Mapping Urban Cafés and Modern Jewish Culture

“Sages of Odessa”

Odessa was an important center of Haskalah and bourgeoning Jewish press and literature since the 1860s, but toward the end of the nineteenth century, an extraordinary group of Jewish writers and intellectuals made their home in the city. These writers, intellectuals, and political figures formed a loose circle that became known as the “Sages of Odessa.” They wrote in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian and had followers far and wide.

The person who emerged in this period as the most important Yiddish and Hebrew writer in the Jewish world, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, who wrote under the name Mendele Mokher-Sforim, settled in the city in 1881, when he was invited to direct a new modern school founded by the Jewish community of Odessa. Around the same time, Odessa became the center of Jewish nationalism and proto-Zionism in the Russian Empire. Leon Pinsker, the author of Auto-Emancipation, was active in the city as the head of the Odessa Committee of Hovevy Zion (Lovers of Zion) until 1891. He was joined by the thinker Aḥad Ha‘am (Asher Ginsburg), the historian Simon Dubnow, the poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, and the writers Moshe Leib Lilienblum, Elḥanan Leib Lewinsky, Yehoshu‘a Ḥe Ravnitsky, and others.

Some of these “Sages of Odessa” who tried to foster a highbrow sense of Jewish culture and nationalism did not know how to respond to the mixture of consumption, leisure, business, conversation, and intellectual activity that was exhibited in Odessa cafés.

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