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Return Of The Natives From Brooklyn

Letter From Ukraine


During the years of communist rule, with its state-sponsored anti-Semitism, thousands of Jews fled Odessa, the former Czarist-era summer resort on the Ukrainian Black Sea. Refused admission to universities, punished for their religious beliefs, and forced to live in ghettos, some 200,000 Jews fled this once bustling port city, most of them in the 1970s. Some went to Israel, but most emigrated to the U.S., generally to Brooklyn, where they formed a Brighton Beach Diaspora.

But many of the Jewish emigres are returning to Odessa. The city, depressed from post-Soviet economic instability, seems happy to have them back in hopes they will help reinvigorate the economy. Odessa's Jewish population, 32% in 1917 and less than 5% in 1990, is now 6%, or 40,000. Menorahs grace windows of Jewish-run businesses in the old town. Jewish culture is undergoing a revival. Four Hebrew schools operate in Odessa, and shuttered synagogues are being refurbished. Odessa has its first Jewish mayor--longtime resident Eduard Gurevitch. The city has even changed the name of a main thoroughfare back to Jewish Street--the name it had until 1917. It branches off from the grand Pushkin Blvd. and runs to the sea, and it is the center of Odessa's revitalized Jewish community.

Today's Jewish residents are far different from the cautious, deferential Jews who lived under Communist rule. The returnees, who are easy to spot because of their Levi's and cellular phones, are brash and confident, and they arrive with business savvy they learned in America. They're returning partly out of nostalgia: After all, Odessa is home. But by exploiting business opportunities in the new Ukraine, they are hoping to live the American dream in the land of their birth.

Yakov Tenenboym, 25, left Odessa with his parents in 1989 and returned last year because of the "tremendous opportunities here," he says. Gesturing at his high-tech office space with its blinking Pentium computers and blonde-wood furniture, he boasts: "I'm making more money than my parents."

Tenenboym manages the Odessa office of Kiev-based Prestige Card Co., which issues discount cards to Odessa's emerging middle class. The cards entitle them to price cuts at stores and restaurants across the Ukraine and bring in some $500,000 a year in revenues. Speaking in heavily accented English peppered with Brooklyn slang, Tenenboym, who studied marketing for three years at Pace University in New York, admits he never felt at ease in American society. Still, he claims his U.S. experience gives him an edge over his Odessa competitors. "Even a bum in New York has to market himself," he says.

GLEAMING. Nearby, in a neoclassical stucco building that dates back to

Czar Nicholas II, is the Cabot Dental Clinic, where white-coated dentists drill beneath gleaming crystal chandeliers. Odessa native Rudy Mahler, 60, spent 20 years in Los Angeles before returning to Odessa in 1992. An engineer

by training, not a dentist, Mahler, who once worked at an Odessa power plant, says there's a big market for high-quality Western-style dental care in the Ukraine. "Look at people's teeth here. [They are] victims of shoddy Soviet dental work," says Mahler. He opened the first privately run dental office in the Ukraine and now operates 16--two in Odessa, 12 in Kiev, and two elsewhere in the Ukraine. Among Cabot Dental Clinic's patients are Odessa's mayor and many expatriate businesspeople.

Mahler, who held mostly blue-collar jobs in the U.S., including construction worker and machinist, says he is glad to be back. "The situation for Jews is much, much better," he says. Leonid Fedin, also a Jew and once Mahler's classmate at Odessa Polytechnic Institute, now manages the Odessa clinics. Fedin remained in the Ukraine and says he envies Mahler's capitalistic skills. "When Rudy left, I thought we'd never see each other again. Even letters were censored," he says. "Now, we celebrate Passover together again. Who would have imagined?"

Returning Jews have set up about a dozen companies with revenues of more than $10 million, says Alexander Shanser, the economic aide to Mayor Gurevitch. Jewish-owned AeroSweet Inc., a private airline that competes with Air Ukraine, has three weekly flights to Tel Aviv. Other entrepreneurial Jews have formed export-import ventures and oil-transport companies that ship Russian oil from Odessa to Turkey and the West. The dearth of big companies makes things easier for returning entrepreneurs, says Tenenboym.

Jews are returning to other former Soviet states, too. In fact, some 10,000 of them have come home. Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who left Russia in 1986 and is now Israel's charismatic Trade Minister, is helping to pave the way. He's behind the opening of an Israeli consulate in Odessa and plans to open consulates elsewhere in the Ukraine. Trade between the Ukraine and Israel has grown sixfold, to $100 million since 1990. Sharansky is pressuring the Odessa government to return property confiscated from Jews. Tenenboym, for instance, has reclaimed his parents' apartment.

For emigres, many of whom grew up in Odessa ghettos such as Moldhavanka, with its dilapidated clapboard houses, there's satisfaction in returning as successful Americans. Instead of moving into former restricted areas, they buy in the fashionable downtown area that was once closed to them, purchasing 19th-century mansions where wealthy Russian aristocrats lived. Returnees also like the city's post-Soviet relaxed atmosphere. "It's like New York in the '60s. There's a sexual and cultural revolution going on," says Tenenboym. Adds Mahler, who recently married a young Ukrainian woman: "I feel 10 years younger."

They and other returning Jews are spearheading a revival of the city's Jewish culture. Some 10 Jewish organizations and youth clubs, such as the Gilmus Hessed, which helps victims of the Holocaust, have been formed. Decaying synagogues that date back to the 19th century are being refurbished. Among them is a temple in Moldhavanka that historians say is the oldest in Eastern Europe. Emigres recently participated in building a memorial to the more than 50,000 Jews killed here by the Nazis during World War II.

CORRUPTION. Despite the welcome they receive in Odessa these days, Jews still face problems. Business financing must come from the U.S. or Israel, since money is hard for anyone to find here. Taxes are high and arbitrary, and there is irresponsible legislation that, among other things, doesn't protect shareholder rights. Then there's Ukraine's endemic corruption, high even by Eastern European standards.

State-sanctioned discrimination against Jews has disappeared in the Ukraine, but many Odessa residents are quick to express anti-Semitic views. "They swagger around and pretend to be Americans when they return, but [we know] they're still dirty Jews," snaps a cab driver.

Such comments make Jews wary, and most retain their foreign passports--just in case. "It's my exit hatch should things deteriorate," says Mahler. "Everything depends on how committed Ukraine stays to reform and democracy." Still, he's encouraged. Even non-Jews are caught up in the revival of Jewish tradition, he points out. Yiddish words are making their way into conversations, and one of the Ukraine's most popular television shows is The Gentlemen Show, which features Jewish comics. And these days, Jews and non-Jews alike can be seen dining side by side at the newly opened Shalom Jewish Restaurant on Jewish Street, a kosher deli that emigres say is as good as anything in Brighton Beach.VIJAI MAHESHWARI EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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