City of Rogues and Schnor­rers: Rus­si­a’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa

Jar­rod Tanny
  • Review
By – July 10, 2013

Odessa, the great port city on the north­ern shore of the Black Sea, remains syn­ony­mous with joy­ous thieves, adven­tur­ous entre­pre­neurs, clever con men, sex­u­al­ly loose men and women, all capa­ble of spin­ning self-jus­ti­fy­ing com­plaints and sophistry with an endear­ing Yid­dish accent. The Jew­ish city of sin” was alleged­ly sur­round­ed on all sides by the smoky fires of Hell, while the plea­sures of life in the mul­ti-eth­nic, but heav­i­ly Jew­ish city were summed up in the Yid­dish apho­rism for suc­cess, Lebn vi got in odes! [Liv­ing like God in Odessa!].” Isaac Babel immor­tal­ized the leg­ends of Old Odessa in his sto­ries about the Jew­ish crim­i­nal king, Benya Krik, while Mel Brooks’s film The Twelve Chairs” por­trays the Ilf and Petrov novel’s com­ic hero, Ostap Ben­der, in search of trea­sure hid­den inside a chair. 

In this out­stand­ing book, Jar­rod Tan­ny has under­tak­en to explore the roots of the leg­ends about the care­free, humor­ous rogues and schnor­rers who spoke with a Yid­dish accent in Russ­ian, anal­o­gous to the Brook­lyn Eng­lish of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. He traces the fac­tu­al exis­tence of crime in the boom­ing trade empo­ri­um that drew so many Jews, Greeks, French, Ital­ians, Rus­sians, Ukraini­ans, and more with hopes of suc­cess and glossy urban plea­sures. Tan­ny iden­ti­fies how the leg­end of Old Odessa grew to its peak in the decades just before and after the First World War and the years of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and Civ­il War. Despite repres­sive efforts by Stal­in and lat­er Com­mu­nist rulers, the leg­end of Old Odessa sur­vived and flour­ished once more in the final decades of the Sovi­et State, until the present. This is a delight­ful­ly writ­ten work of seri­ous schol­ar­ship about urban rogues and schnor­rers who trans­mit­ted an aspect of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and cul­ture into the broad­er Russ­ian cul­tur­al world. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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