Hellfire and Revolution: The Jews of Odessa and the Works of Isaac Babel
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At the turn of the twentieth century, on the western shores of Russia’s Black Sea coast, there lay a city unlike any other Russian city. It was said that seven miles of hellfire surrounded the port, separating the city’s enterprising and often rambunctious Jewish inhabitants from the quite life of the Pale of Settlement’s traditional shtetls. This city was Odessa, established in the closing years of the eighteenth century as the regional seat of Catherine the Great’s “New Russia,” that had grown into a cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture for Russian Jews and gentiles alike. The “hellfire” that shrouded Odessa was a popular metaphor for the liberal (read: nontraditional) mores of the city’s inhabitants. The city’s lively harbor ensured a steady influx of foreign capital, and for shrewd entrepreneurs fortunes could be made (and lost) overnight. The warm clime of the Black Sea coast made the city a hub of tourism, and its distinctly European city center remained a cultural destination of socialites regardless of their creed. In many ways, the “hellfire” stood out as more of a beacon on the horizon for Jews of the Pale, with the constant allure of fame and fortune radiating out of the city’s opulent theaters and bustling Exchage.
- 2015 REECAS NW