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The legacy of Isaac Babel, Russia’s Jewish Hemingway, is dissected in new Chicago play



CHICAGO (JTA) — All writers strive for a good story. How far they will go to find it depends on their ambition, their wherewithal and their sanity.

Isaac Babel, a Russian-Jewish writer who came from a relatively stable, privileged background in Odessa in the late 1800s, would go to war among Cossacks who murdered Jews, make friends with Soviet agents and then cuckold one of them. The reason why Babel constantly put himself in harm’s way may have been simple, according to another writer.

“I think he wanted something to write about,” said Rajiv Joseph, whose play at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, “Describe the Night,” centers on Babel. “He was a young man who had wanted to be a writer but had nothing to write about.”

“Describe the Night” blends three stories from different eras that engage with questions of who controls the truth. The first portrays Babel, the Soviet secret police head Nikolai Yezhov and Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia, with whom Babel begins an affair. The second follows a young Soviet agent rising through the ranks just before the Berlin Wall falls, and the third dives into a conspiracy behind a 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. 

Babel himself may not rise to the ranks of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in terms of immediate name recognition in the United States, but the journalist, author and playwright is remembered as one of Russia’s preeminent 20th-century writers. His modernist and bloody tales in “Red Cavalry,” a collection of short stories inspired by his time on the frontlines of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919, vaulted him to the status of a Russian Hemingway. The pithy American war correspondent once expressed his admiration, perhaps even jealousy, of Babel’s writing, saying “Babel’s style is even more concise than mine.”

Like Hemingway, Babel went to war in search of a good story. Combat itself was not the only threat to him: as a Jew, he bore witness to the Cossack cavalry’s antisemitic atrocities. Babel tamped down his Jewish identity while covering the war, though he would feel a sense of isolation in both societies or as his grandson would later describe him “a Jew among the Cossacks, and a Cossack among the Jews.” In his own diary, Babel wrote “Talking to the Jews, I feel kin to them, they think I’m Russian and my soul is laid bare.” 

Joseph, who is not Jewish and authored the Pulitzer-nominated play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” had read “Red Cavalry” years ago but was inspired to write “Describe the Night” after discovering the poetic journal Babel had kept during the war. The title of the play comes directly from the diary, which repeats the word several times in Babel’s own prompts to describe things ranging from kitchens to marketplaces to women to horses. Sometimes Babel successfully answers his own prompts by forcing himself to write, and other times he doesn’t, Joseph said.

Lead actor James Vincent Meredith is also not Jewish and admitted he had concerns about “the choice of casting a black man in the role of a Jewish man living in the world of Russia, the Ukraine and Paris.” He partly found his way to the character by watching the 2015 documentary “Finding Babel,” which follows Babel’s grandson across Russia and Ukraine as he searches for his famous ancestor’s remains.

“I can read Babel’s work (I have), I can travel to Israel (I have, decades ago), I can take Hebrew as an elective in college (I did, not very well), I can read Chaim Potok (I have). But these are at their best, however well intentioned, tourist pursuits for one who is not Jewish,” he said. “I will never come close to knowing the true soul of a Jewish person. Thankfully, Rajiv has created this character that by his design, anyone can inhabit.”

Yasen Peyankov and James Vincent Meredith in a scene from the play about Isaac Babel. (Michael Brosilow)

He added that the play isn’t meant to be historically accurate. “The character of Isaac, as well as others in the play, is meant to be an entry point into a world where the scalpel crafting the ‘truth’ is rarely placed in the hands of those who are adversely affected by it. As a black male and father of a black male in the U.S., I’m certainly cognizant of that world.”

Joseph feels that he and other artists share the instinct Babel had to leave his comfort zone. He wanted to be a writer, but growing up in suburban Cleveland gave him little inspiration. After college, he joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in West Africa.

“That was a real life-changing event for me that opened my world and opened my mind,” Joseph said. “Not nearly as traumatic as traveling with the cavalry through Poland in 1920, but the same impulse to break out of your norms.”

Yet Joseph believes Babel’s desires went beyond pushing boundaries and into a deep, pathological need to associate with danger.

“The thing I find really interesting about Babel, both through his writing and through his personal life, is this inexorable draw towards danger and filth,” Joseph said, adding that Babel would hang out in taverns with Soviet soldiers, members of the secret police and executioners like Yezhov. “He was already treading on such thin ice. So he had a recklessness, you could call it a death wish if you want.”

Meredith was also stunned by the writer’s intense flirtations with danger.

“Why get that close to the flame? That to me is one of the things that really appealed to me about this guy,” Meredith said. “I tend to play it safe, as safe as an actor can play it, but I see this guy who had these kinds of desires, he had this quest to make this amazing art as far as his stories and I just I’m just so attracted to that.”

Joseph said he saw some parallels between Babel’s story and the exodus of some of his artistic peers in Russia, who have fled to Europe. In his time, Babel was seen as subversive by nature, existing as a Jewish man in early Soviet Russia. His relished writing about prostitutes and mobsters, transforming underworld characters into urban legends. His 1935 political play “Maria” was canceled during rehearsals and by 1939, Soviet police arrested him and confiscated his writing. Throughout the 1940s, his works disappeared from circulation. Though some believed Babel had spent time throughout that decade in a prison camp, the government had executed him in 1940.

“In the 1930s and ‘40s, I think if you are a Jewish creative writer, you’re automatically subversive,” Joseph said. He noted one pivotal scene where Nikolai Yezhov labels Babel as such because his writing portrays Russia as gloomy rather than inspiring.

“If you’re telling the truth, you are subversive,” Joseph added. “So I think that pretty much any creative writer worth his or her weight would be considered subversive at that moment.”

“Describe the Night” runs until April 9 at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

The post The legacy of Isaac Babel, Russia’s Jewish Hemingway, is dissected in new Chicago play appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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