Prepare to Meet the King! The Odessa Stories, August 7!
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Sunday, August 7, 2022, 3:00-4:30 pm Pacific Time
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Meet Benya Krik, Jewish gangster and King of Odessa's Jewish underworldin the tumultuous years of revolution from tsarist to Bolshevik rule, and, without question, writer Isaac Babel's most notorious and beloved fictional character! No, that is not a portrait of Benya above, but of his progenitor, Isaac Babel himself, at the height of his celebrity in 1931, one of the 20th century's greatest writers in any language. Any language but Yiddish!? (1)
You won't find an entry for Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (1894-1940) in my old linen-bound standby, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 333: Writers in Yiddish, despite the fact that the writer was raised speaking dos mame-loshn, as well as acquiring Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian and French.Yiddish was Babel's first language and, according to his most recent translator Boris Dralyuk, his stories written in Russian are pungent with the distinctive Odessan Yiddish argot heard in the streets of Moldavanka, Babel's first home. (2) If Dralyuk conveys the flavor of this street-talking style, we still get a good whiff from Peter Constantine's much respected and now standard translation (3).
The character Benya Krik, suave, handsome, cocky, ruthless but tenderhearted toward women, a friend to underdogs, and possessing a particular sense of honor along with iron nerve, entered the Russian literary imaginary with Babel's story The King in 1921. This and other tales Babel published in journals and newspapers featuring Benya and his gang of extortionists, thieves, smugglers and pimps had for Russian readers the kind of hard-boiled appeal that readers of American 'noir' in the same period loved. Its style was not unlike the the clipped street language and casual shrug at violence in novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as Dralyuk notes.
By 1926, Babel wrote and published in book form a screenplay based on three sensational stories about Benya Krik, eponymously
titled Беня Крик (кино-повесть), or, Benya Krik (Cinema-Novel). The following year, the screenplay was made and released as a black-and-white silent film by VUFKU, the state-owned movie-making monopoly established in the new Soviet Ukraine and operating 1922- 1930. The film, Benya Krik (its wonderful poster below with the Clark Gable-like actor Yuri Shumsky playing Benya), mistranslated into English as Bennie the Howl, is available free on YouTube. (4) You should see it. The film, directed by the fading director Vladimir Vilner, has been roundly panned by critics of cinema. But its extravagant characterization of the dirt-poor Jews of Moldavanka, Jewish thugs, Jewish bankers and Jewish workers makes for very interesting viewing as you tack between a Jewish gaze and that of an imagined non-Jewish Russian audience. (5)
The hour and 45 minutes you will spend watching Bennie the Howl, filmed in 1920s Odessa's streets and docks, will introduce you visually to the "myth of Odessa." (6, 7, 8) As Efraim Sicher and every other critic writing about The Odessa Stories inevitably must mention, the city has long had the image in the Russian imagination of an exotic crime-ridden frontier town populated by Cossacks, Georgians, Turks, Greeks, and especially Jews. This image comes partly from the poet Pushkin who as a naughty aristocratic lad exiled by the Tsar to the outpost on the Black Sea in 1823-1824 extolled Odessa's sun, sea, and even the city's "Odessan dust."
But Pushkin left out the Jews, as critic Sicher notes, even though they were already a sizeable presence in the sunny cosmopolitan port city. It was Babel who embroidered the myth of Odessa by delineating and coloring more vividly than ever before the Jewish underworld element. (9) In fact, the myth of Odessa has had everything to do with Catherine the Great founding the city by decree in 1794 in order populate a strategically located seaport colony with the surplus subjects Russia acquired by annexing territories on its western boundary. To put it neatly, Babel's Odessa would not exist apart from the history of the Pale of Jewish Settlement. (10)
As on New York's Lower East Side and London's East End, the high population of Jews and its concentration in the Moldavanka suburb of Odessa put its mark on the character of the city as a whole. The 1897 Russian census reported 4,805,354 Jews living in the Pale of Settlement, almost all of them Ashkenazi Yiddish speakers. (11) The Pale, a reservation system somewhat like that imposed on Native Americas, embraced 94% of Russia's Jews. Jews were 12% of the local population and 4% of Russia's total population. The opportunity to settle freely in Odessa's cosmopolitan environment drew entrepreneurial Jews. They ended up in Moldavanka, where in pre-Tsarist times under the Tatars and Turks a Jewish settlement had already existed.
By the turn of the century, an estimated 30-35% of Odessa's population was Jewish. Of course, the number was drastically diminished by World War I, the pogrom of 1905, the Russian Revolution, excesses of Bolshevik and Stalinist rule, emigration, and the Holocaust. Still, through and after Soviet times, the myth of Odessa and its Jewish coloration persists. Cambridge anthropologist Tanya Richardson's report of fieldwork in Odessa in 2001-2002 suggests that Moldavanka has become a metonym for the city in the minds of its inhabitants. (12) She attributes this to Isaac Babel's breakthrough achievement of putting Jews squarely on the Russian literary map. "Although Moldavanka occupies an ambiguous place in the Odessan imaginary," Richardson writes . . .
I argue that its symbolic centrality can be attributed to its construction in, or relation to, high culture-most notably in Isaak Babel's Odessa Stories. Moldavanka is increasingly being codified as a district in which it is possible to sense the "real Odessa" and witness its kolorit in places such as courtyards and the Starokonnoi Market.
In 1931, Babel's stories about Benya Krik and his comrades in crime were collected in print and published in Russia as The Odessa Stories. By this time, Babel had well solidified his recognition as a formidable new literary voice in Russia with the publication of stories he wrote based on his experience as an embedded journalist in 1920 with the Bolsheviks in the Russian-Polish campaign in Volhynia (western Ukraine). These poignant, deadpan semi-fictional accounts of the atrocities of the war waged with counter-revolutionary White Russians, Cossacks and Orthodox clergy turned Babel into an internationally celebrated literary figure. The sold-out book Konarmia (see cover below) published in 1927 went into eight editions and was translated into five languages. The English version was called Red Cavalry.
GET YOUR COPY OF RED CAVALRY NOW. WE DISCUSS IT ON SEPTEMBER 11.
Celebrated as one of Russia's most important writers
for his contributions to high culture and among popular audiences for his work in film, Babel was at the pinnacle of his career. His public acclaim could not exist independently, however, of Soviet government approval of the writer's bona fides as a loyal supporter. In 1939, the writer and his family (his partner Antonina Pirozhkova and their daughter Lydia Babel) were rewarded with a dacha by the state. (13)
But Babel's good fortune along with his good name quickly dematerialized when on May 15, 1939 the NKVD arrested the writer at his cottage in Peredelkino on trumped up charges of terrorism and spying. After months of imprisonment and probable torture, Babel was executed by a firing squad on January 27, 1940 at one-thirty in the morning. At 45 years old, he was one of many Jewish intellectuals who were murdered in Stalin's purges, among them also the writer Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, 1884–1950), whose book The Family Mashber we read and discussed last year. (14)
This sober turn regarding Babel and his fabulous Odessa Stories is where I must leave you now. Allow me to get back to the business at hand of preparing you, the Yiddish Schmoozers, to meet "The King." In the well-respected Peter Constantine translation, we are reading the stories that appear with these titles:
Justice in Parentheses
How Things were Done in Odessa
Lyubka the Cossack
The End of the Almshouse
You may also want to rush out and get Boris Dralyuk's exciting new translation titled Odessa Stories, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press. You'll find the same stories, a couple with slightly different titles, and Dralyuk's marvelous introduction to the Odessan Yiddish-inflected argot with which Babel changed Russian literature's sense of itself forever. Born in Odessa and based in Los Angeles, Dralyuk--writer, translator, and critic-- is a supernova on the Yiddish Schmoozers' horizon. Not only is he Editor-in-Chief of our hometown literary magazine LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books) but translator of a book we'll be reading later in our turn toward writers about and from Ukraine, Andre Kurkov's novel Grey Bees, on January 22, 2023.
As you think about Babel's Odessa stories, and especially if you have the time to compare Constantine's and Dralyuk's translations, here are a few questions that may help you focus on the upcoming discussion:
1. Do you love these stories? Or are they "eh?"
2. Coming from your own background (however you define it) how do you feel about Babel's portrayal of the Jewish gangster Benya Krik and his pals?
3. How does translation make a difference?
4. Juxtapose Babel's gangster stories with what you know about crime and Jewish criminals in America in the 1920s. Think Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Katz. How do the late-Tsarist, Bolshevik and modern American immigrant contexts affect how you see these figures?
5. If you have a background in literary criticism (mine is in cultural anthropology), what can you teach us about reading these stories as literature? Especially if you are familiar with the short story in Russian (Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Bunin, Chekhov, Gorky), can you help us understand the breakthrough that Babel's Odessa Stories made?
Read in good health! See you on Sunday, August 7, 3-4:30 pm Pacific, when you can use the Zoom link below.
1. There is controversy about Babel's choice to write in Russian, not Yiddish. Efraim Sicher's article in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe asserts: "Babel’s love of Yiddish is reflected in the subtext of his Russian prose, as well as in his adaptation of one of the popular folktales about Hershele Ostropolyer, “Shabos-Nakhamu” (1918). It was for love of Yiddish, not just want of money, that Babel wrote the screenplays of Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl stories, Evreiskoe schast’e (Jewish Luck; 1925), and a novel, Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy (Wandering Stars; 1926), and edited two volumes of stories by Sholem Aleichem in Shimon Hecht’s Russian translation (1926)." https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Babel_Isaac Sicher goes on say that "the Zionist and Hebrew influences of his [Babel's] childhood had to be concealed after the Bolshevik Revolution (emphasis added)" An alternative view to Sicher's posits that Babel was not forced to write in Russian but did so as a modern cosmopolitan Jewish writer making his mark on Russian and world literature. See Gregory Freidin (ed.), The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. Make sure you see the video of 'Grisha' Freidin's presentation for the Yiddish Book Center on Babel's Red Cavalry before we meet to discuss Babel again on September 11. https://ms-my.facebook.com/YiddishBookCenter/videos/494627292261236
2. Boris Dralyuk. Odessa Stories: Isaac Babel and His City. In Odessa Stories (Boris Dralyuk, trans.), Pushkin Press, 2016.
3. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, Nathalie Babel, Ed., Peter Constantine, Trans., Introduction by Cynthia Ozick. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
4. Bennie the Howl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db1gstY886c The title in English represents a mistranslation of Benya Krik's surname. The film gives glimpses of Odessa at least somewhat as Babel--and even as Benya Krik's prototype, the real-life "King" (a Jewish gangster named Moyshe Vinnitsky who went by Mishka Yaponchik, Mike the Jap)--might have seen it.
5. This question of audience became extremely important after the revolution, as we will no doubt discuss after reading Red Cavalry. With regard to the film Benya Krik, made under Soviet auspices, two of the three stories were faithful to those previously published, The King and How it was Done in Odessa. The last story, however, was written by Babel specifically for the film. In it "The King" is bested by Bolshevik soldiers who waylay his train after he had been pardoned for his previous criminal activities, received a commission for himself and his gang in the Red army, and allowed himself to be tempted to smuggle booty (watermelons!) that he had been ordered to requisition for sale by the authorities. Despite his earlier deeds in support of workers against their exploitative boss Tartakovsky, Benya is summarily shot and killed for betraying revolution. So much for the Jewish hero who refuses to go along with the program.
6. Jarrod Tanny. City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa, Indiana University Press, 2011.
7. Efraim Sicher. Isaak Babel’s ‘Odessa Tales’: Inventing Lost Time and the Search for Cultural Identity. The Russian Review (Stanford), vol. 77, no. 1, 2018, pp. 65–87.
8. Rebecca Stanton. Identity Crisis: The Literary Cult and Culture of Odessa in the Early Twentieth Century.” Symposium (Syracuse), vol. 57, no. 3, 2003, pp. 117–26.
9. Boris Briker. The Underworld of Benia Krik and I. Babel’s Odessa Stories. Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 36, no. 1-2, 1994, pp. 115-134. In his literary analysis, Briker focuses on the central trope of the raid that made Babel's stories so accessible to readers. The raid, Briker explains, was a common feature of actual gangster activities reported in Russian newspapers of the time and also central to Babel's construction of his gangster tales.
10. The Pale consisted of territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth occupied by Russia in 1772, 1793, and 1795. For map and notes, see this site, Der Nister: The Family Mashber (May 1, 2021). With regard to Odessa's history, see the very readable book by historian Charles King, Odessa: Genius and Death in the City of Dreams. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
11. Now that I'm an Emerita no longer responsible for policing undergraduates' use of proper sources, I will allow myself to cite Wikipedia. Any Schmoozers who need to brush up on Jewish history in Russia and Ukraine would do well to read the entry on History of the Jews in Russia. For non-experts (like myself), it gives a quick, comprehensive overview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Russia.
12. Tanya Richardson. “The Place(s) of Moldovanka in the Making of Odessa.” The Anthropology of East Europe Review, vol. 23, no. 2, 2005, p. 72–89.
13. Readers may want to check out Pirozhkova's first-person account of her life with the writer, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel. Westminster, MD: Steerforth Press, 1998, including a Foreword by the Jewish American short story writer Grace Paley.
14. Access the essays on Der Nister at www.yidlit.com under Past Schmoozes: Der Nister: The Family Mashber (May 1, 2021) and More Mashber: Book II (May 29, 2021).