Yiddish Story Time – Gedali by Isaac Babel
Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (July 13, 1894 – January 27, 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry”. Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge as the result of his long-term affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of 15 May 1939. After confessing under interrogation to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, he was shot on 27 January 1940. Isaac Babel was born in the Moldavanka section of Odessa to Manus and Feyga Bobel. Soon after his birth, the Babel family moved to the port city of Nikolayev. They later returned to live in a more fashionable part of Odessa in 1906. Babel used Moldavanka as the setting for The Odessa Tales and the play Sunset.
Although Babel’s short stories present his family as “destitute and muddle-headed”, they were relatively well-off. According to his autobiographical statements, Babel’s father, Manus, was an impoverished shopkeeper. Babel’s daughter, Nathalie Babel Brown, stated that her father fabricated this and other biographical details in order to “present an appropriate past for a young Soviet writer who was not a member of the Communist Party.” In fact, Babel’s father was a dealer in farm implements and owned a large warehouse.
In his teens, Babel hoped to get into the preparatory class of the Nicolas I Odessa Commercial School. However, he first had to overcome the Jewish quota. Despite the fact that Babel received passing grades, his place was given to another boy, whose parents had bribed school officials. As a result he was schooled at home by private tutors. In addition to regular school subjects, Babel studied the Talmud and music. According to Cynthia Ozick,