Jewish Luck: On Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, and the Varieties of the Jewish Experience

Jewish Luck at Workmen's Circle.jpg

On August 12, 1952, thirteen luminaries of Soviet Jewish culture — including the Yiddish-language writers David Bergelson (1884–1952), Peretz Markish (1895–1952), Dovid Hofshteyn (1889–1952), Itzik Feffer (1900–1952), and Leyb Kvitko (1890–1952) — were executed on trumped-up charges of espionage and treason. This date has come to be known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” All the writers had been members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and had worked tirelessly during the Second World War to rally international support for the struggle against the Nazis and their allies.

To mark this sad anniversary — which seems all the more important now, as it coincides with the anniversary of the 2017 “rally” in Charlottesville — my friend Rob Adler Peckerar, director of Yiddishkayt, and the people of the SoCal Workmen’s Circle (Arbiter Ring) organized a screening of Jewish Luck (1925), a gem of Soviet Jewish cinema, directed by Alexis Granowsky (1890-1937) and starring one of the great actors of the period, Shloyme Mikhoels (1890-1948). The film is an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s classic stories of Menakhem-Mendl, the quintessential luftmensch of shtetl lore — always dreaming, always scheming, and always coming up short.

I was asked to introduce Jewish Luck because its hilarious intertitles were written by none other than Isaac Babel. There’s a fun — likely mythical — story about this inspired match… We know for a fact that Babel loved the stories of Sholem Aleichem, but when he was approached to write the screenplay, he demurred. How could he, as an Odessan Jew, possibly create a believable luftmensch? After all, Jews from Odessa, be they rich or poor, are all driven people, with concrete goals — they’re big-city machers, not vague shtetl dreamers!

At the time, Babel was writing his gangster tales. And it’s true: his Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s underworld, wouldn’t have given poor Menakhem-Mendl the time of day. But Mikhoels convinced Babel to take a chance. So Babel, as the story goes, found himself a real Jewish matchmaker (shadkhen) of the old school and followed him around for weeks. By the time the shoot started, he had acquired enough first-hand experience of the luftmensch lifestyle to craft the titles.

My sense is that the experience of working on Jewish Luck impacted Babel’s own prose. Around this same time he began to write stories about his childhood — much more tender than the gangster tales, and full of real luftmenschen. “In the Basement” (1929), for instance, features “Grandfather Levi Yitzchak, a rabbi who’d been run out of his shtetl for forging Count Branicki’s signature on promissory notes [and] was regarded as a madman by our neighbors and the boys in the street.” Levi Yitzchak, like his grandson, is a writer:

He wrote in Yiddish on square sheets of yellow paper as enormous as maps. The manuscript was called A Man with No Head. It described all of Levi Yitzchak’s neighbors over the seventy years of his life — first in Skvira and Belaya Tserkov, then in Odessa. Undertakers, cantors, Jewish drunkards, the cooks at brises and the crooks who performed the ritual operations — these were the heroes of Levi Yitzchak’s tale. And all of them were absurd, inarticulate people, with lumpy noses, pimples on their scalps, and lopsided rumps.

If Levi Yitzchak isn’t a luftmensch, then who is? Sholem Aleichem certainly impacted Babel, but I feel Babel also put his own spin on Sholem Aleichem. One of the great sequences in Jewish Luck is set in Odessa. It depicts Menakhem-Mendl actually succeeding at business — the business of a shadkhen. The action is too good to describe… You’d better see it for yourselves (starts at the 30-minute mark):

This smooth, plucky Menakhem-Mendl wouldn’t be out of place in one of Babel’s gangster stories. Of course (spoiler alert!), it’s only a dream…

Oh, and here’s a bit of Odessan trivia for you. The cinematographer of Jewish Luck, Eduard Tisse, was also responsible for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which was being shot simultaneously. Compare the delightful Odessa steps scene in Jewish Luck above with the famous montage in Eisenstein’s masterpiece:

Soviet cinema is far more diverse than one might imagine!


5 thoughts on “Jewish Luck: On Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, and the Varieties of the Jewish Experience

  1. What a fascinating post, Boris. The “Night…” certainly needs to be remembered, if for nothing else than as an example of what racial hatred can do – very relevant in these modern unsettled times. And as a lover of Eisenstein and his steps, I’m off to check out “Jewish Luck” – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kaggsy, you won’t be disappointed! The style isn’t Eisenstein’s, but the contrast is revealing — and the film is just so much fun in its own right! And it is indeed painful to think of all that we’ve lost, and all that we stand to lose, due to bigotry.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I’m writing from London, where next Tuesday, at Pushkin House, Robert Chandler and I will launch Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames, a remarkable, entirely original collection of poems that we’ve co-translated with Irina Mashinski and Maria Bloshteyn. The Financial Times have just published an excerpt from one of the most moving poems in the volume, a portrait of the Soviet Yiddish poet Leyb Kvitko, who was executed on August 12, 1952, a date about which I’ve written here. […]


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