"Sholom Aleichem Street, House 40," a new play about Jewish emigration in Moscow's Stanislavsky Theater, offers the Soviet theater-going public a rare glimpse into the foibles and heartaches of Jewish home life in this ancient stronghold of the faith on the Black Sea.
On stage in the Soviet capital, a Jewish family's living room strife is vividly reproduced. The sharp accents, tarty, sardonic jokes and lively banter exude a chutzpah and humor Soviets consider unmistakably Jewish, uniquely Odessa.
But in this city that holds one of the heaviest concentrations of Jews in the Soviet Union, evidence of such ethnic flavor is elusive. It is a sign of the times that in its depiction of the richness of Odessa's ethnicity, art had to reach beyond life to the historical periods when a chaotic mix of Moldavians, Greeks, Romanians and Jews roamed the streets, and some of Russia's greatest writers chronicled it all.
Ethnic Odessa is mostly a thing of the past, gone the way of the city's literary sons: Isaac Babel, author of "Red Cavalry" and other stories about Jews, who died in a concentration camp in the late 1930s; the satirists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov; the prose writer Ivan Bunyin, and others.
Soviet power came late and with some difficulty to Odessa, but has now succeeded in bringing a homogeneity and blandness to the place. The only remnants of the ethnic hangouts of old are scattered memorial statues, several dozen in all, Galina Izuvita, vice chairman of the city council, said in an interview.
"People come here in search of the old neighborhoods -- Jewish, Moldavian, or whatever -- that they read or heard about," a tourist guide said, "but we don't have that anymore. We prefer to live all together now."
Moldavanka, the once tightknit neighborhood of merchants and knaves from neighboring Moldavia, has been wiped out altogether. "It's gone," Izuvita said, "and there's not even a statue there to mark its place."
The Jewish ghetto has disappeared, too.
At the time of the revolution, Odessa's population was one-third Jewish. With 48 synagogues, it was a stronghold for religious worship among Jews in the region.
Now, all but one of the temples are closed, locked up or used for other things -- here an archive, there an office building. The sole working synagogue, lacking a rabbi and a cantor, draws only a handful of locals for weekly or holiday services. During Passover in April, the last big Jewish holiday, 25 people showed up there for the special service, just over one thousandth of the city's official Jewish population. This year, only one bar mitzvah was performed in the temple, and all the Jewish couples who married opted to do so elsewhere.
Arkady Litvan, the Jewish community chairman sent to run the synagogue after training in Moscow, added: "We live in a secular society, a society which pulls people away from religion."
"Our society offers some ideological values in the place of Jewish religious values," he said, sounding more like a spokesman for the state than for the religion. "I don't know if that is good or bad. I have my own opinions, of course, but I speak only of facts."
Among Odessa's tightknit Jews, the hardships of a few are felt by all, and generally taken as a warning against religious activism. Last September, the newspaper Verchernaya Odessa attacked four local Jewish refuseniks as "near spies," and left a damper on the community that still lingers. The cases of Mark Niepomniaschy and Yakov Levin, two Odessa Jews currently imprisoned for "defaming the Soviet state," are also much discussed here.
Even the relatively minuscule local Catholic, Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist communities, with their regular, well-attended church services, are more successful at attracting what Russians call "believers." One Seventh-Day Adventist service filled a makeshift church -- which doubles as a sanctuary for Baptists -- with all of the gospel-like singing and communion that is characteristic of the religion everywhere.
And yet, local authorities list one of every five Odessians as Jewish. At 200,000, the Jewish population here is 10 percent of the estimated Jewish census for the entire Soviet Union.
Many of Odessa's Jews were wiped out during the Nazi occupation of the city, or through emigration to the West or to Israel. From Odessa and across the Soviet Union, the emigration of Jews to the West, which peaked in 1979, has slowed to a trickle. Last year, of the 1,040 Soviets allowed to emigrate to the West, 67 came from Odessa.
Local officials, like those elsewhere in the Soviet Union, frown on emigration and are defensive about the role of religion. "I don't think that the secular state poses any difficulties for individual believers," said Litvan. In the play "Sholom Aleichem Street, House 40," a family is bitterly divided over the issue. Ending in tragedy, the play sends out a loud message that emigration wrecks family life.
Yet the outflow continues. One young Odessian came to the synagogue several years ago, and after learning Hebrew, improving his singing and becoming a cantor, left a year ago for New York.
Now another young cantor is being trained.