On finishing Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus three days ago, I thought I was done with books on countries or wars or travel or history of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Before The Caucasus was Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War and Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road (see my posts here, here, and here, as well as here) Next on my reading list was Robert Caro’s latest LBJ tome The Passage of Power, just out.
But Caro’s book is so long. I wasn’t ready to immerse myself in it. Searching for an alternative, I found Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. I suppose I was destined to read about Odessa before leaving this part of the world. It is, after all, my ancestral homeland, the 1893 birthplace of my grandmother, and a city I know little about.
Here is an excerpt from the description of the book at the author’s website:
Italian merchants, Greek freedom fighters, and Turkish seamen; a Russian empress and her favorite soldier-bureaucrats; Jewish tavern keepers, traders, and journalists—these and many others seeking fortune and adventure rubbed shoulders in Odessa, the greatest port on the Black Sea.
Here a dream of freedom inspired geniuses and innovators, from Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel to Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky and immunologist Ilya Mechnikov. Yet here too was death on a staggering scale: not only the insidious plagues common to seaports but also the mass murder of Jews carried out by Romanian occupation forces during the Second World War. Drawing on a wealth of original source material, Odessa is an elegy for a vibrant, multicultural city as well as a celebration of the survival of Odessa’s dream in a diaspora reaching all the way to Israel and the United States.
I’m a little more than a third of the way through so far. It’s not a long book, and therefore not all that detailed either, but informative nonetheless. An opening chapter surveys the history of the Black Sea region from ancient times to the 1780s. Each of the next few chapters is built around one or two people of note in Russian and Odessan history.
First we learn about Potemkin, his relationship with Catherine the Great, war with the Ottomans, the arrival of John Paul Jones to assist with naval warfare, his dismal performance, and the saving of the day by José Pascual Domingo de Ribas. Among other successes, de Ribas took the small Black Sea village of Khadjibey from the Ottomans, leading to its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1792. Subsequently, he received Catherine’s approval to build a new city, Odessa, on the site.
De Ribas and Catherine would both die before much progress was made. In the next chapter, we move on to the early 1800s, during which Richilieu carried through on the project, creating Odessa. The plague intervened in 1812, almost killing Odessa before it could reach adolescence, but Richilieu saved it through quarantine and fire.
On we go to Mikhail Vorontsov, his marriage to Lise Branicka, his appointment as governor-general of New Russia, the arrival in Odessa of the young Alexander Pushkin, his famous affair with Lise, and Odessa’s growth as a major international city attracting Italians, Greeks, Germans, Jews, Armenians, and many more.
Odessa’s role as a progressive port city made it especially attractive to Jews, for whom it provided a two-fold freedom: freedom within the larger culture to work in a variety of professions and live where they pleased, plus freedom within Jewish culture from the more traditional practices of the Pale. The chapter I’m now reading focuses on this growing Jewish community. King writes:
Jews emerged as the critical middlemen in Odessa’s commerce, linking up with peasants, immigrant farmers, and herders in the interior and forming an essential bridge to the large export concerns in the port city. Through their energy and social networks, Odessa became something that none of its early founders, from Potemkin to Vorontsov, could have imagined: the preeminent port of the Yiddish-speaking world. As a frontier city in need of both people and income, Odessa became one of the major urban centers of the Pale system, a modern and dynamic city where Jews could find economic prosperity and a degree of freedom within an otherwise constraining system. While Jews were viewed as competitors to Christian businesses in other corners of the empire — one of the reasons for legal restrictions on Jewish economic activity — their business contacts were seen as a boon in the growing city.
That’s my family he’s describing, a family I know close to nothing about. Not even when they would have arrived in Odessa. What I know is my grandmother’s stories of her childhood, the pogroms, and the Cossacks. Not that I had any idea what pogroms or Cossacks were, but I knew they were bad. And I knew that because Cossacks were attacking Jews (no doubt the 1905 Odessa pogrom that I will soon learn more about in the book), my grandmother’s family had to stay indoors to avoid danger. But they had to eat, and it fell to my grandmother to go out to buy food for the family.
In retrospect, the point must have been that she was the child most able to pass for a non-Jew. The language spoken at home was Yiddish, but she spoke Russian at school. Indeed, she studied French and was probably fluent in all three. Given how good her English would become, with less of the classic Yiddish accent of so many of her generation who came to New York, I would bet her Russian was that of a native. Whatever the reason, she was the family food procurer.
Not long after the pogroms, the family made their way to New York. My great-grandparents never did learn English or fit in. My grandmother did so quickly. It’s stunning to realize that she was equally at home in the world I’m now reading about and in late twentieth-century New York. What a woman!
Happy Mother’s Day, grandma.
Every May, Ron’s View features an overview of the NCAA men’s lacrosse championship. It’s May. Hence, time for the overview.
Only by chance did I remember two days ago that this is opening weekend. I hadn’t yet read last weekend’s news on the tournament selections. Just like in basketball, the NCAA tournament features teams that automatically qualify by winning their league championship or tournament and additional at-large invitees. And just like in basketball, some of those automatic bids go to less-deserving teams, keeping a few top teams out of the tournament. This year, traditional lacrosse power Cornell, with a 9-4 record and regular season wins over Yale, Denver, and Syracuse (all tournament invitees) was left out. In contrast, Canisius, which also lost to Cornell, in a 19-4 rout, was invited as a conference champion, despite its 6-7 record.
But let’s back up. Here’s the deal. Sixteen teams are invited. Eight are seeded, 1 through 8. Each of the eight seeds hosts one of the unseeded teams in first round play, which we are in the middle of. Four games were played yesterday, four are being played today. If all goes to plan, the eight seeds win and regroup next weekend for the quarterfinals, with the traditional draw: 1 plays 8, 2 plays 7, etc. Two games are at one site, two at another. Then, on Memorial Day weekend, the semi-finals and finals are played at some major football stadium, rotating in recent years among Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston (Foxborough).
As I explain each year, there is a small handful of traditional powers, which not only have reserved the role of champion to themselves but also expect to populate most of the runner-up and semi-final slots. Until recently, the elite consisted of Syracuse, Cornell, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. In the past decade, Duke has firmly established itself as an eighth member of the elite. They were runners-up in 2005 and 2007, semi-finalists in 2008 and 2009, champions in 2010, and semi-finalists in 2011. (What happened in 2006? Well, you know. There was that rape accusation business and prosecutorial misconduct, with the Duke president shutting the team down mid-season.)
Lacrosse is growing quickly across the country. No longer an eastern seaboard sport, with hotbeds in upstate New York, Long Island, New Jersey, and Maryland, it is widely played in several western states, including here in greater Seattle. Not too many western universities field NCAA teams. But two teams in states not touching the Atlantic have begun to make waves. Notre Dame has had regular appearances in the tournament since 1990, and performed among the elite for a decade. In 2010, when Duke finally broke through with a championship, Notre Dame was its victim. The game was a classic, a defensive battle ending in regulation at 5-5. Overtime ended quickly, with Duke’s CJ Costabile winning the opening face-off, running straight down the middle of the field to Notre Dame’s goal, and scoring the winning shot in just five seconds. The other new power is the University of Denver, which stunned the lacrosse world by hiring Princeton coaching great Bill Tierney away from Princeton in 2010. A year later, Denver made it to the semis, losing to ultimate champion Virginia.
One can pretty much fill in most of the NCAA bracket each year before the season starts. Just write down the elite eight and the new two. Except that that automatic league bid business is getting in the way. This year’s victim was Cornell, thanks in part to the rise of fellow Ivy Yale, which beat Cornell in the league semi-finals and Princeton in the finals. The other nine made it safely in.
Two surprises this season were Loyola and UMass. Both are squarely in lacrosse country and both have had some success over the years. But this year was different. Loyola was undefeated and ranked number one when it hosted and lost to its neighbor down the street, Hopkins, a couple of weeks ago, its only loss of the season. (The NYT wrote a big preview article about this matchup of unlikely equals.) And UMass went undefeated, finishing the season ranked in the top two with Loyola, the order depending on which poll one used.
That’s the background. Here are the eight seeded teams, in order: Loyola, Hopkins, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia, UMass, Lehigh, North Carolina. The eight unseeded teams, ordered according to which seeded team they drew for the first round, are: Canisius, Stony Brook, Syracuse, Yale, Princeton, Colgate, Maryland, and Denver.
Yesterday, I watched part or all of four first-round games. The day began with Duke winning convincingly over Syracuse, 12-9. Then UMass, bitter over its lowly 6 seeding after its undefeated season, took it out on Colgate for a while, building a 7-2 lead and holding on at the half 7-5. Two quick goals to open the second half made it 9-5, with victory in sight. But Colgate came back taking a 12-11 lead midway through the fourth period and winning 13-11. Was UMass over-rated after all? No matter. They’re gone.
On to Loyola-Canisius, #1 versus a team with a losing record. Not surprisingly, Loyola went ahead 4-0 in the first period, but Canisius was tough. They held Loyola scoreless in the second, closing to a 4-3 halftime deficit. I turned my attention away for a while, and next thing I knew, it was 14-3 Loyola! Final score: 17-5. And to think, Cornell didn’t even get into the tournament. What a pity.
The night game was UNC versus Denver. I have an attachment to some of the elite teams, for no good reason that I can think of. Hopkins. Syracuse. But UNC I haven’t cared about. Until this year, of course, what with Joel living there. And Denver is my brother’s alma mater. Who to root for? Well, I didn’t really care. Nor did I see much of the game. I checked in on it from time to time. Denver took a 6-2 lead early in the second quarter. UNC came back on an 8-2 run to take a halftime lead of 10-8, pushing that up to a 13-10 lead before Denver stormed back to take a 15-13 lead. With 48 seconds left, UNC narrowed the gap to 15-14. Denver won the face-off, but turned it over with 20 seconds left. UNC pulled its goalie and had some final chances, only to give up the ball, with Denver moving it upfield and getting an empty net goal to close the game at 16-14.
Meanwhile, Virginia is hosting Princeton as I write this, having taken a 5-2 lead at the half. It being Mother’s Day and all, not to mention the closing day of the Players Championship on the PGA tour, I won’t be watching as much lacrosse today as yesterday. Perhaps I’ll catch some of the last game, Lehigh-Maryland, Lehigh being another of this season’s surprises. More in a week or two.