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Jewish Writer Isaac Babel Gets His Due in Odessa Exhibit

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The Odessa State Literary Museum is currently paying homage to Jewish writer Isaac Babel in an exhibit that will be on display until January.

Babel, who was born in Odessa in 1894, lived in the city when it was a cosmopolitan center for Jewish art, literature and politics. The excitement of this era is reflected in the museum itself, which has been exquisitely restored to remind visitors of the city’s past glory.

The Babel exhibit includes illustrations from some of Babel’s works, photos, postcards, books from his childhood and information about his life.

Famous as a Russian stylist as well as a Jewish writer, Babel is best known for two collections of short stories, “Red Cavalry” and “Odessa Tales.” He also wrote two plays, “The Sunset” and “Maria.”

Besides his writings about Odessa’s Jews, who “bubble like cheap red wine,” Babel wrote about the gangsters, prostitutes and beggars who gathered at the city’s seaport.

In addition to the Babel exhibit, the museum is also presenting, through Oct. 1, a display of Jewish artifacts from Odessa and from Baltimore, its sister city. The display includes ritual objects for the Jewish home, such as a mezuzah, a Torah and a shofar.

Until perestroika — the so-called “restructuring” of Soviet priorities — and then Ukrainian independence, some of these displays would have been forbidden, said Anna Misjuk, a museum staff member.

“So many rich pages of Odessa’s cultural life were closed,” she said, adding that the changing times present vast new opportunities for research and exhibitions on the city’s Jewish literary past.

Visitors are recommended to stroll through the permanent exhibit, which presents photos, books and fragments of writers’ lives with imaginative, three-dimensional displays echoing the changing literary styles.

Close observation reveals the occasional references to some of Odessa’s most famous Jewish writers. Besides Babel, it was also home at one time to Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, known as Ahad Ha’am; Chaim Nachman Bialik; Shalom Jacob Abramowitsch, who wrote under the pen-name Mendele Mokher Seforim; and revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky. Besides engaging in his political work, Jabotinsky was also a prolific fiction writer, both in Hebrew and in Russian.

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