“Sages of Odessa”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, an extraordinary group of Jewish writers and intellectuals made their home in the city of Odessa. 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 was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, who wrote under the name Mendele Mokher-Sforim. While Abramovitsh began as a proponent of the views of the Jewish Enlightenment, he became estranged from the Haskalah as he criticized middle-class maskilim who aimed to preserve their own economic integrity at the expense of the poor. This shift in attitude was reflected in some of Abramovitsh's Yiddish stories from the 1860/70s such as “Fishke der krumer” (Fishke the Lame) and the satirical novel Di klyatshe (The Nag). Abramovitsh settled in Odessa in 1881 when he was invited to direct a new modern school founded by the Jewish community of the city and was quickly absorbed into the circle of Jewish nationalist intellectuals there.

During this time, Odessa became the center of Jewish nationalism and proto-Zionism in the Russian Empire, particularly in response to the pogroms of 1871 and 1881. 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.

Pinsker was joined by the Zionist thinker and Hebrew writer 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 often preferred to meet in the more exclusive and private setting of the salon, did not know how to respond to the mixture of consumption, leisure, business, conversation, and intellectual activity that was exhibited in Odessa cafés. In a Hebrew feuilleton titled “ ‘Ir shel ḥaiym” (City of life, 1896), Lewinsky (one of the Sages) observes that now, sadly, in a “city full of men of enlightenment and readers of books,” Odessan Jews enjoy “boisterous activity, rich food, and harsh coffee” but not books. The Jews of Odessa, he concludes, are happy to pay good money for “the sheer pleasure of having dirty water tossed in their faces.”

While the Sages proved unenthusiastic about the burgeoning café culture in Odessa, the European cafés that many of them encountered when they migrated to Tel Aviv, the so-called "First Hebrew City," nonetheless evoked memories of Odessa and Europe in general. The painter Ḥayim Gliksberg remembered a meeting with Bialik.

“We entered the Casino. the hall was full of light and sun, and in its space was a smell of fresh paint mixed with the scent of the sea.” When Bialik entered, he said, “You know, I love this place. Here you feel as if you sit in the ship at the heart of the sea.”

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