Reading Babel in Ojai

Helix begins in the sunny climes of Southern California at a retreat center in Ojai. There, the entire group learns a smattering of Russian, Yiddish, and Polish, both to know a few phrases before traveling to a part of the world where those languages once were commonly spoken, but also to set the tone for a study experience that will be about cultures, languages, maps, and memories all overlapping. I spent an hour working with the advanced Russian group reading Isaac Babel’s Pan Apolek, one of the stories in Red Cavalry. We used a soon-to-be published translation by Boris Dralyuk. And it was the first time the English captured the brilliance of Babel’s challenging use of Russian. I ended up having a lovely email exchange with Boris, who is hard at work on a translation of Babel’s second major collection of short stories, Odessa Stories. For this story, Apolek, an itinerant icon painter, puts the faces of those he meets into the icons that will then be used for religious practice.  The church hierarchy finds this blasphemous; the locals are, not surprisingly thrilled to see themselves in such an important place.  Such a great story to launch our adventures to Yiddishland.

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