Babel, Ladyzhensky and the Soul of a City
“To this day I remember, feel, and love this town…I love this town because I grew up in it, was happy, melancholy, and dreamy in it. Passionately and singularly dreamy.”
—Isaac Babel, “At Grandmother’s” (1915)
The town that Russian author Isaac Babel references in this passage is the storied Black Sea metropolis of Odessa. Founded in 1794 by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, the seaport was envisioned as a new kind of imperial city—an orderly and modern economic crossroads. The city’s position on the periphery of the Russian Empire, however, lent it a frontier-like atmosphere. A wildly diverse, multilingual population of merchants, adventurers and fortune hunters was thus attracted to the city’s openness and engaging mix of high and low culture.
Situated in what is now southern Ukraine on terraced hills overlooking the Black Sea, Odessa’s location near major rivers enabled it to ship goods throughout Russia and beyond. Trade in grain, fish, oil and produce fueled the city’s economy, and its warm climate and brightly hued architecture imbued it with a Mediterranean ambiance. A state-of-the-art tram system carried citizens, while commodities such as tea from China, cotton from the United States and oranges from Jerusalem were carted to market over streets paved with stones from Mt. Vesuvius.
A new exhibition, “Odessa: Babel, Ladyzhensky and the Soul of a City,” currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City, brings this vibrant city to life through the writings of Isaac Babel and the paintings of Russian artist Yefim Ladyzhensky. Both men feature Odessa, their hometown, in their work, capturing the city’s bustling commercial street life, intriguing gangster underworld, radical political landscape and violent revolutionary milieu at the start of the Soviet Union. The show, which runs through November 13, was developed by the museum and organized by independent curator Zachary Paul Levine. The Odessa reimagined in the exhibition, says Levine, “is a city of intermingling cultures and languages, where the feeling of breakneck technological and economic change gave shape to a political turmoil that was palpable in every part of daily life.”
“And where there’s a wedding, there’s an engagement, with throwing a plate on the floor, slapping each other’s hands and shoulders, drinking wine, eating…and hoping. Hoping that, if with God’s help there’s no war or plague…there will be a wedding soon.” —Yefim Ladyzhensky
Isaac Babel (1894–1940) is among the most important Jewish and Russian writers of the 20th century. He was a journalist, short story writer, playwright and screenwriter whose work was influenced by his roots in Odessa’s largely Jewish Moldavanka neighborhood. He garnered worldwide attention with the 1926 publication of Red Cavalry, based on his experiences during the Polish-Soviet War. A victim of the Stalinist purges, he was arrested in 1939 and executed in 1940.
The son of a fish salter, Yefim Ladyzhen-sky (1911–1982) was a state-employed artist who designed sets and costumes for the theater and cinema. In the 1960s and ’70s, he painted “Growing Up in Odessa,” a series chronicling life in the city during his childhood. His works depict daily life in a city trying to maintain its identity during occupations by revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces and amid the turmoil created by Soviet economic and social policies of the 1920s and ’30s. His scenes are closely akin to Babel’s Odessa Tales, which tells the story of a group of Moldavanka Jewish gangsters at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. The artist’s focus on Jewish subjects and his implied criticism of Soviet society rendered his work taboo in the U.S.S.R. In 1978, he left for Jerusalem.
“At first the gefilte fish caused trouble at their new apartment….With the arrival of the Erlichs, even the hallway began to reek of garlic and fried onions.” —Isaac Babel, “The Jewess” Unfinished Manuscript (1920s)
“If we do not have a Soviet government, if it’s all in my imagination, then I would be grateful if you would be so kind as to take me back to Mr. Berzon’s…where I worked as a tailor sewing vests all my life!” —Isaac Babel, Odessa tales (1931)
For both Babel and Ladyzhensky, the city’s character was defined by its inhabitants—traders, bankers, shippers, street musicians and royalty alike. Both men identified with the bawdy culture of Moldavanka’s underworld. Each interpreted his city during the years before and after the Bolshevik Revolution through an Odessan lens, typified by a distinctively Jewish sardonic wit.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Jews were drawn to Odessa in pursuit of economic, social and cultural opportunities. By 1900, more than a third of its population was Jewish, and the city became an incubator for Jewish literature, art and politics.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution ended Czarist rule and was followed by years of political chaos, social upheaval, economic collapse and civil war that continued until 1923. By the 1920s, obtaining even the most basic goods was difficult. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew during these years, and many Jews left.
But despite Soviet economic reforms, social transformations and the strife of the 1920s and ’30s, Odessa’s cosmopolitan character endured. Craftsmen transformed grand buildings into communal housing, gangsters still strutted through the streets, cafés remained central to daily life, and commerce, though diminished, continued.
As Isaac Babel once wrote, in his typically ironic style, “Odessa is a horrible town….And yet I feel that there are quite a few good things one can say about this important town, the most charming city of the Russian Empire.” —Diane M. Bolz
“In Odessa there are sweet and oppressive spring evenings,
the spicy aroma of acacias, and a moon filled with an unwavering, irresistible light shining over a dark sea.” —Isaac Babel, “Odessa” (1916)
“…the gangsters drove by on the shadowy street to Ioska Samuelson’s brothel. They rode in lacquered carriages and were dressed up in colorful jackets…their steel hands holding bouquets of flowers…” —Isaac Babel, Odessa tales (1931)
© First: Collection of the Kelner family, Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum; Second and third: Collection of the Khononov family, Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum; Fourth: Collection of the artist’s family, Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum; Fifth: Collection of the Khononov family, Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum