Jewish & Palestinian Lit

I read Isaac Babel’s “The Story of my Dovecot” this week and my jaw dropped. Why?

1. He writes about studying for his exams in a way I’ve only seen Arabs talk & write about it.
2. He writes about the list of names that get into “First Class” the way I’ve only read Palestinians write about it.
3. He writes about the Pogrom the way I’ve heard and read Palestinians talk& write about ’48 and ’67
4. He is one of the most brilliant writers I have ever encountered

I plan to explore the connections some more. Meanwhile, I’m writing a response story to it (of course)…

5 thoughts on “Jewish & Palestinian Lit

  1. Yiyun Li assigned us several Isaac Babel stories last spring, and Dovecote was one of them. It really struck me. Another one reminded me exactly of a Jiha (Goha) story. when I looked up Jewish trickster, it turns out that there’s a Sephardic trickster named Goha. My jaw dropped! I brought in the same story, too, I think. Now I can’t remember what the story was…

    Micheline Marcom is into Babel this term – I saw her with a fat book of his collected stories. I have to get it.

    Response story? Could you elaborate? We do this with Micheline – are you doing this? What do you do? Did you get the idea from somebody or did it spontaneously arise from the collective unconscious? It’s very cool…

  2. omg, that goha thing is so cool! which babel story talks about goha?

    so, teh response story is an assignment for the class. twice a semester, we write a story that is a homage to the writers we’ve read. the last one i wrote responded to kafka and borges. i’m really excited about this one.

    i love that everyone’s reading babel. he’s awesome.

  3. Cool about the response story. I’d never heard of it until Micheline Marcom started assigning these to us – but in our fiction workshop with her, everything is a response story. We read a book a week and write a response (in workshop the responses are every other week/book, 5-7 pages).

    In Yiyun’s workshop I had written a story in response to, very much based on a Mavis Gallant story. I told her what I was doing, and even handed out copies of the first few pages of the Gallant story. My story didn’t work all that well but it was really interesting as an exercise – Yiyun talked about it on a panel later and people were freaked out that a student would turn in a story that was very much based on another story. But hey, Cornelia Nixon suggested it. She says her first collection was a bunch of stories she wrote by taking apart John Updike stories to see how they worked.

    Anyway, this response story idea feels very new, and some people think it’s “plagiarism” or can be. However in Micheline’s class our responses are wild, all over the place. Somebody pointed out that Faulkner was reading Moby Dick aloud to his daughter while he was writing The Bear, adn that he was very conscious about trying to go Melville one better.

    I am plotting how I can lead a writing class using what I call the Micheline method – read and write. MM asks us to let the books open us, inspire us, inhabit us; she tells us to have a conversation with the authors.

    We’re all writing like crazy in that class. And the rumor is that Daniel Alarcon adopted Micheline’s pedagogy for his craft of fiction class.

  4. The Babel story – I’ll have to look in my files (argh). It did not mention Goha, it had a guy in a total retelling of a familiar goha story. It was either the story of the cat (if this is the cat, where is the meat? – the two-kilo cat is blamed for eating two kilos of meat stew) or it was a story about a donkey or cow or something. I will look it up. As soon as I read the story, I recognized it. Googled “Jewish trickster” (goha is a trickster figure) and discovered that he has the same name in the Sephardic tales. Try it yourself.

    So I would assume that Isaac Babel in Russia had access to either oral or written versions of these Sephardic tales (or even a retelling of one in Russian perhaps). I’m not going to research it, so you can if you like. If I were ten years younger I’d do a PH.D. in comparative lit and go digging.

    I am, however, ordering the Babel story collection – I’d been meaning to, and your post got me to act.

  5. Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster:

    As taken from a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) ethnographic project. Nowhere in the publisher’s blurb do they mention the existence of Arab Jiha/Goha tales, but if they’re dating them back to 15th century Spain, well, that’s ARAB Spain to you.

    So I think the question is, how did Babel hear a Sephardic tale? Did it spread to Russia and he just set it down as he heard it, or did he have a book of the tales and retold it? A folklorist may know the answer. I think it’s fascinating.

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