What is a Jew’s role in a revolution? I can only answer in Jewish fashion, with more questions. Specifically I have to work in the vein of the Talmud, and bypass certain questions that appear to me inane or uninteresting: The lexicographer or taxonomist’s questions, what is a Jew, what is a revolution; The historian’s questions, how have Jews behaved in past revolutions, how are Jews positioned before and after revolutionary events. Even the revolutionary’s questions, how best can Jews serve the revolution, what is this revolution for, I would like to pass over. Instead, I would like to ask the Jewish poet’s questions. What is the revolutionary value of Jewish blood? What color is the sky in the eye of a Jew who is surviving the birth pangs of Messiah? How do flames spread from Shabbos candles to the world? How do Jews live, and love, and die in revolutionary times? These are the questions that I believe Isaac Babel has answers to.
There is an ache that comes from reading Isaac Babel that I have found in no other writer. It begins in my chest, dull and cold, yet by the time it spreads to behind my eyes, it is quite the burning sensation. It is the opposite of the warmth I feel reading Moby Dick, where everything is the excitement and possibility of the boundless horizon, even as the narrative draws to an inevitable conclusion. Babel has no excitement, no possibility. There is only life, perfectly observed, thrilling and terrible, and life’s suffering. There is only the ache.
I am thinking of Babel tonight because I’ve just seen Rajiv Joseph’s taut and entertaining drama, Describe The Night, in which an imagined love triangle between Isaac Babel, an NKVD officer and the officer’s wife winds its way through history, eventually conspiring to torture a fictionalized Putin. Superbly acted by the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company, the play is emotionally complex, erotic and deeply funny. My only complaint is not the fault of the actors or the play. It is a risk that Rajiv Joseph invited, and failed to avoid. He has, in writing a play about Isaac Babel, invited comparison. And he comes up short of Babel. The play, in its cyclical conspiracy thinking, is too neat, too wrapped up to be a Babel story. Not a great sin, to fall short of the master. But noticeable.
I’ve also thinking of Babel because I’ve been writing about revolution again. A sympathetic friend wrote me to ask how I respond to accusations of Utopian thinking. I gave it some thought, and discussed how I didn’t know all the answers of how to create the world I want to see, or even what that world might look like. I posted my answer publicly and a less sympathetic friend accused me of Utopian thinking. Which goes to show something, but I know not what.
Adrift in the fires and madness of revolutionary Russia, Babel’s Jews struggle to live in a world turned upside down. Many of them don’t. They die. In the Odessa Stories, the gangster Froim Grach looms large, a mastermind of crime. But once his lawlessness becomes the law, and the former enemies of the state are now in power, Grach cannot cope. When the Red Army discipline his men, he goes to the local office of the Cheka, the early revolutionary police, and tries to strike a deal. Only one man, Borovoi, has enough local knowledge to respect Grach. When Borovoi comes back from a minor errand, he finds the giant of his youth has been taken out back and shot. The following is the conversation between Borovoi and Simen, his superior.
“I know you’re angry at me, Sasha,” Simen said to him, “but you mustn’t forget that now we are the power, the state power! You must remember that!”
“I’m not angry at you,” Borovoi said, turning away. “It’s just that you’re not an Odessan, you can’t understand what the old man represented.”
They sat side by side, the chairman of the Cheka, who had just turned twenty-three, and his subordinate. Simen was holding Borovoi’s hand in his and pressing it.
“Tell me one thing as a Chekist, as a revolutionary,” Simen said to him after a moment of silence. “What use would that man have been to the society we are building?”
“I don’t know,” Borovoi said, staring motionlessly in front of him. “I suppose no use at all.”
Similarly, in the Red Calvary stories, Babel writes of a glowering youth in the court of the Rabbi of Zhitomir, the Rabbi’s son. That is early in the war, when the campaign to bring the revolution to the Poles is going well. Babel, or perhaps his narrator, sees the glowering youth one more time, when the war has turned against the Red Army, and they are on the retreat. He and his comrades in their journalist car of the train retreating back to Russia reach out and grab the hands of the lone soldier who grabbed the Trotsky leaflets they are tossing away. It is Ilya Bratslavsky, the Zhitomir rabbi’s son, and he is dying. The narrator tells him that he knows him, but he wasn’t a communist then!
“I was in the Party back then,” the young man answered, scratching his chest and twisting in his fever. “But I couldn’t leave my mother behind.”
“What about now, Ilya?”
“My mother is just an episode of the Revolution,” he whispered, his voice becoming fainter. “Then my letter came up, the letter B, and the organization sent me off to the front. …”
“So you ended up in Kovel?”
“I ended up in Kovel!” he shouted in despair. “The damn kulaks opened the front. I took over a mixed regiment, but it was too late. I didn’t have enough artillery.”
He died before we reached Kovno.
Is that the fate of the Jew in revolution? To be outpaced, outmoded, eaten like the rest of the Children? To die on the frontlines, to be cannon fodder?
I have to believe that we have more of a role to play than that. In another Red Calvary story, Babel’s narrator meets the Jew Gedali. They discuss the fate of the Jew in Poland, now that the Revolution is here. Gedali is cautiously optimistic, but he doesn’t like all the shooting. “Let’s say we say yes to the revolution, does that mean we’re supposed to say no to the Sabbath?” he asks. He begs the narrator and the Russians, bring good people to Zhitomir, and form the fourth international. This time, he says, make it the International of Good People.
This is the role of the Jew in the revolution as I see it, as I have carved it out for myself, as I hope you will join me. Demand better. Always demand more and better. Demand a real revolution, a real change, demand something new, such as Peace, Justice, and Happiness. Demand Moshiach, and be damn disappointed when he doesn’t show.