1905 in the Odessa Café

Odessa, a mythologized center of modernity and relative freedom in the Pale of Settlement, had always been a site of tension between social classes, ethnic groups, nationalities, and political ideologies. These tensions became particularly apparent after the failed 1905 revolution against the Tsarist Russian regime, and the subsequent wave of anti-Jewish violence in Odessa. The changes which the city underwent during this tumultuous period were reflected in its cafés, especially as these were thirdspaces which allowed many groups of people to interact with one another.  

Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Jewish-Russian writer and journalist who later became the leader of the Zionist Revisionist party in Palestine, experienced these changes in the Odessa café firsthand. A common habitué, Jabotinsky used to sit in Odessa’s famous cafés, writing, observing, and gathering information about cultural events in the city, as well as in the simple Greek cafés near the port, which he especially liked.

In his semiautobiographical novel Pyatero (The Five, 1936), Jabotinsky writes that during the golden age of the café—before 1905—“one could see the trading terraces” of the two most famous institutions, Café Fanconi and Café Robina, which were “noisy as the sea at a massif, filled to overflowing with seated customers, surrounded by those waiting to get in.”

In the memoir of his friend Israel Trivus, one of Odessa’s Zionists, he describes Jabotinsky's experience in the Greek Café Ambarzaki in 1904. Jabotinsky said that in Ambarzaki “there is an aroma of Asia, . . . but it creates an ambience that takes you up to the sky, where there is no limit to your thought and imagination.” Jabotinsky was attracted not only to the divine "ambrosia and nectar" in the form of "a fragrant cup of Turkish-style coffee" which he enjoyed at Ambarzaki, but also to the rich conversation in the café which revolved around Greek and Jewish national movements and the emerging Zionist movement, as well as around the glories of Odessa, Pushkin’s poems (which Jabotinsky recited from memory), the city, and its cafés.

Yet, all of this would change after 1905, when, as Jabotinsky states, the cafés in Odessa suddenly emptied. Some cafés were even in the line of fire amidst the chaos of 1905, such as Café Libman. Libman, the Jewish-owned establishment in the center of Odessa, was bombed by a group of socialist-anarchists in December 1905 as a part of their effort to create “economic terror.” While this act of terrorism was directed at "bourgeois bloodsuckers," as the anarchists referred to Mr. Libman and other café-owners, Café Libman was really a place where students, liberals, and intellectuals would go. One of the Odessa anarchists, Daniel Novomirsky, criticized the bombers precisely for bombing a café where the “local intelligentsia”—many of them Jewish—would sit and drink tea and coffee. 

The pogrom of 1905 was a painful reminder that even a city such as Odessa was not immune to anti-Semitism. A number of writers described in their fiction the devastation of the anti-Jewish violence in texts that were centered in cafés and similar institutions. Aleksandr Kuprin does this in his short story “Gambrinus” (1907), named after a real establishment in the center of Odessa. Gambrinus was not a café like Fanconi, Robina, or Libman but an underground establishment, a mix of tavern and café-chantant, in which music was played every night. In the story, the most beloved musician in Gambrinus was Sashka, an Odessan Jewish fiddler who was steeped in the tradition of Jewish (klezmer) music that developed in Odessa. Sailors and workers would flock to see and hear Sashka, based on a real figure, Sender Pevzner, who was familiar in Odessa for his violin playing. In the story, after the pogrom in Odessa erupted, the very same people who enjoyed Sashka’s playing in Gambrinus were suddenly incited against Jews. After disappearing for some time, Sashka returned to Gambrinus with a broken arm, unable to play his fiddle. The story ends with the triumph of art over the force of anti-Semitism and violence, as Sashka takes up a small harmonica and begins to play one of his beloved tunes.

The violence of the revolution and the pogroms which entered Odessa cafés also plays a role in Ya’akov Rabinovitz’s Hebrew novel Neve kayits (A summer retreat, 1934). It revolves around the life of young Jewish men. All of them are acculturated to Russian culture; some are from bourgeois families, and others belong to revolutionary movements. The tensions between Jews and non-Jews and the threat of anti-Semitism and violence gradually enter their bohemian life. The end of the novel comes after several acts of violence against Jews and revolutionaries. At this point, the plot moves from the seaside and the boulevards of central Odessa to the suburb of Moldavanka—infamous for its Jewish destitute residents, as well as poverty and crime—where Yitzḥak and his friends go to the humble cafés in which they normally would not be seen. One of the visitors, an owner of a small hotel, complains that

“there is no rest, they destroy the city, the commerce, and everything. And we are Jews.”

During these turbulent times, Jews of all backgrounds feel more at home and more able to talk about their situation in humble cafés in Moldavanka or in the Jewish and Zionist self-defense circles than in places such as Cafés Fanconi, Robina, or Libman.

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