City of Rogues and Schnorrers
Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa
Indiana University Press 2011
New Books in HistoryNew Books in Jewish StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network December 9, 2011 Kevin Rothrock
“Ah, nostalgia is such an illness, and what a beautiful illness. There is no medicine for it! And thank God there isn’t.” This was how one of the Soviet Union’s most famous jazz singers and actors, Leonid Utyosov, concluded his memoirs. Utyosov was referring to his ironic relationship with the city of his birth and the source of so much of his material over the years: the city of Odessa, which he both ridiculed for its decadence and celebrated for the magic of its legends.
Nostalgia and paradox are at the center of a new book by Jarrod Tanny, Assistant Professor of History at UNC Wilmington, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa (Indiana University Press, 2011). As the title indicates, the book is immersed in Jewish language — particularly Jewish humor — and Tanny delivers readers an inspired analysis of Odessa’s role in Soviet history as a city that fueled cultural irreverence throughout the humorlessness of the Tsarist and Soviet ages. Given the rather grim reputation left by Russian monarchy and communism, Tanny’s book is a refreshing and essential reminder that levity has played a central role in Soviet (and now Russian and Ukrainian) identity. City of Rogues and Schnorrers is at times a story of indirect resistance, but it’s also a chronicle of the evolution of Jewishness, first in the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union. And more than a narrative only about Jewishness, Tanny’s book studies the cultural infusion that occurred in Old Odessa, explaining how Soviet culture at large came to take pride in Odessa’s mythology as a national treasure.