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Before we dive into this week’s edition, I wanted to share with you an announcement that’s been in the works for a while. On Monday, March 14, at 1 p.m. eastern, I’ll be hosting a live show on Callin for Deep Shtetl readers. For those unfamiliar with this new medium, Callin is basically a live podcasting platform into which listeners can call in and speak to the host, like a radio show. I’ve been looking for ways to build our community and make it more interactive—to talk with you, not just at you—and this seemed like a great way to do it.
For the debut episode of Deep Shtetl Dialogues, I’m particularly excited that we’ll be joined by my friend Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept. As you’ll hear, the two of us have been having wide-ranging conversations about everything from religion to foreign policy over New York’s best kosher/halal deli for years, and now we’d like to bring you in on the action—which means that this will be the first time the words Rosenberg and Hussain will now take your questions will be spoken. Join us and witness history.
You can tune in on Monday at this link. (I even created a placeholder logo for the show that accidentally turned out vaguely anti-Semitic–looking, but you have to click through to see it.) While anyone can listen live on the web, in order to call in and chat with us, you’ll need to download the Callin app on your phone and tune in there. Once you’ve installed the app, I recommend following the new show, Deep Shtetl Dialogues, here, so you’ll get notified when it goes live.
Last week, we heard from a convoy of Jews fleeing the Ukrainian city of Odessa in the face of Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” campaign. Today, Odessa is bracing for Russian assault. As I noted, this is a city redolent with Jewish history, whose population was once half Jewish—until it was decimated by Hitler and Stalin. But this background probably wasn’t news to longtime Deep Shtetl readers, because they’d already met the remarkable pre-Holocaust rabbi of Odessa, Chaim Tchernowitz. (In case you missed that edition, Tchernowitz was the religious muse who guided Albert Einstein in his explorations of the Jewish tradition.)
Home to the third-largest Jewish population at the time, Odessa was as unique as its rabbi. A port city whose ships brought not just trade but intellectual ferment, Odessa was host to every sort of Jew—devout, irreligious, Zionist, socialist, Yiddishist, and many more. And Chaim Tchernowitz, the city’s highly unusual Orthodox rabbi, was friends with all of them.
Through his recollections, one can catch a glimpse of the lost world of Odessa’s extraordinarily diverse Jewish life. Here are two such stories.
Making Modern Rabbis
Tchernowitz arrived in Odessa in 1897. He quickly set about transforming the local yeshiva, or Jewish school, into a full-fledged rabbinical seminary, where he sought to train the next generation of Orthodox rabbis and educators. But unlike most such schools, this one integrated traditional text study with modern critical methods. It boasted such teachers as Hayim Nahman Bialik, who would later become the national poet of Israel, and such students as the future biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann. With its use of contemporary scholarly tools to mine classical Jewish works, the yeshiva was the only of its kind in all of Russia. Indeed, even the minutes of its staff meetings offer evidence of the school’s exceptional nature.
The protocols of these gatherings were recorded by Bialik, which is kind of like if Robert Frost took the minutes at a PTA meeting. The records reveal that Tchernowitz carefully evaluated each prospective student based on their ability to grapple with both traditional and nontraditional texts. The scholar Benjamin Hoffseyer pithily summarizes one of Bialik’s amusing notes in his 1967 Hebrew dissertation on the Odessa yeshiva (my translation):
On November 10, 1902, Rabbi Tchernowitz gave news of the acceptance of four new students … We read in the protocol that two of the four have skills that are “suited to the program.” One, however, “while adept in the study of the Talmud, knows nothing of secular disciplines.” And the other “knows nothing of either.”
Needless to say, only a select few Orthodox seminaries in history have appraised their students based on such dual criteria. This unusual commitment to secular studies was a clear reflection of the commitments of the school’s unusual dean. Surveying the distinguished, ideologically diverse faculty that Tchernowitz assembled for his yeshiva, and the attention he paid to the school’s nontraditional components, it is easy to understand the assertion of Lionel Trilling, the great American literary critic, that:
No one who ever encountered in America the striking figure of Dr. Chaim Tchernowitz, the great scholar of the Talmud and formerly the Chief Rabbi of Odessa, a man of Jovian port and large, free mind, would be inclined to conclude that there was but a single season of the heart available to a Jew of Odessa.
But my favorite Tchernowitz story from Odessa is about the time he sat down with a famous Jewish skeptic and they started editing the Talmud.