Odessa 1902 (from "Ribbentrop's Chair")
Odessa 1902 (from “Ribbentrop’s Chair”)
“The ancient Greeks … who were the inventors of classical reason, knew better than to use it exclusively to foretell the future. They listened to the wind and predicted the future from that.” (Robert Pirsig, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
“Ma Tovu….” How beautiful are your tents, Oh Jacob. As the opening prayer of Rosh Hashanah echoed around the vaulted ceiling of the Great Synagogue of Odessa , Mordechai Avadis turned and looked daggers at his younger brother Eli. The High Holy Days were the pinnacle of the year’s vocal efforts for Jacob, Mordechai and Eliezer. As Mordy’s voice had well and truly and catastrophically broken four months ago he was no longer allowed to sing soprano solos. This was nudgeling him mightily, as he loved the soaring central passages of these beautiful songs of praise. Now they would be performed by Eliezer, who sounded like an angel although the little bastard was no angel and didn’t deserve the honour.
The chazzan Labe Berkowitz had a fine baritone voice, which more than compensated for his face. Next week his heartfelt renditions of Kol Nidre and Shema Koleinu would reduce the congregation to tears as they confronted their inner demons and sought forgiveness for their numerous sins.
Acting as Labe’s supporting choir exposed the voices of the young brothers to scrutiny in this prestigious setting. The boys had been touring the “musical synagogues” of Odessa as a semi-professional troupe for several years now and had made something of a name for themselves. Six months ago they had competed against the Moldavanka Singers, a ten-strong male voice choir (yes, three voices against ten!) to win the privilege to sing here, in this synagogue of synagogues on this day of days.
Facing a congregation of their stern-faced, davening elders, some of whom were hoping for - indeed expecting - their annual spiritual epiphany, was nerve-racking for sensitive Jacob, the eldest brother, possessed of a pure tenor voice (whose clarity of tone he could uncannily maintain while his knees knocked like castanets), but no problem at all for confident Mordechai, who even at that age loved an audience and had aspirations to become an opera singer and a great star like his hero Feodor Chaliapin.
Eliezer raised his eyes to the gilded ceiling, opened his lips and trilled like a true pro:
“Adonai ahavti meyon beytecha … ”
The service didn’t end until 2pm and the brothers ran home, ravenous. The moment they opened the door a heavenly scent wafted out of the kitchen. They picked their way carefully past the bandy-legged, porcelain-burdened cabinets and consoles and planted themselves around the dining table with their little brother Moshe who had been hungrily awaiting their return. However they all had to sit and twitch a while longer until their father arrived. They hoped Abraham, after exchanging the necessary niceties with the shul machas would rush home, but they knew him better than that.
The lovingly polished table was normally hidden under layers of Sirocca oilcloth and damask, but for Rosh Hashanah their mother Basie had topped the lot with her best Belgian lace. She had heard her sons rehearsing their harmonies for weeks on end in the front parlour, and looked forward to Yom Kippur when she and Esther would get dressed in their finest and make their annual pilgrimage to synagogue. “Esther – get the door!” she yelled from the kitchen. Her daughter, now fifteen, whose impulse for assertiveness was and would forever remain bottled, sulked down the hall.
Those days, on the occasions when women attended synagogue - had they the time to waste on such pursuits in between cooking, sewing and child rearing - they were confined to the gallery, exchanging whispers out of sight of the rapacious eyes of the murmuring, genuflecting menfolk in the prayer hall. It was never considered a problem that the men were in clear sight of the rapacious eyes of the women in the gallery. You’d better believe it.
Esther also had a beautiful voice, but being a girl couldn't join her brothers in the choir. And along with the Avadis voice Esther had inherited the Stessin’s physical grace from her mother’s side. Like most Russian girls of her generation Esther was mad about ballet and next time Vera came to visit Momma would take them to see the Bolshoi at the National Academic Theatre. Alone in her room at night Esther would practice the plies, jetes and pirouettes her cousin had taught her and imagine herself a worthy successor to Pavlova and Kschessinskaya.
Vera’s parents had promised Esther that in a year’s time they would invite her over to stay. She'd be allowed to dress up, put on white gloves and attend her first ball. This was the one shining light on her horizon, and she dreamed of nothing else.
Basie had mixed feelings about Vera. She felt her brother’s daughter was way too precocious for her own good. As the children of an affluent merchant, Vera and her four siblings floated through life in a bubble, happy and entitled, imagining themselves immune from the world’s ills and the wolves who prowled at night.
Although Abe and Basie were far from wealthy, they brought their children up in a house lined with books and ringing with music and they all learned to play the piano and argue loudly in English and French as well as Russian and Yiddish.
Dialectical reasoning is fundamental to Orthodox Judaism: a counterpoint to Jewish mysticism, with its own set of rules and codes, though whether either of these modes of thought has a steer on the truth is debatable.
Abraham Avadis, short and dark like his Greek grandfather, was never known to raise his voice. Abe regarded conversation as a form of chess. He could argue any point relentlessly until he defeated his opponent and then as devil’s advocate take the opposite stance just for the hell of it. This morning he had been waylaid by Shmuel Ginsberg who was concerned about the dockworkers’ threats of violent strike action over pay so meagre they could no longer afford to feed their families. Abe had read Marx with enthusiasm and had enormous sympathy for the workers and would normally have had plenty to say on the subject, but his stomach was rumbling and lunch beckoned. (Basie, who also read the papers, had her own views on Socialism and a pretty good idea where all this might be leading, but knew better than to engage in that kind of argument with her husband unless she had two weeks to spare.)
The Black Sea sunshine flooded through the lace curtains onto the table, now laden with an aromatic feast. Meat was now scarce and costly and Chava next door was reluctant to sell any of her hens while they were still laying, but Basie was able to muster salt herring tasting of the sea, ruby red borscht with swirls of sour cream and stuffed carp served with carrot tsimmes and potato latkes, accompanied by a dish of briny green cucumbers. Dessert was the boys’ favourite: a steaming, eggy lokshen pudding flavoured with cinnamon and studded with juicy raisins. Bracing food for a cold autumn day in Russia.
After all that Mordy, Eli and Moshe still had the energy to run out and join the boys next door to play Gorodki, Cossacks and Thieves and card games in the back yard with much whooping and yelling, watched with consternation by their parents.
Jacob, 24 (and still not married!), stayed indoors with his father to discuss that morning’s parasha on Isaac’s birth and the expulsion of Ishmael. Of all the brothers, Judaism left its strongest imprint on Abraham’s studious elder son who later in life would suffer from spells of extreme religiosity: particularly when he donned sackcloth and ashes in penitence for marrying in succession two beautiful, tall, blonde shikse fashion models. (His other siblings married Jews, but were far less religious).
On that sunny autumn afternoon of 1902 the sky was a clear, flawless cobalt.
Brutal attacks and massacres had long been a regular feature of life for Russian Jews. However in 1904, on the eve of the Workers Revolt, the issue of Tsar Nicholas II’s October Manifesto and the horrific Odessa Pogrom of 1905 (no coincidence, these events) the Avadis Family Singers fortuitously won a musical scholarship and the whole family grasped the opportunity to flee to France. Abraham argued long and hard that he'd be mad to abandon a thriving business when there was no immediate danger - “We’ve only had one brick through the window all year!” But this was one argument he was never going to win.
The family had moved once before when Odessa offered a better future for a skilled tailor than the little town of Romily where Jacob and Mordechai were born. And there had been the irresistible call of the sea – to the vibrant port city where Abe’s grandfather had first landed.
So Abe and Jacob reluctantly shut up shop while Basie and Esther packed the trunks, gave the cat to the neighbours and locked up the house and the Avadises and their five children turned their backs on the home and neighbourhood and way of life they had settled into and set off on the long and arduous one and a half thousand mile journey from Odessa to Paris.
Although the official line they gave their children was that they’d return after a year, Abe and Basie packed as many valuables as they and the kids could carry (Moshe was put in charge of the samovar, which is dented to this day), heaved all their worldly goods onto the train and squeezed in among all the other huddled passengers.
As the train pulled out of the station and away from the coast the family watched their golden limestone city moving past the windows. Apart from their annual trip up North every Pesach to visit the St. Petersburg Stessins they seldom travelled by train, so the younger boys’ confusion was spiked with excitement.
They had of course seen Odessa from the sea – on that one hilarious, gut-churning fishing trip in Chaim Lubovitz’s dad’s herring boat. (Eli was arsing about as usual and nearly fell in, but they didn’t tell their parents).
Did the brothers really think they’d be coming back? (Many, many years later my Grandfather Marcus, now aged eighty four, much to our amazement took it into his head to learn Russian again. He had left Odessa nearly seventy years earlier but was still missing his homeland and thought it might be handy in case he returned).
While Abraham and Basie sat stiff with anxiety – Basie unexpectedly and far from happily pregnant with her sixth child in her mid-forties - cheeky Moshe, now aged six, tore up and down the carriage excitedly bending the ears of the other passengers, trying to imagine the world of wonder awaiting him a continent away. He had not yet started school, so would be raised as a true Frenchman.
As the train picked up speed 16 year old Mordechai pressed his face to the grimy window. He had read all about Paris and knew the starry city was waiting for a brilliant singer such as himself to join its firmament. He was a fiery-haired Scaramouche – born to kindle passions and fan flames, and always moving too fast to get himself burned.
Eliezer also looked ahead. He would become a great artist and marry a rich woman and make a fortune and drive fast cars and see the world (all of which would come to pass).
Esther was still waiting to go to her first ball.
Jacob knew the truth and felt the burden of responsibility shifting onto his shoulders as the family travelled towards an uncertain future in a strange country.
Abraham remembered a story his grandfather once told him of his journey alone as a young man from Salonika to Odessa while Greece was in the throes of the War of Independence: travelling by land and sea and always at night. After a long, hazardous voyage over an inky black ocean under a starless sky there suddenly appeared a jewelled coastline, sparkling like a distant constellation. As their ship rocked up and down towards the port, the lights on the harbour walls traced glowing arabesques in the air.
At that moment time split like light through a prism and Abraham’s great, great grandfather Abraham could be seen sailing from Istanbul to Salonika during the Russo-Turkish War and his great, great, great (who knows how many greats) grandfather Abraham travelling along the Silk Road from Armenia to Turkey as part of a merchant caravan, his horse-drawn carriages, laden with delicate porcelain wrapped in bales of fine textiles, driven by his many sons. All of these Abrahams, like the heroes of ancient Greek legend, had many adventures and cast off their old lives in order to be reborn into a new world.
When Moshe eventually exhausted himself and fell asleep on Jacob’s lap, Basie studied the untrammelled profiles of her children. Just as their ancestors had made Russia their own, this enterprising family would survive and thrive in the fertile culture of France. But Basie’s own story would end a brief six years later before the outbreak of the First World War, as would that of the little son she now carried in her belly.