined as the playground of the rapacious, the godless, and the criminal,” both Eldorado and Gomorrah. Tanny clearly revels in the myth of what he calls the “Jewish city of sin” and retells that myth with clarity and spirit.

What most fascinates Tanny is the intersection between criminality, frivolity, and humor that is exemplified in the city’s myth, made in both highbrow literature and dime store pamphlets, in both opera houses and in seedy basement bars. Tanny is at his strongest when analyzing the literary bases for the popular image of Odessa, and his reading spans many of the languages, cultures, and eras that imbibed the myth. The stories of Odessa cut across a variety of class and national divides but were predominantly the products of Jewish mythmakers.

Tanny begins with some of the Jewish freethinkers, like Joachim Tarnopol and Osip Rabinovich, who portrayed Odessa as the new frontier and urged the Jewish masses of the Pale of Settlement to emulate the secularism and Russo-centrism that was in vogue among Jewish migrants to the port city. Characters in the writings of Sholem Abramovich and Sholem Aleichem were also captivated by Odessa. Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl was motivated by countless get-rich schemes centered in Odessa, a city he believed was paved with gold. For Abramovich’s pauper hero Fishke the Lame, Odessa was a city where even the beggars had a certain refinement, flair, and cosmopolitan spirit. It was imagined as everything the shtetl was not: vibrant, cosmopolitan, sexy, and fun. Odessa was tempting in a Vegas-like way: it was a playground free of restrictions, where “you can see the flames of hell.”

It is the criminal element of Odessa, in particular, that truly came to embody the spirit of the city.  The boulevard press relished in salacious stories of criminality that would make even Nancy Grace blush. The Jewish writer Semen Iushkevich created the character of Leon Drei, a swindler and womanizer who embodied the Odessa type for Russian readers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his short stories set in the city, the non-Jewish writer Aleksandr Kuprin brought to life swashbuckling Jewish adventurers, most famously in his short story “Gambrinus,” about Sashka the fiddler, who delighted his underworld audience in the smoky and damp taverns of the city’s alleyways.  But it was in the characters created by Isaak Babel that Odessa’s reputation as a criminal mecca was cemented and exported to the rest of the world.  Babel’s Benia Krik was in many ways a precursor to Tony Soprano — sensitive and psychologically complex with an innate sense of fairness and humor. He was a criminal mastermind we could all look up to.

The Jewishness of Soviet-era Odessa was tempered, but the same characters came to exemplify the city. Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov created the character of Ostap Bender; despite his portrayal as being of Turkish descent, perceptive readers could recognize in him the same quick-witted humor and Talmudic reasoning that characterized such Jewish types as Benia Krik and Leon Drei. The jazz and humor of Leonid Utesev built upon many of these same themes and helped Soviet citizens dance their troubles away. The deviant merrymaking of the city, while moderated, could still be heard under Stalinism.

Tanny’s final chapters turn to the revival of the myth, first during the Thaw and then in an independent Ukraine. During the late Soviet period, the myth was perpetuated in the couplets, jokes, and bawdy humor that proliferated through informal channels. The comedy of Mikhail Zhvanetskii, whose humor was recognizably Odessan (and Jewish), also perpetuated the city’s image. Jewishness, criminality, and humor had become essential parts of the Odessa myth, surviving even Stalinism.

City of Rogues and Schnorrers analyzes the myth of Odessa with the type of verve, style, and humor one would expect of the topic. Readers of this work will come away with a greater appreciation for the myth and understanding of its origins but may still be wondering about its larger meaning. What do these tropes tell us about the plight of Russian or Soviet Jewry writ large? Why was the Russian reading public so eager to identify Odessa as a place of Jewish criminality, and why were the criminals always such appealing characters? What made the myth persist? Was it only the continued willingness of writers to perpetuate it, or did it appeal to some deeper sentiment within the psyche?

The myth of old Odessa would be a wonderful prism through which to grapple with these larger historiographical issues, and one wishes Tanny had seized this opportunity. As it is, though, the book is a wonderful read, deeply infused with erudition and literary sensitivity, and an important complement to our understanding of Odessa and Russian Jewish history.