Odessa Has Chutzpah
Published: September 19, 2012 (Issue # 1727)
ODESSA, Ukraine — “The air conditioner is broken, but you’re very welcome to come in,” an attractive restaurant hostess says with a charming smile. “Here in Odessa, you cannot feel let down.”
Situated on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, the nation’s fourth-largest city is as renowned for its warm water seaport as for its humor.
Native son Mikhail Zhvanetsky, a beloved satirist, once wrote: “In Odessa they joke without end, but this is not humor, it’s a condition caused by heat and audacity.”
Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, who co-authored two of the Soviet Union’s most-famous comedies, “The Twelve Chairs” and its sequel, “The Little Golden Calf,” grew up in Odessa. Many of their works poke fun at the Soviet system.
Isaak Babel, heralded as one of the greatest writers of Russian prose, was also born in Odessa. His collections of short stories, including the acclaimed “Red Cavalry” and “Tales of Odessa,” are considered masterpieces of Russian literature.
Zhvanetsky, Ilf, Petrov and Babel were all members of the city’s once-prominent Jewish population, which at the turn of the 20th century made up nearly 40 percent of the populace.
Although pogroms and emigration have left the Jewish community a shadow of its former self, its influence remains clearly palpable in the city’s cultural identity.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, settling in an area now called “Little Odessa.”
Russian director Leonid Gaidai noted the similarity in his 1992 comedy, “Weather Is Good on Deribasovskaya, It Rains Again on Brighton Beach.” The title refers to a pedestrian walkway in central Odessa, named after Jose de Ribas, a Spanish nobleman who founded the city while serving as an admiral in the Russian imperial navy.
Odessa’s population is predominantly Russian-speaking. And with a diverse demography including Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Romanians and Turks, many here consider themselves as being of one ethnicity: Odessian.
In a tribute to the city’s uniqueness, street vendors hawk “Russian-Odessian” dictionaries, featuring comical scenarios. In one, a recently widowed Odessian inquires at a funeral home: “How much would a funeral cost? … Oh, and without a body?”
The ideal place to learn the “Odessian” language is at a cafe or aboard one of the old-fashioned trolleys that criss-cross the town.
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