Underworld Aristocracy

When I first became obsessed with books, at the age of 9 or so, my Russian parents proudly told me: “Intellegentsia of second generation, you are!†Intellegentsia is a Russian equivalent of pseudo-intellectual; second generation, because my parents were the first ones, in our family, to attend college and plunge into the blissful world of intellectual snobbery. Neither of my grandfathers was a literati: far from it. Each born in his shtetl, each with his blue-color job. In the evenings, they read their newspapers slowly and dutifully, and in the morning, folded up these newspapers as a wrapper for their lunch. Things were very utilitarian like that.

So one day, when my paternal grandfather told me he was fond of Isaac Babel, I was rather surprised. I knew Babel was highbrow Russian Jewish literature; that despite the catchiness of his tales about Odessa’s underworld, gangster stories and the like, ultimately, he was an exquisite, decadent poet, revered, and constantly quoted in my parents’ circles.

“Well,†said my grandfather, “you know, we have a bit of a familial connection to Babel. Do you know that Babel’s greatest character, gangster Benya Krik is modeled after a real-time Jewish bandit, Mishka Yaponchik?†Like every other self-respecting Russian Jewish kid, I knew.

“So, your great-grandfather’s brother was good friends with him,†my grandfather replied. Apparently, one of my ancestors was a bit of a shtetl terror; business associate of aforementioned Yaponchik, he drove into the shtetl in his horse and buggy, showed off his guns, shot in the air (and elsewhere sometimes), then stopped at my great-grandmother’s house for a drink. “He drank a full glass of vodka in a single go,†said my grandfather.

Being a sheltered, near-sighted kid, with little propensity for exercise, let alone horseriding and robbery, I was doubtful. To which my grandfather reasoned: “Your cousin Misha is getting into big trouble in school. His father told me Misha’s involved in a gang. Street scum is looking up to him. I’m telling you, we have it in our gene pool.â€

Throughout my childhood, I heard stories of my troublemaking cousin–he was slightly older than me, and lived in a different town. We had briefly met, but for the most part, hyped on all the stories, I felt queasy encountering him. Today he’s the owner of a number of stores and a small factory; when we finally reconnected, years later as adults, he had already become a well-respected Ukrainian businessman. One of the founding members of the Jewish community in Krivoy Rog, he recently donated a sizable sum to build a Jewish orphanage there. Sounds suspicious doesn’t it? My imagination goes wild, but I don’t dare to ask.

Isaac Babel, recounting his stories of Odessa’s gangster-life, always did so wistfully, longingly looking out into the exciting dangerous world, from behind his thick, nerdy glasses. He romanticized that world a great deal; and that, I guess, is the fate of intellegentsia, pseudo-intellectual writers: we stare at the world from the outside and partake in our imagination’s angsty turmoil, rather than real-time action. As Benya Krik said: “There’re those who know how to drink vodka; and there’re those who don’t know how, but still drink it. The first ones get pleasure — from both joy and disaster; the latter suffer for those first ones.â€

Thinking about my future kids, I am a little worried about the promises and surprises of the gene pool; but in the meantime, I wrote a brief introduction to Isaac Babel for MJL – take a look, and if you don’t already own a copy of his stories, find yourself a copy at a used bookstore near you. And I’m not just saying that because I have a familial connection to him!

Guest blogger Jake Marmer wrote MyJewishLearning’s article on Isaac Babel.

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