No, not the composer; my title is the Yiddish name of Odessa (pronounced ah-DES). Reading a bad translation of Bunin’s Civil War diary has annoyed me but also gotten me interested in Odessa, and my newfound access to JSTOR (achieved by getting an electronic Boston Public Library card, which any resident of Massachusetts can do) has given me lots of reading material. I just found Robert A. Rothstein’s article “How It Was Sung in Odessa: At the Intersection of Russian and Yiddish Folk Culture” (Slavic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 781-801), which has a discussion of the local varieties of both Russian and Yiddish, and I thought I’d pass along some of the details.
Rothstein quotes an 1895 book by Vlas Doroshevich called Odessa, odessity i odessitki [‘Odessa and Odessans’] that describes the speech of the city as a “language salad” (vinegret iz yazyka), mentioning a number of distinctive features, some of which have pretty well disappeared (like the use of “monsieur” and “madame” as general forms of address) while others are still going strong, like the use of the preposition za ‘behind; after; for (etc.)’ to mean ‘about, concerning,’ “as in a line from the Soviet popular song most associated with Odessa”: “Ya vam ne skazhu za vsyu Odessu” ‘I won’t tell you about all of Odessa.’ This is due to Ukrainian influence, but other features are due to Yiddish, including many lexical borrowings:

One Odessa way of saying “leave me alone” is ne dreite me kop, a Russianization of Yiddish dreyt mir nisht dem kop, literally, “don’t spin my head.” The vocabulary of Odessa Russian includes such Yiddishisms as gesheft (business), mansa or maisa ([far-fetched] story], shabes-goi (errand-boy), golyi gurnisht (a nothing [literally, “a naked nothing”]), and bikitser (make it quick). The Yiddish word purits (or porets) (landowner, aristocrat) is used in the expression velikii purits (an important person)…

There are also examples of intonation (Ya znayu, literally ‘I know,’ said in an interrogative way to mean “How should I know?”—cf. Yiddish ikh veis?) and phraseology (saying goodbye with bud’te mne zdorovy, literally ‘be well for me,’ instead of the usual bud’te zdorovy, on the model of Yiddish zayt mir gezunt). Chtob ya tak zhil, a translation of Yiddish zol ikh azoy leben ‘so I should live,’ is used to emphasize one’s truthfulness. And the answer to the common tourist question “How do I get to Deribasovskaya Street?” (the main shopping street of Odessa) may well be either A zachem vam Deribasovskaya? ‘And what do you need Deribasovskaya for?’ or Idite pryamo, ona sama vas peresechet ‘Go straight, it will intersect you itself,’ of which he says “one can… feel the influence without any explicit Jewish presence.”

He then discusses Odessa Yiddish, which is “unlike the Yiddish of Warsaw or Vilna. In fact, the Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language has an entry for adeser yidish, which it explains as ‘full of Russian words.'” He quotes a number of Yiddish songs, one of which rhymes Ades with progres ‘progress’ and another of which refers to Odessa-mame/ a shayne panorama ‘Odessa-mama, a beautiful panorama.’

There’s a lot more (the article is 21 pages), and it makes me very glad to have access to the trove of JSTOR.


  1. David Marjanović says

    and it makes me very glad to have access to the trove of JSTOR.

    Note to self: If only I knew the power of the Dark Side.

  2. John Emerson says

    I was going to point out that Bob Dylan’s paternal grandparents came from Odessa. But apparently I was going to point that out wrongly, because apparently (from Wiki) they came from Turkey (specifically Trabzon = Trebizond). Odessa was just their port of departure.
    I like this even-more-exotic Dylan ancestry, but there’s an enormous problem with sourcing — Wiki’s main source appears to be something written by Dylan himself. He’d probably say they came from Timbuctoo if he thought he could get away with it.

  3. I’m quite fond of Rothstein – perhaps the only scholar whose work unites my primary interests: Yiddish, language and music. Anyone interested in reading more about Jewish Odessa should turn to Steven Zipperstein’s The Jews of Odessa.
    As for Dylan’s supposed Turkish origins, they are clearly fanciful. Or perhaps it’s better to say that Bob Dylan’s grandparents were from Turkey, but Robert Zimmerman’s grandparents were from Russia.

  4. To tell the brutal honest truth, I am not wildly interested in Odessa or Bob Dylan’s antecedents (except that my Aunt Mona was, so she always said, seduced in Trebizond by an itinerant craftsman in brassware).
    But your tip on accessing JSTOR was absolutely invaluable. I’ve always wanted access to get their stuff, but, as a resident of a small Pacific island, couldn’t get it. By definition, being almost exactly half a globe away from Boston, I must be one of, if not the, farthest-flung BPL members, thanks to you.
    best regards
    Richard Parker
    Siargao Island, The Philippines.
    My website at is about the island and its people, coastal early humans, fishing, coconuts, bananas and whatever took my fancy at the time.

  5. Excellent! I’m happy to have introduced someone else to the unsuspected glories of the BPL card. Siargao looks like a beautiful island; what language do they speak there, Cebuano?

  6. >He quotes a number of Yiddish songs, one of which
    >rhymes Ades with progres ‘progress’ and another of
    >which refers to Odessa-mame/ a shayne panorama
    >’Odessa-mama, a beautiful panorama
    From what I know, these two rhymes are in one song, “In Odess”, my favorite Aaron Lebedeff’s masterpiece. There is also a “kazaken/tabaken” rhyme in it (I’m not sure about the spelling). I tried to find its lyrics on the net, but no luck. Not much about Lebedeff either.

  7. The dictionary entry Rothstein quotes also lists the expression “Lebn vi got in ades” (to live like God in Odessa) and explains that this means to live a life of leisure (because the freethinkers of Ades leave God alone.
    Ben: And food too.

Speak Your Mind