Once considered the Jewish capital of the Russian Empire, Odessa is filled with traditions, buildings and monuments with ties to this cultural legacy. The city was once the center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
The small restaurant across the street from my hostel specialized in seafood from the Black Sea. In the middle of the street-side dining area was an old wine barrel topped with a humorous display of two traditional Jewish dolls dressed in the attire of their respective professions, a baker and a musician.
Purim at the Grand Coral Synagogue
During the Jewish holiday of Purim, I decided to spend the night at the charming California Boutique Hotel which was next door to the beautifully restored Grand Coral Synagogue, one of two functioning synagogues in Odessa. It was built in 1790. Purim commemorates the time when the Jewish people who were living in Persia during the First Persian Empire (550 -330BC) were saved from extermination by the courage of a young Jewish woman called Esther.
I checked into my hotel in the early evening and then proceeded next door to the synagogue. There I befriended a security guard who spoke English and stood close to him so as not to be too obtrusive in my street attire. Streams of children and young people were bounding joyfully in and out of the synagogue, many dressed in colorful costumes and masks. Adults who were with them were dressed in costume or Sabbath clothes. The guard explained that the time for the children to celebrate was over but the adults would return at 11pm to celebrate among themselves.
At the corner a food truck was surrounded by eager young people who had just exited the synagogue. A few boys were wearing a kippah, a head covering worn by Jewish men. I stood in the darkness watching and listening to the surrounding activity. Families, many with strollers, were socializing in front of the synagogue. Colored lights decorated the entrance to my hotel next door, in celebration. I later learned that the hostel was owned by an Israeli/American.
Later that night I looked out over the stone balcony of my room, and admired the beautiful stained glass window of the synagogue, which was lit from within. The sound of revelers inside pierced the clear night air. What a joy!
In striking contrast to the activity at the Great Choral Synagogue that night, the dark, imposing Brodsky Synagogue which was just around the corner, stood in mute testimony to its grand past. Built in 1863, it was the largest synagogue in the south of what was the Russian Empire at that time. Two years ago, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community after a century of state control. It is slated to be the future site of the Odessa Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
Both synagogues were in the vicinity of vul Evreyska (Jewish Street).
It was a beautiful, sunny spring-like day when I visited the Holocaust Memorial on the outskirts of town. The balmy feeling in the air belied the somber history that took place there during WWII.
I hired a local English-speaking guide, Anna Sokoloskaya, whom I met through the hotel next to the Choral Synagogue, to take me on a Jewish tour of Odessa which included the holocaust memorial. She ordered an Uber for us to get there.
Anna was extremely knowledgeable of Odessa’s Jewish history. She was not Jewish, but said she had visited Israel several times in order to broaden her knowledge of the Jewish diaspora. A large percentage of her business is taking people on Jewish tours of Odessa.
At the memorial site we visited the “Road to Death” that lead to the extermination camps for thousands of Odessa’s Jews and Gypsies starting in 1941. Along with memorial signs, the Alley of the *Righteous Among the Nations featured a tree dedicated to each person in Odessa who saved a Jew.
* An honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis
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