Mind/Body, Jewish/Russian: Identity Fragmentation in Isaac Babel’s “Story of My Dovecote”

Published: October 18, 2010

“It is always the dominant people who define what is beautiful.”
-Melvin Konner, The Jewish Body

One of Isaac Babel’s semiautobiographical childhood stories, “Story of My Dovecote” [«История моей голубятни»], explores the process of a Jewish boy growing up in early twentieth-century southern Ukraine among revolutionary reforms, anti-Jewish discrimination, and anti-Jewish pogroms. In “Story of My Dovecote,” the child-narrator’s experience of his entrance into a Russian gymnasium and the 1905 pogrom in Odessa compels him to face hostile and contradictory ideas about his identity coming from both inside and outside his family and community. In order to enter the Russian world as a Jew, the narrator must attempt to reconcile Jewish, Russian, and popular anti-Semitic images of the Jewish male’s intellectualism and resulting powerlessness, physical deformity, and emasculation.

In Red Cavalry, Babel’s major short story cycle about a Jewish journalist’s enlistment in a violent Cossack cavalry unit during the Russian Civil War, the narrator works to distance himself from “Jewish” qualities and a Jewish identity to be accepted by the Cossacks. By contrast, the narrator of “Story of My Dovecote” struggles with simultaneously accepting and rejecting his Jewish identity. While the narrator of Red Cavalry often disassociates himself from dominant society’s stereotypes of particular, negative “Jewish” characteristics and projects these traits onto others, the narrator of “Story of My Dovecote” both employs popular anti-Semitic imagery and explicitly includes himself in the negative category of “weak Jews.” As the boy enters gymnasium, interacts with Russians, and faces violence, he must navigate a society that allows him in (to an extent) while also presenting him with negative images of himself, his heritage, and his community.

Sander Gilman examines these conflicting dynamics in his work, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (1986), and argues“the fragmentation of identity that results is the articulation of self-hatred” (3). Through acceptance of the stereotypes of what Gilman terms “dominant society,” in this case to gain a place of respect among Russians while simultaneously identifying as a Jew, internalized anti-Semitism fragments the boy’s identity. He is unable to reconcile incompatible worldviews and images to create a singular, workable identity that enables him to live fully in both the Jewish and Russian worlds.

In this paper, I will examine the child-protagonist’s identity fragmentation through the original Russian text. I argue that this fragmentation is embodied in three ways. First, through conflicting images and interpretations of Jewish and Russian bodies and intellects, the boy’s identity is broken up into mind/body and Jewish/Russian oppositions. These dichotomies gain practical meaning as he learns that the Jewish body, as seen by Russians, renders Jews powerless in Russian societySecond, this fragmentation is exhibited by associations between the narrator and other characters, achieved by the repetition of words and phrases to describe seemingly opposite individuals. These associations effectively splinter the boy’s identity into multiple characters. Third, the boy’s identity fragmentation is manifested by the text’s two narrators, a primary adult-narrator and a child-narrator. The relationship between these two narrators adds another layer of fragmentation to the text, as the primary narrator both separates himself from and identifies with the child-narrator.

Jewish and Russian Bodies, Minds, and Power

“Story of My Dovecote” is the narrator’s account of his entrance into the first class of a Russian gymnasium. Only two Jewish boys are allowed in each year, and the boy’s father pushes him to study incessantly, to the point of despair. To entice the child, his father promises to fulfill his most intense desire—to own a dovecote and pairs of doves. After receiving the highest grade possible on the exam, much to the pride of his family and Jewish community, the boy begins to attend the Russian school. He only remembers the promise of the doves after the novelty of his new school has worn off. His mother forbids him from leaving the house to purchase the doves because of the danger outside: the Constitution of 1905 has just been announced and people are giving speeches, celebrating, and protesting in the streets. Against his mother’s wishes, the boy sneaks out to the wild game market. As he is buying the doves, he overhears that his grandfather has been killed across town. He hides the doves under his shirt and tries to run home by a back way, but is intercepted by a Russian cripple and his wife. The cripple discovers the doves and smashes them against the boy’s face. On the ground, covered in the intestines of his doves, the boy reevaluates his place in the world. After watching the beginnings of a pro-Czarist procession, the boy runs home to find his family’s household employee, Kuzma, taking care of his grandfather’s dead body. The story ends as Kuzma brings the boy to the house of a local Russian man, where his parents are hiding from the violence that has erupted into an anti-Jewish pogrom.

Alice Stone Nakhimovsky writes:

The images that adhere to Jews in the childhood stories are similar to images of Jews in Red Cavalry. Jews are not at home in the physical world; they are not robust or sexual… ‘Story of My Dovecote’ [is] about Jewish powerlessness, in part physical and sexual, as perceived by a young boy (103).

Much like the narrator of Red Cavalry, the boy wrestles with Jewish intellectual ability juxtaposed to Russian physical strength. In the context of early twentieth-century Russian Odessa, facing both extreme violence and a quickly changing world, he is forced to question the viability of his Jewishness, and with it his mind and body.

While the narrator of Red Cavalry as a whole avoids directly describing his body, but rather only describes the bodies of Cossacks, the narrator of “Story of My Dovecote” explicitly depicts and critiques his own physicality. He writes, “Like all Jews, I was short in stature, weak, and plagued by headaches from too much study” (Babel 604) [«Как все евреи, я был мал ростом, хил, и страдал от ученья головными болями» (Бабель 127)]. This statement is emblematic of the narrator’s view of Jewish identity in several ways. First of all, this quotation establishes that the narrator views the Jewish body negatively. Second, the Jew’s physical disability is directly tied to his mental aptitude. Cultural historian Daniel Itzkovitz, writing of popular anti-Semitic imagery, notes, “the imagined Jew was thought to have overdeveloped bankbooks and brains at the expense of an underdeveloped (or decaying) body” (190). Third, by saying, “like all Jews,” the narrator posits that every Jew embodies this anti-Semitic stereotype and denies any possibility of diversity or individual identity among Jews. In doing so, he employs this anti-Semitic stereotype to its furthest conclusion, “othering” Jews by essentializing them as all being the same and sharing inherent, negative characteristics.

Though the narrator speaks of the Jews as an outsider by employing popular anti-Semitic stereotypes, he simultaneously includes himself in the category of Jews. “Like all Jews,” he writes, “I was short in stature, weak, and plagued by headaches from too much study.” This statement exhibits one of the fundamental tensions of “Story of My Dovecote”: in one sentence, the narrator speaks as both an insider and outsider in regard to the Jewish community.

This identification with the “weak Jews” distinguishes Babel’s narrator from “self-hating Jews” as described by Gilman. In Jewish Self-Hatred, he writes that self-hating Jews mock characteristics that dominant society ascribes to Jews, but that they always employ “mockery directed at a projection of the self rather than at the self” (Gilman 20). Gilman’s “self-hating” Jews both accept dominant society’s value system and project its characterization of negative, “Jewish” qualities onto other, “bad” Jews, always working to distinguish themselves from those projections. The narrator of “Story of My Dovecote” complicates Gilman’s notion in that he accepts dominant society’s characterization of Jews as physically weak and mentally strong, but includes himself among the Jews who share these qualities.

According to the narrator, the healthy development of the Jew’s mind and body are placed in opposition to one another; as a Jew, he can never have both a strong mind and strong body. In this way, through the boy’s acceptance of dominant society’s view of Jews as physically weak and mentally strong, his identity is broken into opposing parts and he is rendered incapable of reconciling mind and body. Internalized anti-Semitism, being forced to reconcile negative images of Jewishness portrayed by dominant society with the hope of gaining a place of respect within that society, further fragments the boy’s identity as he speaks simultaneously as an insider and an outsider, a Jew and a Russian.

The narrator’s description of short, weak Jews is in direct contrast to his portrayal of Russians. After receiving the highest grade possible on his Russian language entrance exam, the narrator exits the classroom and is immediately surrounded by Russian boys poking him and trying to make him play with them. Scared and unsure, the narrator is saved from the Russian boys by Pyatnitsky, the deputy warden who helped to administer his exam. Pyatnitsky[1] takes a liking to the boy after his emotional performance of Pushkin’s poetry during the exam, calling him “my little friend” (Babel 603) [«дружок мой» (Бабель 126)], and tells the Russian boys to leave the narrator alone. The narrator describes Pyatnitsky as having a “large, fleshy, gentlemanly back” (Babel 603) [«Я увидел смятение на просторной этой, мясистой, барской спине» (Бабель 126)] and compares him to a barge:

A magnificent star shone on his chest, medals tinkled by his lapel, and hemmed in by the murky walls, moving between them like a barge moves through a deep canal, his large, black, uniformed body marched off on rigid legs and disappeared through the doors of the headmaster’s office. (Babel 603)

Пышная звезда блеснула у него на груди, ордена зазвенели у лацкана, большое черное мундирное его тело стало уходить на прямых ногах. Оно стиснуто было сумрачными стенами, оно двигалось в них, как движется барка в глубоком канале, и исчезло в дверях директорского кабинета. (Бабель 126)

In the narrator’s eyes, Pyatnitsky is the opposite of a Jewish boy. His body is large and powerful and he is decorated with medals, signs of acceptance and prestige in the eyes of other Russians. As Pyatnitsky keeps the Russian boys from bothering the narrator, it becomes obvious that only a man as physically powerful as he is capable of protecting the narrator in the Russian world.

The narrator sees Jewish male bodies in light of the Russian male bodies he experiences outside his home community. Because he believes Russian society highly values physical strength and views Russian men as strong and Jewish men as weak, he sees the men in his family as powerless in the world of dominant, Russian society. The narrator writes, “All the men of our clan had been too trusting of others and too quick to take unconsidered action. We had never had any luck in anything” (Babel 603) [«Все мужчины в нашем роду были доверчивы к людям и скоры на необдуманные поступки, нам ни в чем не было счастья» (Бабель 126)].

His father attributes this ill-fortune to an outside force. “My father believed,” the narrator writes, “that his life was governed by a malevolent fate, an inscrutable being that pursued him and that was unlike him in every way” (Babel 604) [«Отец верил поэтому, что жизнью его управляет злобная судьба, необъяснимое существо, преследующее его и во всем на него не похожее» (Бабель 127)]. This fate represents not simply an otherworldly force, but a social force as well. «Преследующее», translated here as “pursued,” can also mean “persecute” or “victimize.” The narrator’s father, therefore, feels that his life is controlled and that he is victimized by a being that resembles him in no way [«во всем на него не похожее»]. This “being” can be read to represent Russians, who control the Jewish man’s fate in a Russian-dominated society. Russians are “unlike him in every way” —he feels that his body and values are fundamentally different from the Russians who govern and pursue him. Therefore, he is unlucky because his Jewish body and values are futile when judged within the value system of Russian society. Russian and Jewish identities are rendered all the more irreconcilable by the boy’s father through his view of the absolute difference between the two groups and the Jewish powerlessness that results.

The disparity between the Russian and Jewish worlds is reiterated in the climax of the story, as the narrator faces violence and encounters the physical world as he purchases his doves. Overhearing that his grandfather has been killed, he runs toward home through a back alley, where Makarenko the cripple kills his doves. As the narrator is lying with his face against the earth, he experiences the earth and physicality in a new way. He writes, “My world was small and ugly. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it, and pressed myself against the earth that lay soothing and mute beneath me. This tamped earth did not resemble anything in our lives” (Babel 609) [«Мир мой был мал и ужасен. Я закрыл глаза, чтобы не видеть его, и прижался к земле, лежавшей подо мной в успокоительной немоте. Утоптанная эта земля ни в чем не была похожа на нашу жизнь и на ожидание экзаменов в нашей жизни» (Бабель 134)].

This wording parallels his father’s view of fate. In the Russian text, the same phrasing is used for the being which was “unlike him in every way” [«и во всем на него не похожее»] and the earth which “did not resemble anything in our lives” [«ни в чем не была похожа на нашу жизнь»]. The earth—this soothing, mute, physical earth—does not resemble the boy’s Jewish life just as the force—the Russians—that governs his father’s life also does not resemble him.

Through this experience, the narrator reestablishes that the physical, natural world, as manifested in the dirt of the ground, is not a part of the Jew’s life. Along with differentiating the natural world from the Jewish world, and reinforcing aforementioned anti-Semitic views of Jews as physically inadequate, the narrator identifies himself with the Jewish world. He writes, “My world was small and ugly…. This tamped earth did not resemble anything in our lives.” At the same time, he “presses” himself against the earth, finding something “soothing” and comforting in this experience of a world that is not his own.

It is important to note that Peter Constantine’s widely-used 2002 English translation leaves out a part of the original Russian text. His English translation ends with, “This tamped earth did not resemble anything in our lives,” [«Утоптанная эта земля ни в чем не была похожа на нашу жизнь»], but the full Russian text continues, “or the expectation of exams in our lives” [«и на ожидание экзаменов в нашей жизни»]. The original Russian reinforces the boy’s contrast between physical and mental worlds and abilities. The narrator spends the first half of “Story of My Dovecote” studying for exams, and in this passage, he defines his life as waiting and preparing for exams. This life, of course, is directly opposed to the physical, earthly world that belongs to others.[2]

While taking the entrance exam for the first time at the beginning of the story, the narrator repeats twice, “I was good at learning” (Babel 601) [«Я был способен к наукам» (Бабель 124)] and speaks of his “mind and sharp memory” (Babel 601) [«у меня ума и жадной памяти» (Бабель 125). However, as he raises himself from the ground at the end of the story, after his violent encounter with Makarenko, the boy comes to realize that these skills leave him powerless in Russian society. Efraim Sicher writes:

Exams and daily existence lose their usual meaning for the boy who is forced to readjust his relationship with the world around him. The usual behavioral boundaries have broken down and, with them, the boundary between the self and the outside world. The boy is brought to reconsider his identity in a gentile-oriented society and to apprehend his adult role as alienated Jew in a dangerous, hostile non-bounded area outside the familiar perception of the closed Jewish home with its joys and troubles, its anxieties and ambitions. (Style and Structure 91)

After this realization, the boy describes walking home along a “foreign street” («Я шел по чужой улице» (Бабель 134)], and as Sicher interprets, it is “no longer his street, no longer recognizable” (Style and Structure 91). The boy is forced to reevaluate a world in which he may attend a Russian school by passing a difficult examination, but where his mind offers no protection against violence committed by Russians against Jews. He is conflicted as he both admires those Russians and fears them.

Biblical Allusions, Character Associations, and Fragmentations

Certain repeated associations between characters in “Story of My Dovecote” further embody fragmentation. For example, the characters of Makarenko and the narrator are connected through repetitions in order to illustrate a splintering of the narrator’s identity. Though Makarenko seems, on the surface, to be simply the narrator’s enemy and oppressor, I argue that Makarenko actually represents parts of the narrator’s own identity. As the narrator struggles to find himself among conflicting worldviews and aspects of his identity, he cannot exist as a singular whole, but rather finds (or projects) parts of himself in others around him. The narrator describes Makarenko and himself in parallel ways in order to illustrate these multiple pieces— the Russian and Jewish parts of himself.[3]

Babel’s technique of associating characters through the repetition of words and images can be said to be derived from a Jewish source. As Sicher writes, “Babel’s prose abounds in references and allusions to the Hebrew Bible, Prophets and later holy scriptures, to what George Steiner has called the ‘textual homeland’ of the Jewish world” (“Jewishness of Babel” 85). “Story of My Dovecote” is no exception. The text includes allusions to David and Goliath and Noah’s doves. However, as pointed out in Zsuzsa Hetényi’s In a Maelstrom: The History of Russian-Jewish Prose (1860 – 1940), the text’s Biblical motifs go even deeper. She writes:

The catalogue is a basic poetic feature of the Bible, deeply rooted, first of all, in the paratactic structure of Biblical Hebrew language itself, but it is also an ancient technique or device of poetic imagery. Paratactic structures are usually elliptic, and the coherence is born, as it was mentioned, through association. One of the secrets of Babel’s text is its visual nature, things depicted side by side without any textual element of cause and effect, with a hidden logic to be decoded by the reader. This type of ‘and…and…and’ language is characteristic of the ancient (primitive) structure of Hebrew (allowing multiple explications of the Biblical text), of the poetic language (visual impressions, metaphoric imagery, parallels) and of the child’s language, too. (235)

By catalogue, Hetényi is referring to a device such as the description of the contents of Uncle Lev’s trunk in “Story of My Dovecote,” in which seemingly unrelated or irreconcilable items are placed side by side without any hint of how these juxtapositions might be interpreted.[4] However, images do not have to literally be placed next to one another in the text to be connected through this type of association. By repeating particular words or phrases to describe two seemingly very different characters or their actions (words that are never repeated elsewhere in the text), Babel achieves the same effect: he asks his readers to associate these characters with one another, to imagine them side by side and to question what their connection might mean.

On the surface, the narrator and Makarenko seem to be opposites. The former is a shy, small Jewish boy who spends the majority of his life studying indoors, the latter a Russian man who sells cloth outside the wild game market. Makarenko is described as having a “rough face of red fat and fists and iron” (Babel 608) [«грубое его лицо, составленное из красного жира, из кулаков, из железа» (Бабель 132)], an image that rings of violence and forceful physicality in a way that contrasts sharply with the weak, studious Jews of the narrator’s world. Alice Stone Nakhimovsky interprets the boy’s embarrassment and defeat at the hands of Makarenko to be a sign of just how powerless he is within Russian society. She writes, “In the marketplace, caught in the pogrom, he and his doves are no match even for a Russian cripple” (104). However, linguistic clues and repetitions that connect the narrator with Makarenko suggest that the relationship between these two characters is more complex.

The very fact that Makarenko is described as a cripple [калека] is important and serves to connect him with the narrator. After being accepted to the first class of the gymnasium, the narrator runs home to tell his parents. While his father immediately begins to celebrate, his mother remains reserved. The narrator describes his mother’s response, “My mother was pale, she was trying to foresee my fate in my eyes, and looked at me with bitter pity, as if I were a little cripple” (Babel 603) [«Мать была бледна, она испытывала судьбу в моих глазах и смотрела на меня с горькой жалостью, как на калечку» (Бабель 126)]. Makarenko and the narrator are both described by others as cripples, and this label associates them with one another.

Makarenko’s physical disabilities connect him with the narrator in other ways. Amid the confusion that ensues as the pogrom breaks out, a young woman with “a beautiful, fiery face” (Babel 608) [«женщина с распалившимся красивым лицом» (Бабель 132)] runs away with some of Makarenko’s merchandise. He yells at his wife and business partner, Katyusha, that people are stealing cloth and bonnets from them, “‘Bonnets!’ Makarenko shouted, choked, and made a sound as if he were sobbing” (Babel 608) [«–Чепцы!—закричал Макаренко, задохся и сделал такой звук, как будто он рыдает» (Бабель 132)]. He struggles to stop the woman, but is unable to because of his disability: “The legless man couldn’t catch up with her. His wheels rattled, he moved the levers with all his might” (Babel 608) [«Безногий не поспевал за ней, колеса его гремели, он изо всех сил вертел рычажки» (Бабель 133)]. The woman ignores Makarenko’s screams and takes off with the stolen cloth.

This scene bears a striking linguistic resemblance to an earlier scene, in which the narrator recites Pushkin’s poetry during his exam. The narrator describes, “I recited the poems in sobs….I, shivering, straight-backed, shouted out Pushkin’s verses with all my might, as fast as I could” (Babel 602) [«Я навзрыд сказал эти стихи….торопясь, я кричал пушкинские строфы изо всех сил» (Бабель 125)]. In both scenes, Makarenko and the narrator sob (рыдает, навзрыд) and shout (закричал, кричал) as they struggle to achieve something they are not predisposed to accomplish—legless Makarenko attempts to chase after a physically fit woman, just as the Jewish narrator tries to make the pinnacle of Russian culture his own.[5] Furthermore, the phrase “with all one’s might” [«изо всех сил»] is repeated to describe both actions in both scenes. The linguistic parallelism between these two descriptions serves to associate the characters. Just as the narrator’s weak, Jewish body and values render him ineffective in Russian society, legless Makarenko is also powerless in a world that privileges physical ability.

Aside from these linguistic repetitions and associations, another Biblical allusion serves to connect Makarenko with the narrator. Makarenko is legless because he suffers from leprosy, and as Sicher points out, by smashing the dove against the boy’s face, “he is performing, albeit in reverse, the ritual cleansing of leprosy ordained in Leviticus 13-14” (Style and Structure 92). Leviticus 13 and 14 describe how a priest may determine if a person who suffers from a skin disease is clean or unclean. If a person is declared to be unclean, he must live in isolation away from his community. However, if a person who has been isolated heals, he may be cleansed to reenter the community through a ritual involving sprinkling bird’s blood on his skin. Yet, if Makarenko is the leper, why should the narrator be the one receiving the ritual cleansing? This appropriation of the Biblical ritual serves to further associate Makarenko and the boy—just as both are cripples, the narrator is also a metaphorical leper.[6] Makarenko’s violent acts toward him illustrate the fragmentation of identity that results from internalized anti-Semitism.

Fragmentation, Narration, and Time

Fragmentation can also be found in the structure of the narration of “Story of My Dovecote.” The story is narrated not just by the child-protagonist, but rather by two narrators—the primary adult-narrator who looks back on and frames the story, and the child-narrator who relates his action as he experiences it.[7] Examining Jewish-Russian literature as a phenomenon, Zsuzsa Hetényi writes of the importance of examining narrative structure in these works:

It was fundamentally important to investigate the storyteller’s position and the highly complex narrative relationship between the author and his text. The structure of these narrative layers is especially intriguing because, owing to their dual identity and uncertainties of self-definition…the narrative layers illuminate the shifting viewpoints of internal and external narrative, the often highly delicate, hard-to-keep balance between staying aloof and accepting identification. One can witness these shifts in the changes of the author’s distance from the world portrayed or created, and from its characters. The duality of being both critical and accepting, attracted and repelled, is reflected by the different forms of modality, and in the ambivalence (in the psychological sense of the term rather than in the manner as it was used by Bakhtin) of the viewpoints of ‘we’/’us’ and ‘them.’ (xii-xiii)

This is seen in “Story of My Dovecote” through the shifting relationship between the primary and child-narrators. This relationship, consisting of both distancing and identification, further emphasizes and embodies the text’s theme of identity fragmentation.

As the text is written entirely in the past tense, the primary narrator must always be at least implicitly present, framing the boy’s experiences through his mature point of view. However, the primary narrator vacillates in his explicit distance from the events described in “Story of My Dovecote.” While at some points the two narrators’ temporal worlds and viewpoints seem to collapse into one, at other times, the primary narrator pointedly separates himself from his childhood self, overtly distinguishing his time and place from the child-narrator’s. For example, in the expository first paragraph of the story, the text reads, “My family lived in Nikolayev, in the province of Kherson. This province no longer exists; our town was absorbed into the district of Odessa” (Babel 601) [«Родные мои жили в городе Николаеве, Херонской гувернии. Этой губернии больше нет, наш город отошел к Одесскому району» (Бабель 124)]. Through this statement, the adult-narrator clearly differentiates his contemporary world from the child-narrator’s; he declares that things have changed, that in his time and place, the child-narrator’s home province no longer exists. Hence, the primary narrator marks an overt differentiation between the past and present and, in doing so, separates himself from the boy.

Further, the grammar, math, and Russian history textbooks are commented on by the adult-narrator: “Children no longer study these books, but I learned them by heart, line by line…” (Babel 602) [«По этим книгам дети не учатся больше, но я выучил их наизусть, от строки до строки…» (Бабель 125)]. Here, again, the primary narrator overtly separates himself from the child-narrator. The books to which the child-narrator devoted years of studying for his entrance exams have become outdated in the adult-narrator’s time.

Yet, even as the primary narrator differentiates himself from the child-narrator, he also identifies with him. The child describes his early love for Grandpa Shoyl and for his tales of the Polish uprising of 1861. The primary narrator notes, “Now I know that Shoyl was no more than an old fool and a naïve teller of tall tales, but I have not forgotten those little tales of his, they were good tales” (Babel 604) [«Теперь-то я знаю, что Шойл был всего только старый неуч и наивный лгун, но побасенки его не забыты мной, они были хороши» (Бабель 128)]. While the primary narrator explicitly distinguishes his interpretation of Shoyl’s stories from the child-narrator’s eager acceptance of his grandfather’s reported adventures, he also affirms that he still fondly remembers these “good tales.” Sicher argues, “…the disoriented child-narrator of ‘Story of My Dovecote’ is naively unaware of what the primary narrator knows in retrospect” (Sicher, Style and Structure 90). Though the primary narrator realizes that Shoyl’s stories were likely false, he still loves them, just as the boy does. Within this one statement, the primary narrator both distances himself from and connects with the child-narrator’s point of view. These “shifting viewpoints” and marked “changes of the author’s distance from the world portrayed or created, and from its characters” further fracture the protagonist’s identity between his past and his future.

The boy’s struggle to be accepted by Russian society leaves him unsettled, stuck attempting to navigate incompatible worlds. Though his family celebrates his admittance to the Russian gymnasium as a Jewish victory over Russian power—a victory of Jewish brains over Russian brawn[8]—he soon discovers that Russian culture still considers him an outsider. He learns that the same society of which he wishes to become a part, the society that has produced the poetry of Pushkin he so admires, is also capable of committing great violence against him and his family. His identity splinters into the aspects of himself that yearn to become a Russian and those that cannot break away from his Jewish home. As this paper has illustrated, this fragmentation structures “Story of My Dovecote” in several ways: through mind/body and Jewish/Russian dichotomies, associations between the narrator and Makarenko, and the identification and distancing between the text’s two narrators.


Works Cited

Babel, Isaac. Red Cavalry. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Ed. Nathalie Babel. Trans. Peter Constantine. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 203-333.

_____. “Story of My Dovecote.” The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Ed. Nathalie Babel. Trans. Peter Constantine. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 601-611.

_____. «История моей голубятни.» Одесские рассказы. Ред. А.Н. Пирожково. Москва: ЭКСМО, 2006. 124-135.

Gilman, Sander L. “The Jewish Murderer: Jack the Ripper, Race, and Gender.” The Jew’s Body. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991. 104-127.

_____. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Hetényi, Zsuzsa. In a Maelstrom: The History of Russian-Jewish Prose (1860 – 1940). Trans. János Boris. New York, NY: Central European University Press, 2008.

Itzkovitz, Daniel. “Secret Temples.” Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies. Ed. Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 176-202.

Konner, Melvin. The Jewish Body. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2009.

Nakhimovsky, Alice S. Russian-Jewish Literature and Identity: Jabotinsky, Babel, Grossman, Galich, Roziner, Markish. Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Sicher, Efraim. “The Jewishness of Babel.” Jews in Russian Literature After the October Revolution. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 71-111.

_____. Style and Structure in the Prose of Isaak Babel’. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1985.



[1] It is interesting to note that “Pyatnitsky” [«Пятницкий»] comes from the word “five.”  It is no coincidence that the narrator must receive two five-pluses [пятерок с крестами, lit. fives with crosses] on his entrance examination to be admitted to the class.  At the end of “Story of My Dovecote,” after Grandpa Shoyl is murdered, the narrator must also place two “fivers” [пятаки] over Shoyl’s eyes.  Fives are therefore associated with both the narrator’s initial acceptance into Russian society (i.e. entrance into the gymnasium, Pyatnitsky’s protection of the narrator) and Russian society’s ultimate destructive invasion into his life (Grandpa Shoyl’s murder) and the irreconcilability of the two worlds.
[2] Another level of interpretation is also possible.  These “exams” can be read not only as literal entrance examinations, which the boy studies for and takes earlier in the story.  “Exams” may also be read as the constant challenges and difficulties of living as a minority.  The Russians’ world, the earth, is “soothing” and “mute” in contrast to the constant struggles that the narrator and his family must face as Jews.

[3] This splitting of features of the narrator’s identity among different characters in the narrative can also be seen in the relationship between Grandpa Shoyl, the narrator, and Makarenko. The narrator describes Grandpa Shoyl as having “fat hands…covered in fish scales” (Babel 604) [«толстые его руки…покрыты рыбьей чешуей» (Бабель 127)].  Makarenko suffers from leprosy, which is derived from a Greek word that means scales on a fish.  There are other parallels between the scene after the boy has been hit with the doves and the scene describing Grandpa Shoyl’s dead body.

[4] “In this trunk were dumbbells, locks of a woman’s hair, Uncle’s tallith, whips with gilded tips, and herbal tea in little boxes trimmed with cheap pearls” (Babel 604) [«В этом сундуке были гири от гимнастики, пряди женских волос, дедовский талес, хлысты с золочеными набалдашниками и цветочный чай в шкатулках, отделанных дешевыми жемчугами» (Бабель 127)].

[5] Of course, “the pinnacle of Russian culture” is a loaded statement.  What I mean to say is that Pushkin represents, to many, the birth and height of Russian literary culture.  As Zsuzsa Hetényi writes, “The child in this scene has no understanding of the controversial character of the situation: Peter the Great and Pushkin’s poems are the foundation stones, the very essence of Russian national culture” (240).

[6] For more on popular associations between leprosy, syphilis, and Jews, see Sander Gilman’s “The Jewish Murderer: Jack the Ripper, Race, and Gender.”

[7] Efraim Sicher also points out this split and names the two narrators in Style and Structure.

[8] During the party his parents hold in honor of his admittance to the school, his Hebrew tutor toasts his victory: “In this toast the old man congratulated my parents, and said that by passing this examination I had won a victory over all my foes, I had won a victory over the fat-cheeked Russian boys and the sons of our roughneck rich.  Thus in ancient times had David, the King of the Jews, won a victory over Goliath, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people, through its sheer power of mind, triumph over the foes that surround us, eager for our blood” (605) [«Старик поздравил родителей в этом тосте и сказал, что я победил на экзамене всех врагов моих, я победил русских мальчиков с толстыми щеками и сыновей грубых наших богачей.  Так в древние времена Давид, царь иудейский, победил Голиафа, и подобно тому, как я восторжествовал над Голиафом, так народ наш силой своего ума победит врагов, окруживших нас и ждущих нашей крови» (Бабель 128)].

About the author

Melissa Yael Jacobowitz

Melissa Yael Jacobowitz graduated in 2009 from New College of Florida with a B.A. in Russian Language and Literature. For the past year, she has been continuing her exploration of Jewish-Russian literature and identity through a Fulbright grant in Odessa, Ukraine. She will be applying to graduate programs in Slavic Languages and Literatures for the Fall 2011 season. This essay represents a chapter of her undergraduate honors thesis, "Between Two Worlds: Internalized Anti-Semitism in Isaac Babel's Short Fiction."

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