Riley in Odessa


While looking up something else in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English dictionary I came across the expression לעבן ווי גאָט אין אדעס — to live like God in Odessa — translated as “to live the life of Riley”.

I was familiar with the German expression Leben wie Gott in Frankreich — to live like God in France — with the same meaning, and I’d always assumed it was a reference to the large number of opulent houses that God has in France. But Odessa? It’s not a city I associate with cathedrals — though I’ve never been there. And would a Yiddish expression locate God’s dwelling in cathedrals? Is it originally a Russian expression? Presumably it’s connected to the German expression, but which came first? Maybe they both have nothing to do with cathedrals, but with a general opulence of lifestyle, in which God figures only as a kind of ironic hyperbole.

So many questions…

(Including about Riley. According to some sources the phrase goes back to a Sligo landowner Willy Reilly who found his way through to a contented and prosperous life after some ballad-worthy marital complications. There are no records of him ever having visited Odessa.)

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