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My Summer at the Odessa Museum of Jewish History

I’d come to Odessa to chase an improbable scholastic obsession of mine: the rebirth of the Hebrew language, and the city it largely took place in, nicknamed “The Gate to Zion” in the early 20th century. Once, Odessa was a hotbed of Hebrew intellectualism, the site of Bialik’s Moria printing press and Ahad Ha’am’s influential monthly journal Ha-Shiloach. In this city, up the 200 granite stairs from the harbor, a revival had been born that had woken a language from its sleep in the prayer books. I wanted to spend some time there in the hopes that, through some mysterious alchemy of worn cobblestones and wide Ukrainian skies, I’d feel closer to the dead men I’d studied with such fervor—feel, somehow, a little of their revivalist spirit.

In pursuit of this nebulous goal, I’d cold-called dozens of organizations, staying up late to thwart the seven-hour time difference, until a “yes” came crackling at last through the speaker. By early May, I’d become a volunteer tour guide at the Odessa Museum of Jewish History. I bought a ticket, said a prayer to whatever god was listening, and set out, telling myself I’d find a place to live once I got there.

Stumbling out of the tiny, grimy airport, I faced the brightest sun I’d seen in two long days of travel. The crush of heat plastered my hair to the back of my neck, deflating any surviving curls. All I had with me was a suitcase full of too many books and two words of Ukrainian—“Yak spravi?” (what’s up?)—scrawled on the back of my hand, where they were fast turning into an illegible blotch of ink. I stood on the curb and squinted into the blaze that washed the linden trees with light, filled with trepidation.

Salvation came for me in a puke-brown 1977 Volga. Out of the car climbed the man I’d soon come to know as Vova Chaplin, blue-eyed museum tour guide and avid Ukrainian student of Jewish history. “Are you Talia?” he asked (in Russian—I wouldn’t hear English for another few months). “Yak spravi?,” he added mockingly, eyeing the still-legible words on my hand. “Welcome to Odessa.”

We drove over the highway into the city, bumped our way over the stony avenues, and, flashing past glimpses of the Black Sea, we arrived at our destination: 66 Nezhinskaya Street, a sooty apartment building barred by an iron gate. Glued demurely to the arch of the gate was a blue tile that read, “Odessa Jewish Museum-apartment.” The museum was in a converted communal apartment, most of its collection crammed into five small rooms. That afternoon I received my first tour from Misha, its dour, grizzled, chain-smoking director, an art historian who projected an air of perpetual gloom.

At first glance, the five rooms of the Odessa Jewish History Museum appear to be filled with a random scattering of junk. Over the course of a 45 minute museum tour, administered by Misha, Vova, or (for a short time only!) yours truly, the collection is revealed for what it really is: the detritus of centuries of Jewish presence in the city, each object with a story large or small.

A small sampling of the collection: A jolly, animatronic figure in peyes and a gartel, which was a department-store Santa before the museum staff converted him; the dilapidated bra of a Russian-Jewish army doctor captured by Germans during World War II; a haunting black-and-white portrait of the Odessa Cheka, later the KGB, made up for the most part of ardently Communist Jews; an Odessa night newspaper with a young Vladimir Jabotinsky’s byline; Isaac Babel’s parents’ china cabinet; a mortar and pestle, once used by the goodwives of Odessa to smash carp flesh into gefilte fish; a rusted set of mohel’s tools; a spoon from Café Franconi, once a hangout for the city’s many Jewish gangsters, stolen by a long-ago immigrant to America and mailed back by his penitent descendants; a portrait of the sole survivor of the Domanevka concentration camp; and so on, until the last exhibit—improbably, a collection of artifacts from the Jewish community of Odessa’s sister city, Baltimore, Md.

Each day I walked from the apartment I’d rented under the table just off Primorskiy Bulvar, the entrance nearly obscured by a shaggy grapevine. Vova and Misha and I waited for the occasional wanderer to find the museum despite its humble signage. Waiting, we smoked, watching the stray cats sun themselves in the courtyard and the neighbors’ kids get tangled in the clotheslines. A couple of leathery Israelis, some soft-spoken Germans, and a trio of chubby Brandeis students trickled through, and I walked backwards through the rooms, making slow sense of this riot of object history as I spoke.

On long, sunny afternoons, I wandered down the avenues, woozy with the scent of catalpa trees, watching the heavy ships steam into the industrial port. I bought batteries, jewel-toned strawberries, matrioshka dolls, and a wooden cigarette holder from under the long rows of umbrellas in the open-air bazaar. On weekends, I crept through the Odessa Catacombs, drank Lviv’ska beer, ate salt fish and rode the overnight train to Kyiv.

History peered out from cast-brass monuments and bas-reliefs, between Soviet apartments and dingy, once-glamorous homes from the nineteenth century. Wild grapes hung from every balcony. American and Russian pop music blared from the nightclubs on Ekaterinska Street, signaling, with its thumping newness, the immediacy of the present and the banishment of the past. But each day I came back to the museum on Nezhinskaya Street, wearing the sunwashed cobbles down still further, until the city once the roaming grounds of Hebrew poets and Jewish gangsters belonged, somehow, to me too.

Talia Lavin is a recent Harvard graduate and aspiring novelist. She will be starting a Fulbright grant in Ukraine this September, where she hopes to get used to pickled herring, pelmeni and pit toilets.

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