Babel' in Context: A Study in Cultural Identity

Babel' in Context: A Study in Cultural Identity


Efraim Sicher

Series: Borderlines: Russian and East-European Jewish Studies
ISBN: 978936235957 (hardcover)
Pages: 312 pp.
Publication Date: October 2012

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Isaak Babel (1894–1940) is arguably one of the greatest modern short story writers of the early twentieth century. Yet his life and work are shrouded in the mystery of who Babel was—an Odessa Jew who wrote in Russian, who came from one of the most vibrant centers of east European Jewish culture and all his life loved Yiddish and the stories of Sholom Aleichem.This is the first book in English to study the intertextuality of Babel’s work. It looks at Babel’s cultural identity as a case study in the contradictions and tensions of literary influence, personal loyalties, and ideological constraint. The complex and often ambivalent relations between the two cultures inevitably raise controversial issues that touch on the reception of Babel and other Jewish intellectuals in Russian literature, as well as the “Jewishness” of their work.

Efraim Sicher (PhD Oxford University) is a full professor at Ben-Gurion University, where he teaches comparative literature. He has published a study of Isaac Babel’s prose style, Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaak Babel (Slavica, 1986), has edited two volumes of Babel’s stories in Russian and one in English, and has edited the complete works of Babel in Hebrew. He has also published numerous books and articles in Russian and comparative literature and is well known in the field of modern Jewish culture.

Sicher’s scholarly excavation of Babel’s Jewish themes, grounded in his knowledge of both Jewish and Russian languages and reference points, helps us to identify the multiple cultural layers in Babel’s fiction. Ultimately this leads us toward a more sophisticated understanding of Babel’s messages.
— Amelia Glaser, University of California, San Diego, in the Slavic Review, Spring 2014
Many critics and scholars have noted and explored the Jewish element in the work of Isaak Babel’, but none has given it the sustained and penetrating analysis that Efraim Sicher has undertaken over his long and distinguished career. Sicher has demonstrated persuasively and, I think, definitively the extent to which specifically Jewish paradigms penetrate, shape, and give meaning to Babel’’s texts, whether they derive from Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mokher-Sforim, Khaim Bialik, the kheder, the Midrash, or Torah.
— Jonathan Brent (The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Bard College), Canadian Slavonic Papers (Vol. LV, Nos. 3-4, September-December 2013)
The essays in this volume offer a comprehensive view of Isaac Babel’s literary legacy, shaped by Russia, but deeply rooted in Jewish culture, Jewish history, and Jewish identity. Sicher reads Babel like a palimpsest, revealing layer after layer of cultural and literary allusion. Babel in Context: A Study in Cultural Identity is an indispensable contribution to Babel scholarship by one of its most distinguished pioneers.
— Grisha Freidin, Stanford University
In this profoundly original book, the distinguished Babel scholar Efraim Sicher examines this elusive writer through a defining set of linguistic, cultural, and historical contexts. Everything is here: the Babel who was infatuated with Maupassant, the Babel who tried writing in the framework of collectivization, the untangled biography, and, best of all, the Babel who, as a native speaker of Yiddish, drew from the rich traditions of Yiddish and Hebrew literature centered in Odessa.
— Alice Nakhimovsky, Colgate University
Isaac Babel is the first name on everyone’s list of Russian Jewish authors. Efraim Sicher’s book not only makes a highly significant contribution to Babel scholarship, but also provides a point of departure for those working in Russian Jewish studies generally. Sicher is one of the very few scholars who discuss Hebrew literature in the Russian setting of the 1920s. Hebrew was one of the components of the multilingual culture of Odessa, which also included Russian and Yiddish, and in which Babel and other, similar authors, lived and worked, as Sicher shows. Thanks to Sicher’s work, we now have access to Babel’s dialogue with Yiddish writers and with the Hebrew authors Bialik and Hazaz, and the Hebrew journal Breshit. This is a fascinating and important study.
— Harriet Murav, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Since much of Babel’’s work was censored or lost, he has become an iconic figure for who and what he might have been as well as who and what he was. The clearly written study will be suitable for specialist scholars of Babel’, Eastern European-Jewish Studies, and early post-Revolutionary Russian literature.
Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Table of Contents

Note on References and Translations

1  Isaak Babelʹ: A Brief Life
2  Reference and Interference
3  Babelʹ, Bialik, and Others
4  Midrash and History: A Key to the Babelesque Imagination
5  A Russian Maupassant
6  Babelʹ’s Civil War
7  A Voyeur on a Collective Farm

Bibliography of Works by Babelʹ and Recommended Reading


Babelʹ with his father, Nikolaev 1904
Babelʹ with his schoolmates
Benia Krik (still from the film, Benia Krik, 1926) 
S. M. Budenny, 1920
First Red Horse Army, 1920
Babelʹ in a humorous photo published alongside Budenny doing gymnastics (1933) 
Babelʹ and his sister Meri in Belgium
Babelʹ and Zhenia, Idelsbad, Belgium (1928) 
Babelʹ and Nathalie (1933) 
Babelʹ and son, Mikhail
Molodenovo, 1931
Babelʹ and Eisenstein, 1936
NKVD photo of Babelʹ, 1939
Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk (1915-20) 
The Wise Men of Odessa 

Odessa tavern, ca. 1925
Cover page of Den', June 1869
Pinkhas Minkovsky and choir, Brodsky Synagogue, around 1910
Iosif Chaikov, cover of Baginen (1919) 
Iosif Chaikov, cover of Breshit (1926) 
Bialik’s house, Lower Arnaut Street, Odessa
Monument to Pushkin, Odessa
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1918 in Petrograd
Boris Efimov, caricature based on “My First Goose” 
Georg Grosz, “Maul halten und weiter dienen” 
Fridrikh Ermler, still from Fragment of an Empire, 1929
De-kulakization of peasants
in the Donetsk region, 1930s
USSR in Construction, November 1938