Today, parts 3 and 4 (of 6) of Gregory Freidin’s reasons for being “obsessed” with Isaac Babel:
3. Around this time, at 16 or so, I discovered Babel’s “Odessa Stories.” If ever life imitated art, this was it. In my age cohort, many had a similar experience. Indeed, Jewish or not, if you were a cool guy, you knew Babel’s stories about the Jewish underworld of Odessa and flaunted your knowledge by peppering your speech with some of the fractured Yiddish-Russian phrases from Babel (e.g., Poppy, drink and nosh and don’t you be worried from such trifles). Babel also provided great relief for a confused Russian Jewish kid like me by producing brilliant modern fiction about Russian Jewish life, especially one that brimmed with sex and violence – and style. Oh what style!
4. Then came 1967 war and the myth of the Israel as a great warrior state. The news of the way and Israel’s victory resonated with Babel’s fiction about violent Jews and violent Cossacks. So, for me, the discovery of Babel and falling in love with his fiction, however little I could get out of it then, frames both my childhood and youth, as well as my expanding horizon at the time – a growing knowledge and understanding of Russia and the outside world, including the Jewish world. By then, I was quite fluent in English, and my job as a researcher studying world economy allowed me free access to American press. Babel, I learned, was a world celebrity.