Walking a Mile in Isaak Babel’s, and Benya Krik’s, Shoes

In anticipation of writing Tales From Odessa Socalled traveled to Ukraine in search of Babel’s Odessa. He found himself in Moldavanka, the neighbourhood in which Babel’s stories take place. He came back with lots of first-person stories, and with reams and rolls of photographs. Here are just a few:

This is a backyard in Moldavanka. “I went into the church whose steeple you see in the background,” says Socalled. “It was immaculately maintained, silent, shining, quite a contrast from the dilapidation of the neighbourhood that surrounds it.


This is a courtyard in the heart of Moldavanka. Benya Krik may well have lived here with his family.


A market on the way to Moldavanka. “The butcher smiled at me while hacked his pork into bits for sale.”


A typical Odessa courtyard very near to 17 Sofievskaya, where Benya Krik the gangster asks Eykhbaum (his future father-in-law) to leave his 20,000 rubles protection money.


And here is the actual address, where the drop would have taken place, had the fiction been fact.


And amongst is all is the house where Isaak Babel lived, where life in Moldavanka would have worked on his imagination, and perhaps where some of the characters and stories began to take shape.


In places like Moldavanka the cemeteries are rife with history. Socalled searched for one such burial ground. “I walked for 2 hours to find it,” Socalled explains. “No one knew where it was even thought it’s huge. I finally found it after going into a Vietnamese restaurant, using Google Translate from Vietnamese to Russian to English. The delivery man from the restaurant helped me track it down.” Here are some photos of what he found:

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The Play Begins to Take Shape: A Glimpse Into the Mind of the Artist

Below are pages from Isaak Babel’s Odessa Stories and the notes that eventually became Socalled’s idea factory for The Segal Centre’s upcoming production of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s Tales From Odessa. You can see, through Socalled’s notes on each page, how the play begins to take shape in his mind.

Here, for example, from the first chapter, is the story of how Benya Krik, the notorious gangster of the Stories, meets the woman who would become his wife. It started out as extortion, a campaign to terrorize a man named Eykhenbaum who refused to pay what today might be called protection money. As Benya and his gang are busy slaughtering Eykhenbaum’s cattle, and as Eykhenbaum pleads with Benya to accept a deal, “out into the yard, in a low-cut chemise, ran old man Eykhenbaum’s daughter, Tsilya. And the King’s triumph became his defeat.” Next to this paragraph Socalled scribbled a casting note: “Gotta be a babe and a half.”

Further down, note how impressed Socalled is with the line “And he got his way, Benya Krik, because he was passionate, and passion holds sway over the world.” Passion, and its sway over the world, is certainly something that Babel would have understood, as would any artist.


Make no mistake, Benya Krik is indeed a gangster. But Tales From Odessa is far from your typical gangster story. Still, the genre plays on Socalled’s imagination and informs his thinking. On this page Socalled scribbled “Fredo!” This is in reference to The Godfather II, where Michael Corleone realizes that it was his own brother Fredo that sold him out. “I know it was you, Fredo,” he says, giving his brother the kiss of death. “You broke my heart.” Likewise, in this scene Benya is angered and saddened that one of his own, Savka Butsis, either accidentally or cavalierly shoots an innocent man. For both Michael Corleone and Benya Krik reputation is everything. Fredo is as much an embarrassment to Michael as Savka is to Benya. “I swear by my mother’s coffin, Savka,” Benya says, “you will lie beside him.”


As Ruthless as Benya can be, we are made to believe that there is a moral side to him that informs his every move. As Socalled wrote in the margin of the page below, “deadly violence is last option.”


On the following page, grappling with the character of Benya Krik and who he is,  Socalled notes Benya’s “sense of sportsmanship.” On the other side of the page he notes that the walk from Benya’s courtyard to the burning police station offers a “chance to see Odessa – montage of walking through the streets.” Socalled originally conceived of Tales From Odessa as a film. He may have wanted the viewer to experience Odessa the way he did. And indeed the Tales From Odessa production team, through the vision of director Audrey Finkelstein, has worked hard to bring the audience into the Odessa of the Stories, into Benya Krik’s Odessa, into Babel’s Odessa, and ultimately into Socalled’s Odessa


Here, Benya attends the funeral of the innocent man killed by his henchman in the scene above. He takes it upon himself to eulogize the dead man. “This speech,” notes Socalled, “is what makes him king – words, speaking, writing, charisma”


Tales From Odessa: How it All Began


“The gangster genre has always been one of my favourites,” says Josh Socalled Dolgin. “Such a rich metaphor with which to tell stories about relationships, families, race, greed, corruption, valour, morality.” Socalled is the originator and composer of the upcoming Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre production of Tales From Odessa, based on the stories of Isaak Babel.  He’d originally wanted to do a film. “I’ve always bemoaned that there are no good Jewish gangster movies. The best one, Once Upon a Time in America, is pretty boring and un-Jewish,” says Socalled, “directed by an Italian, Sergio Leone, starring Italians.” But the movie idea hit a few roadblocks and was shelved for a while.

Still Babel’s stories “seemed like the perfect material to not only deal with the gangster genre but also to explore pre-Holocaust Ashkenazi Jewish identity in a slightly skewed light.”

Then, Paul Flicker, Artistic Producer of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, approached Socalled after seeing his first musical, The Season. He asked Socalled, if he could do any story he wanted, would he be interested in writing a play for the DWYT. He immediately thought of Babel’s Odessa Stories, “these amazing stories,” he says, “originally written in Russian but probably originally lived in Yiddish.”

Welcome to Josh “Socalled” Dolgin’s Odessa Tales

Coming up in June, 2013, The Segal Centre for Performing Arts will present the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre production of Tales From Odessa, based on the stories of Isaak Babel, with music and lyrics by Montreal’s own Josh “Socalled” Dolgin. Josh recently spent some time in Odessa chasing down the ghosts that peopled Babel’s imagination. Read about his experiences here.