Themes and Meanings
All the Odessa tales have as their background the Jewish way of life in Odessa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Conventional images of the Jews do not generally include gangsters who tear around in opera-playing red automobiles, however, and “How It Was Done in Odessa” should not be read as a documentary account of the life of the Jews but rather as a burlesque of that life.
This burlesque, although comic, refers to a serious reality. In “How It Was Done in Odessa,” casual references to a pogrom remind the reader of the precarious position of the Jews within Russian society. Benya himself addresses this theme when he asks Aunt Pesya, “But wasn’t it a mistake on the part of God to settle Jews in Russia, for them to be tormented worse than in Hell?” It is significant, however, that the only violence that occurs within the story itself is perpetrated by the Jews, and great stress is placed on the fact that both Benya and Tartakovsky, who is generally referred to by his nickname “Jew-and-a-Half,” belong to the same people.
The narrator, who plays no role in the action of the story, plays a crucial role in developing its theme of appropriate attitudes toward violence in modern society. He has obviously asked Reb Arye-Leib to tell the story because of his admiration for Benya, but Reb Arye-Leib compares the narrator unfavorably with Benya throughout the story and describes him both at the beginning and the end of the story as having “spectacles on [his] nose and autumn in [his] heart.” In other words, Reb Arye-Leib represents him as a stereotypical ineffectual intellectual, who is incapable of action although he finds it attractive. The narrator’s ambivalence, although not central to the action of the story, nevertheless occupies a central place in any understanding of it.