"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."
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...