Author's response to review of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa'

I am writing to clarify some aspects of my monograph, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa, which was reviewed by Dr. Brian Horowitz for H-Judaic and published on July 25, 2012.

I am delighted that Dr. Horowitz found my book to be ‘fun filled’ and that the rich material I collected kept him laughing. As Horowitz points out, my deconstruction of the Odessa myth reveals the ways in which Jewish humor served as a tool for the fashioning of the city’s identity. Although Horowitz raises some important questions in his review, he mischaracterizes the book’s thesis and misrepresents some of its content.

Horowitz is mistaken in writing that ‘this is certainly a book about Jewish russification…another expression of [Yuri] Slezkine’s thesis that Jews in Russia/USSR ran to Russians as moths to fire.’ This is quite contrary to what I argue: that Odessa was a multi-ethnic cauldron where Russians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, and other peoples came together and engaged in a dynamic and reciprocal exchange of culture. ‘Odessa’s lingua franca may have been Russian,’ I write on page 20, ‘but it was a Russian infused with Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Greek, and thieves’ cant, with a Yiddish-inflected sardonic intonation.’ The Odessans who migrated to Moscow after the Revolution brought their hybrid language and culture with them where they deployed it as a rhetorical strategy in their writings, music, and comedy. Mikhail Zhvanetskii, the emblematic Odessan jester of the Brezhnev era, is a case in point. Just as Mel Brooks and Jackie Mason use English as a vehicle to deliver yiddishkeit, Zhvanetskii’s Russian shares more idiomatically with Sholem Aleichem than Pushkin. Lenny Bruce once famously quipped that all New Yorkers are Jewish. Had the great comedian visited Odessa, he would have likely said the same about its inhabitants, whose discourse and wit undermined Moscow’s ideological vision. To speak like an Odessan was to speak a corrupt language that polluted everything sacred. This is not a story about Jewish russification.

Most perplexing in Horowitz’s review is his inclusion of four jokes drawn from my book. His selections are seemingly arbitrary, as he takes them out of their proper context. Two of the jokes in question did not even originate in Odessa, and their relevance to the Odessa myth would be unclear to most readers without the analysis I painstakingly provided in my monograph.

Finally, Horowitz maintains that he ‘had trouble discerning Jarrod Tanny’s main argument.’ I explicitly state my thesis on numerous occasions, perhaps most prominently on page 3: ‘[my book examines] Odessa from the perspective of its ‘myth,’ an improbable fusion of criminality, Jewishness, and humor. No other place in tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union was seen as so inseparably impish and Jewish; no other prominent Jewish community in the modern world was considered as sardonic and brazen in its dissipation. ... Old Odessa was a threat because it empowered the Jew through his trickery and his irreverence. The city’s inhabitants refused to take themselves seriously, and their lack of solemnity was key to the survival of their culture, identity, and collective memory.’ This argument, and not the ‘Jewish jokes’ are the core of the book.

Jarrod Tanny, University of North Carolina Wilmington