By Shifra Epstein
In memory of my grandparents, Shifra Epstein (1879–1925) and Israel Epstein (1872–1932), who moved in 1919 with their four children from Bialystock (Russia) to Jaffa. My grandparents are buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, not far from Zina and Meir Dizengoff.
A Jewish city
An Odessan was asked one day,
— How many people live in Odessa?
— One million.
— And how many of them are Jews?
— I just told you. One million.
You see, in people’s minds, “Odessan” and “Jews” are often confused.
Part One: Reflecting on Meir Dizengoff, the first major of Tel Aviv
Throughout the war in Ukraine, I have been anxiously following the bombardment and destruction of the beautiful southern harbor city of Odessa. Named “The Southern Beauty” by the beloved Hebrew poet Hayim Nachman Bialik, Odessa holds a special place in Jewish history and culture.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Odessa was home to the world’s second-largest Jewish community in the world (Warsaw being the largest). Many Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in other parts of Europe and the Russian Empire settled in there. Odessa was the center of Hovevei Zion, “Lovers of Zion,” the Zionist organization that promoted Jewish settlement in Palestine, and founders of the modern Zionist movement, both political and spiritual, Vladimir (Ze′ev) Jabotinsky (1880–1940), Yehuda Leon Pinsker (1821–1891), and Asher Zvi Ginzburg (Ahad Ha’am) (1856–1927) lived there. Odessa was also the home of Jewish literary giants including Hayim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934), Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875–1943), Isaac Babel (1894–1940), Moses Leib Lilienblum (1843–1910), and Shalom Yakov Abramowitz (Mendel Mokher Seforim) (1835–1917).
Odessa was not without its problems. It also suffered from pogroms against Jews. In 1905, 400 Jews were killed and over 1,600 Jewish properties were damaged or destroyed. During 1941 and 1942 more than 30,000 Jews were killed by the Germans.
Today, about 20,000 Jews remain in Odessa, including Holocaust survivors. Just prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Odessa was among the largest Jewish communities in Ukraine, though only one percent of its population was Jewish, approximately 35,000 people. After the invasion, 15,000 left for Western Europe and Israel.
For me, one of the men most closely connected with Odessa is Meir Yankelevich Dizengoff (1861–1936), a multi-talented, charismatic, and hip Jew, a businessperson, proud Zionist, and the beloved first major of Tel Aviv. Born in in the village of Akimovici in the Moldavian part of Bessarabia, his family moved to Kishinev (now Moldova) in 1878, where he graduated from high school and studied at the Polytechnic College of Kishinev.
From 1882 to 1884 Dizengoff served in the Russian army in the city of Zhitomir (now northwestern Ukraine). Following his service, he moved to Odessa, where he became an apprentice at the Odessa “Trud” Craft School for Jewish youth. In Odessa, Dizengoff became involved in the underground, revolutionary, socialist political organization “Narodnaya Volya” (The People’s Will), known for its use of terror to achieve its goal of organizing the Russian peasantry to overthrow tzarism.
In 1885, within a year of moving to Odessa, Dizengoff was arrested for insurgency and served eight months in jail.
In 1888 Dizengoff moved to Paris to study engineering at the Sorbonne. While there, he met a representative of Baron Edmond de Rothschild who offered him to start a glass factory for the production of wine bottles near the town of Zichron-Ya’akov, where the Rothschild wineries were located. Dizengoff accepted the offer and in 1892 moved to Palestine where he set up a glass bottle factory for the Baron’s wineries in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’akov wineries.
Two years later, after failing his attempts to create a union for the Jewish workers of the Baron’s wineries, Dizengoff went back to Odessa where he got a job as the director of a glass factory owned by Belgians.
In 1904 Dizengoff founded Geula, “salvation,” an organization devoted to the purchasing of private land in Palestine. Geula became a central organization for transfer of land to the future Jewish state. After living through a pogrom in Odessa in 1905, Dizengoff was convinced to moved back to Palestine.
In 1909, Dizengoff helped found Ahuzat Bayit (Homestead), a cooperative society that aimed to create a new Jewish neighborhood on the sand dunes north of Jaffa. The neighborhood was eventually named Tel Aviv, which means “Hill of Spring” in Hebrew. When Tel Aviv was recognized as a city in 1921, Dizengoff was elected its first mayor, serving in the role for 20 years from 1921 to 1936 (not including a three-year hiatus from 1925–1928).
In his civic vision of Tel Aviv, Dizengoff was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s German language utopian novel, Altneuland (The Old New Land), a vision of political Zionism as cosmopolitan, liberal, and secular.
In his architectural vision of Tel Aviv, Dizengoff was inspired by the architecture of European cities, particularly Odessa. For Dizengoff, European style architecture reflected the Zionist aspiration that Tel Aviv should resemble a European resort town.
As can still be seen in Tel Aviv today, there are buildings with Baroque elements and gabled and oriental features. The first City Hall of Tel Aviv, Beth Ha’ir, “The House of the City,” designed in 1925 and located in 27 Bialik Street, was modeled after Odessa’s National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, built in 1877 in a baroque-neo-Renaissance style. The city’s main thoroughfare, which runs from Jaffa to the northern suburbs and was named after Dizengoff, was inspired by pleasant promenades in Odessa running along the high bank over the port of Odessa.
Dizengoff was behind the Adloyada, the secular Purim carnival in the streets of Tel Aviv; the Maccabiah, “Jewish Olympics,” Yerid Hamizrach, “the Levant Fair”; and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Dizengoff’s architecture, the institutions he created, and his relationship with the residents of Tel Aviv all contributed to the character of Tel Aviv as a cultural city loved by its citizens that never sleeps.
Part Two: From Tel Aviv to Odessa
Prior to the war in Ukraine, some 300,000 Israelis would visit Ukraine each year. The city of Odessa, the cradle of Israeli culture, had been experiencing a ‘golden age’ — with modern Israel and Israelis proving an unlikely inspiration. In response to the growing interest by Jews in Odessa, the city mapped out the houses where famous Jewish writers, Zionists, and artists once lived. Thus, today, with or without guides, Israelis can visit the former house of Meir Dizengoff on 30 Osipova Street.
An inscription on a map of the State of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv declared: “In this House from 1897 to1905 the Zionist activist Meir Dizengoff and the future major of Tel Aviv lived.”
On the wall outside Bazarnaya 33 it is noted that this is the house where Vladimir (Ze′ev) Jabotinsky (1880–1940) lived in his youth. On the outside is a painting of young Jabotinsky holding a book in which the word “Zion” is written in Hebrew.
Hayim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934) lived in an apartment on Malaya Arnowska Street number 14.
Prior to the invasion, Odessa hosted multiple annual Israeli cultural events, including a week of Israeli cinema. This cross-cultural pollination is evidenced by a number of bars and restaurants in the city center: from Allenby — an Israeli restaurant which draws its guests in with signs in Hebrew and English — to Dizyngoff (Dizi), an aspiring Israeli-Parisian-Asian fusion restaurant that looks on the reconstructed monument of Catherine II, the founder of Odessa.
Dizi is part of a story of a new generation of young, Western-educated Odessans who moved back to the city after living abroad in cities such as Tel Aviv and Paris. Today many Odessans know about Meir Dizengoff through Dizi. A Russian inscription on the restaurant’s Facebook page reads “Dizyngoff — a part of Israel in the center of Odessa.”
Alexander Vlasopolov, 26, one of the restaurant’s four founders, had the idea after spending some time in Israel after a Birthright Jewish heritage trip. He is adamant that Dizyngoff is at heart a Tel Aviv restaurant, multicultural and multiethnic, with strong Jewish roots.
“Our restaurant is influenced by Jewish and Israeli culture, but we also wanted it to be fun and essentially Odessan,” Vlasopolov says. The restaurant’s young patrons imbibing the imaginatively named “Boker Tov” and “Damascus Gate” cocktails seem to agree.
While writers and poets first moving from cities such as Odessa gave birth to Israeli cultural life, before the invasion, contemporary Israeli culture was returning to the Black Sea. Although not all of its visitors know who it is named for, it is still a good and honorable way to preserve the history of a remarkable man who got his start in Odessa.
During the month of June with the war still going on, Dizi posted on its Facebook page that they are open and offering their special and long-awaited Okroshka, Russian cold summer soup of potatoes, boiled eggs, cucumbers, onions, and ham. Also on the menu are rhubarb (or rumbambar), goat cheese, strawberries, asparagus, pancakes and seven types of sparkling wines served on the Dizyngoff Summer Terrace.