My mother has a way of using gifts to assign required reading. She marks the inside sleeve with the month and year in which the task was handed down, and a little note reminding me who gave it. There’s a small mountain of these books out there, if you can find them. It’s really not an unreasonable tactic, and certainly not one that I resent. Coercion is, after all, the most direct thruway to the part of my brain with buttons and levers for doing things.
Recently, she dispatched me to read a little book that talked about our people in the way she would like them to be talked about. The assignment was a small, white book, and I hoped it would make me appear an eclectic sort of enigma were I to read it in a cramped coffee shop or on a subway platform. I settled instead for the look of a man having trouble holding a tiny book. There’s a fine line between the two.
Isaac Babel wrote this little white book, a collection of short stories, in the early 20th century. It centers on Moldavanka in Odessa, a Jewish ghetto that bloomed chaotic on the Ukrainian coast. This, I think, is what the Jews who raised me talk about when you ask them where they came from.
The value of the book is not as a history but as a transcript of identity. It’s really the way in which Babel wrote of Jews or to put a finer point on it, the way he wrote Jewish, that’s so remarkable. When Babel talked about Jews, they were strong, cowardly and altogether ordinary people; they were mythical gangsters better suited for Scorsese and quiet fathers carving out little pieces of childhood for their kids. When he wrote Jewish it was something that he lifted from the mouths and movements of the people who embodied it every day. When he wrote Jewish, it was absolutely everything.
Sitting in the airport in which I ended up reading most of this book, I felt a certain sense of understanding that I now have trouble putting into words. It isn’t that the experiences Babel described were familiar. Instead, I suppose, it was more like I had finally tasted something after someone had spent years trying to describe to me.
They shot Babel in a Soviet prison camp in 1940. I know nothing about his inner life, the way we saw himself and his people, but the decades that led him there must have been excruciating for someone who took such care to illuminate the Jewish identity. With very few exceptions, the world Babel lived in had waged a dedicated war on what it meant to be Jewish. Vandals superimposed their own grotesque fear onto the image of his people and then ingrained that distortion in the minds of a generation. Even by the most benevolent of outsiders, Jews were handed the two-dimensional identity of the victim. They were the photonegative of their own oppression.
I don’t really know what makes identity. That is, I don’t know what it is about community membership that makes a person more than just the sum of their individual intentions. What does seem clear, though, is that it is both intensely personal and highly subject to outside input. In general, people are often susceptible to suggestions about who they are. So although I may want to find some significance in being Jewish purely on my own terms, the reality is that I often need it pointed out to me. In the best case, it is the gentle suggestion of a little white book given as a gift. The flip side, however, is how easily that suggestion can be hijacked.
To assault an identity does not require extremism — in fact, such attacks are often quite mundane. The people who shot Babel, who killed his people, were evil and extreme. But his killer’s corruption of what it meant to be Jewish required the complicity of countless very good people. Political banalities like quotas, visa restrictions and arguments about economics that identified the outsider as the source of hardship offered the subtle suggestion that being Jewish was not Babel’s everything, but a one very particular thing. It was not a careful transcript, but a crude caricature.
That is precisely why Babel’s stories were required reading. A century of outside voices chiming in on what “Jewish” means has made it very difficult to understand what it meant to the people that lived it. When the world collaborates on a vision of what a community is and articulates it in an especially loud voice, what might have been before is easily washed out. And it is supremely difficult to reclaim — it takes a Baldwin, an Alexie or a Kendrick.
The moment in which we are now caught is very similar to the decades in which Babel lived. The president’s immigration policies are nothing like the fascist persecution of the Jews. However, what is evident in both these policies and our national willingness to support them,is the same complicity of those very good people who suggested to Babel who his people were. “Criminal outsider” is the image that this strain of nativism seeks impose on the identities of the communities it hopes to exclude.
As a political opposition, how we respond matters. There are cynical calls to avoid the issue, to gain support through arguments about economics or national defense. But in a moment when identity, which is so easy to vandalize but so hard to rehabilitate, is under direct attack, the communities being shut out require our full-throated and direct defense. Otherwise we make that same subtle suggestion that hid Moldavanka for nearly a century.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.