Based on a true story.
"There are three things this city is famous for," said the Ukrainian rabbi. "Odessa is famous for having the best Chazanim (cantors), the best Rabbanim (rabbis) and the best Ganovim (thieves)!"
"Please watch yourselves here," he warns us. "While you're walking around town, beware not to stay out past twilight because once the city gets dark, it isn't safe anymore..."
My friend, Meir, and I finally arrived in Odessa to help the local Chabad emissary for the Passover Seder's. We had gotten our visas at the very last minute. Forced to go through much red tape attempting to make our way into the Former Soviet Union makes me wonder how we managed to get there in the first place. Was it a miracle?
Passover came and went. Overall, it was very nice and, of course, we were kept very busy.
Suddenly we notice that all children and women are off the streetsAfter all the potatoes are peeled and all is said and done, we find we have a little time on our hands.
We venture out into the city. We really enjoy soaking in the ambiance of this old world town as we search for Jews to inspire.
Funny, while walking around, we meet someone that recognizes me. He mistakes me for my father! That's always a compliment. He knew my father when we lived in Odessa many years ago and the facial resemblance opens the conversation. What a small world.
As usual, we get carried away just walking about, and then it occurs to us that it is getting dark. Suddenly we notice that all children and women are off the streets, and here we are, alone in the city, lost, with a wrinkled map in our hands to guide us.
Out of the blue, a tall man wearing a leather jacket walks towards us. The man looks like a skinhead. The rabbi's earlier warning rings in my ears, as this guy reeks of trouble.
I say "hello" in fluent Russian as I try to put our map away. We don't need to look completely like fish out of water.
He says hello, and asks where we are from. "I'm from Odessa originally," I tell him. His face changes to express disbelief.
"My father was born here, and my family lived here when I was a child."
"What are you looking for?" He cuts to the chase.
I tell him we are looking for Pochenko Park, which we aren't, but I mention the first random name I remember from the map. We just have to lose this guy.
"I know where Pochenko Park is. It's very easy," he says.
The man breaks into laughter and says, "You're smart. You're very smart." "Do you see the alley by the side of the street? Well, you go down the dark alleyway and that will lead you to the dark seaside. Then you'll go up the road there which will lead you to the edge of Pochenko Park." He smugly looks at us.
Looking at the man knowingly, I reply, "The alley looks awfully dark. I would hate for something bad to happen to us there. Looking at our map also shows us that we can take the main road, which is lit up by street lights, and that will lead us straight to our destination. The main road is just four blocks away."
The man breaks into laughter and says, "You're smart. You're very smart." There is a menacing look in his eyes that express words left unsaid: "You stupid fool. It won't help you knowing the directions. The only direction you are heading in is being robbed."
All the conversation so far was in Russian. Meir, by my side has no idea of what is going on. Meir takes this brief moment of silence to push me to put Tefillin on our new friend, who he thinks is Jewish.
Why not? What is there to lose at this point, I say to myself. Perhaps we can make a soul connection.
"My name is Israel. What is your name?" I ask.
"My name is Senya," answers the local stranger.
"Where are you from, Senya?" I ask him.
"What do you mean?" he answers in a bewildered tone, as if to say: What do you mean 'where am I from?' Of course I'm from Odessa, nobody moves to Odessa, people move out of here!
"I'm from Odessa. I've always lived here," he answers.
"Odessa has had so many Jews living here for so many years that they inevitably left their mark. Everything here seems so Jewish, even the non-Jews have something Jewish about them here. Tell me, Senya, what's Jewish about you?" I ask innocently.
"Nothing." He hides his face for a second before he continues. "Nothing is Jewish about me. My mother is Jewish but I'm not."
"Senya, do you know what that means?" I ask him.
"What?" he scoffs. "What does it mean?"
"Senya, if your mother is Jewish, that makes you Jewish too."
Stunned, he immediately denies my statement.
Contemplating this new identity, something inside him breaks"No, I'm not Jewish, I'm Ukrainian. It even says so in my passport. Do you want to see?" He searches for some document to prove to me I'm wrong, unsuccessfully.
"Senya, I don't care what it says in your Ukrainian passport. According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish that makes you Jewish!"
Contemplating this new identity he has never considered his own, something inside him breaks. I can see it in his face. He is silent. I take the opportunity to continue.
"Senya, we have so much in common. Your father is from Odessa and my father is from Odessa, your mother is Jewish and my mother is Jewish, I'm a Jew and you're a Jew. We are practically family."
I offer my hand to shake his. We shake hands. He keeps my hand in his as he stares at me.
"Yes," he agrees. "I suppose we can say that."
"Itzhak, do you know why I stopped you this evening?" he asks. "Since we are practically family, I'll tell you.
I wanted to rob you. I saw you two rabbinical students, and thought to myself, 'Look at these two penguins; this will be easy money.'"
Uneasily, I say, "I'm so glad you changed your mind."
The look in his eyes gets noticeably softer. "Yes, I guess I did change my mind," he says as he lets go of my hand. Then he looks down. Perhaps ashamed.
"Can you just give me $20?" he begs. "I really need it. We are family after all, aren't we?"
"I don't have money on me, Senya," I tell him frankly. "However, if you want to stop by the Yeshiva later on, I'll make sure to have $20 waiting for you."
"It's getting late, and we have to go," I inform our new friend.
"Let me walk you to the main street," he says. "It's dangerous here after dark…"
We didn't forget to leave a $20 bill for SenyaSenya walks us to the main road. Unlike most roads in Odessa, only the main streets are lit up by street lamps. We walk together into the light. We say goodbye to the twilight stranger as we safely walk back to the Yeshiva.
That night, we were leaving Odessa, heading to gravesites of Tzaddikim, righteous masters, in the Ukraine. Funny timing. Our meeting with Senya was destined. We didn't forget to leave a $20 bill for Senya with one of the boys in the Yeshiva. We were hoping that perhaps Senya will somehow join the Yeshiva in Odessa, and who knows? Maybe he will become a Jewish leader himself one day.
How wondrous it is that by the mere act of reaching out to another Jew, we were not only saved from robbery, but we somehow managed to steal the heart of a thief.