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A Brief History of Odessa
Odessa was established in 1794 by the Empress Catherine the Great on land conquered from the Ottoman Empire on the site of the Black Sea fortress town of Khadzhibei. Catherine sent notices throughout Europe offering migrants land, tax exemptions, and religious freedom, attracting migrants of all types.
Thanks to its status until 1859 as a porto franco —a free port, exempt from taxes—Odessa attracted wealthy foreign merchants and exporters. Within a few decades, it became a sizable city as well as the preeminent Russian grain-exporting center. Odessa was multinational, multilingual, and multiethnic, which was reflected in its cafés. The 1855 Robert Sears guide to the Russian Empire declared that
“there is perhaps no town in the world in which so many different tongues may be heard as in the streets and coffeehouses of Odessa, the motley population consisting of Russians, Tartars, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, French, etc.”
In particular, Odessa appealed to Jewish migrants because the city was located at the southern end of the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire to which Jews were confined. This meant that Jews could settle there with few restrictions. Many Jews, both from Galicia, especially the city of Brody, and from small towns throughout the Russian Empire, made their way to Odessa in search of a better life. Jews were the fastest growing population in Odessa, and by 1892, the city’s 124,511 Jews formed the second-largest group in terms of size and were nearly as numerous as those listed as Russians.
Politically and culturally, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, Odessa became a center of Jewish life and attracted many maskilim: proponents of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began to take hold in eastern European cities and towns. In the 1860s, Odessa was the empire’s center for the publication of multilingual Jewish periodicals. Rassvet, Sion, and Den appeared in Russian-language editions between 1860 and 1871, as did Ha-melits in Hebrew and Kol mevaser in Yiddish in the same period. By the late 1860s, major Jewish book publishers opened branches in Odessa, promoting, among other publications, books of the Haskalah movement.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Odessa became the fourth-largest city in the Russian Empire. Around that time, Odessa was blessed, or cursed, with many cafés. In 1894, the newspaper Proshloe Odessy reported about 55 cafés and teahouses, 127 bakeries, and 413 restaurants in the city. In 1897, the 138,935 Jews constituted over a third of the city’s total population. Most of the Jews who lived in Odessa at end of the nineteenth century were migrants, from middle-class merchants to poor Jews, who were living and working as small artisans and middlemen in neighborhoods and suburbs such as Moldavanka.
Around the same time, toward the end of the nineteenth century, an extraordinary group of Jewish writers, intellectuals, and political figures formed a loose circle in the city that became known as the “Sages of Odessa.” They wrote in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian and had followers far and wide. Yiddish theater also flourished in late-nineteeth century Odessa, nurtured by creative spaces like café-chantants and cafés like Fanconi where actors like Jacob Adler would meet and perform.
- 1 media/Jacob-Adler-1902.jpg 2018-04-10T01:00:26-07:00 Akiva's Café 11 plain 2018-05-17T05:50:13-07:00 The famous actor Jacob Adler used to spend his evenings with other actors in Café Fanconi and in the Jewish-owned Akiva's café on Rivnoya Street, where theatrical rehearsals and performances took place.