‘Ukraine’s Tom Waits’ Keeps Sound of Jewish Odessa Alive

Before the Russian Revolution, Odessa was a kind of New Orleans on the Black Sea - a duty-free haven with a thriving black market and teeming port-side taverns, where you could hear a variety of musical styles: Greek, Roma, Armenian, Georgian. It was famous for its distinctive mélange. It also had a large Jewish community - bankers, workers and Jewish gangsters all lived there.

Today, Odessa is rundown, a ghost of its former self. Much of the Jewish intelligentsia has gone. The notorious high crime/low-rent Moldavanka district, made famous by Isaac Babel's (1894-1940) Odessa Stories and Mark Bernes (1929-1969) - Odessa's Jewish Bing Crosby - is full of ruinous buildings and collapsing infrastructure.

Isaac Babel was born here in the Moldavanka ghetto and used the district as the setting for most of his Odessa tales, featuring Jewish gangsters both before and after the October Revolution. One of Babel's most colorful characters was the legendary Beny Krick, one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature, who navigates Moldavanka's mean streets, making mischief and spreading largesse.

Odessa was also home to a thriving Jewish music scene and a higher than usual concentration of musical virtuosos. "All the people in our circle - brokers, shopkeepers, clerks in the banks and steamship offices - signed their children up for music lessons," writes Babel. "Odessa was seized by a madness like no other city. And it's true - our town supplied the world's concert stages with prodigies for two decades straight."

But all that is no more. While the city still reaps the benefits befitting a port town, the crazy spirit of the old "New Orleans of the Pale" (the area of Jewish settlement in imperial Russia) is now only the stuff of...

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