I’d come to Odessa to chase an improbable scholastic obsession of mine: the rebirth of the Hebrew language, and the city it largely took place in, nicknamed “The Gate to Zion” in the early 20th century. Once, Odessa was a hotbed of Hebrew intellectualism, the site of Bialik’s Moria printing press and Ahad Ha’am’s influential monthly journal Ha-Shiloach. In this city, up the 200 granite stairs from the harbor, a revival had been born that had woken a language from its sleep in the prayer books. I wanted to spend some time there in the hopes that, through some mysterious alchemy of worn cobblestones and wide Ukrainian skies, I’d feel closer to the dead men I’d studied with such fervor—feel, somehow, a little of their revivalist spirit.
In pursuit of this nebulous goal, I’d cold-called dozens of organizations, staying up late to thwart the seven-hour time difference, until a “yes” came crackling at last through the speaker. By early May, I’d become a volunteer tour guide at the Odessa Museum of Jewish History. I bought a ticket, said a prayer to whatever god was listening, and set out, telling myself I’d find a place to live once I got there.
Stumbling out of the tiny, grimy airport, I faced the brightest sun I’d seen in two long days of travel. The crush of heat plastered my hair to the back of my neck, deflating any surviving curls. All I had with me was a suitcase full of too many books and two words of Ukrainian—“Yak spravi?” (what’s up?)—scrawled on the back of my hand, where they were fast turning into an illegible blotch of ink. I stood on the curb and squinted into the blaze that washed the linden trees with light, filled with trepidation.