Isaac Babel

Gangsters, beggars, prostitutes and other inhabitants of Jewish Odessa.

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Born in 1894 in Odessa, Ukraine, Isaac Babel had a rather non-typical childhood for a Russian Jew of his era. His family was relatively well-to-do, and he grew up pampered with private tutors who taught him German, French, Talmud, and music.
Isaac Babel
As a young man, he moved to St. Petersburg, the cultural and political center of Russia, where he became involved in the national literary scene, and like many young progressive writers of the time, in the anti-Czarist revolutionary movement. He published two plays and a number of short story collections, most notably Red Cavalry, which he wrote during his journalism career writing about the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923. After the war, back in Odessa, he wrote Odessa Tales (1931), for which he has been hailed as the greatest Russian Jewish writer that ever lived.

Like many Russian Jews of his time, Isaac Babel experienced the glimmering hope of emancipation, acceptance, and even popularity in secular Russian society, a hope that was eventually extinguished by Stalin's politics of terror. In 1941, he was murdered by Stalin's secret police under false premises of spying and treason.

A World within a World

It is not surprising that Babel and his literature fell out of favor with the state. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet government cultivated artists' colonies to generate propaganda "literature" promoting manual labor and the working class, and criticizing capitalism and religion. Babel's Odessa Tales, a short story collection, prized everything antithetical to such values. In a most loving manner, it told stories of the Jewish underworld inhabiting Odessa: gangsters, smugglers, prostitutes, card sharps, street beggars, and the perpetually unemployed and unemployable.

The central character of Odessa Tales, Benya Krik is an aspiring criminal who is crowned "King" by his fellow Jewish Odessans --for his personal charisma, sense of humor, and magnanimity. Another character, the old storyteller, Arye Leib, is a homeless, pious Jew, who lives in the Jewish cemetery, collecting garbage and stories.

With palpable enjoyment, Babel describes these and other characters' visits to bordellos, legendary robberies, manic career paths, illegitimate births, and tragic deaths.

Babel chronicles these shady adventures in a charmingly bastardized version of Russian. Soaked in Yiddishisms, full of delightful mispronunciations and many twistings and mutations of the Slavic tongue, his Russian street language is tailor-made to fit a Jewish psyche.

While the dialect was accessible to wider, non-Jewish Russian audiences (as well as Jewish readers, of course), in English translation it has often lost much of its flare. But the writing still retains some morsels, reminiscent of the original. For example, when Benya Krik is working his way up the gangster ranks, he says to an old bandit: "Try me . . . and let's stop wasting time spreading kasha on the table." This grungy, earthy image contains a good deal of absurdity; people generally don't spread cooked grains on furniture surfaces. Addressing his superior, Benya is attempting to pass for a smooth-talking polite Russian cosmopolitan, yet he falls into rhetoric of a Jewish ghetto kitchen. His poetic poignancy is enriched with a layer of comic overtones.

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Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer is a poet and performer, living in New York City. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center. You can find more of his work at