In his 1931 short story “Awakening,” the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel describes how Odessa Jews’ mania for violin lessons caught up with him, and how his lack of musical talent helped him discover his own artistic calling. The story, in a new translation by Maxim Shrayer, begins thus:
All the people in our circle—brokers, shopkeepers, bank clerks, and steamship-office workers—taught their children music. Our fathers, seeing no future for themselves, came up with a lottery. They played it out on the bones of little people. More than any other city, Odessa was possessed with this madness. And it’s true—for decades our city supplied the concert halls of the entire world with wunderkinds. Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Osip Gabrilowitsch came from Odessa, and Jascha Heifetz started out in our city.
When a boy turned four or five years old, his mother took this puny, feeble creature to see Mr. Zagursky. Zagursky ran a factory of wunderkinds . . . in lacy collars and little patent-leather shoes. He sought them out in the slums of Moldavanka, in the stinky courtyards of the Old Bazaar. Zagursky offered the initial direction, and then the children were sent to Professor Auer in St. Petersburg. A powerful harmony lived in the souls of these starvelings with blue, bloated heads. They became renowned virtuosi. And so my father decided to follow in their stead. Even though I had long since exceeded the age of wunderkinds—I was over thirteen—my height and puny physique made it possible for me to pass for an eight-year-old. That was the hope.
I was taken to see Zagursky. Out of respect for Grandfather, he agreed to charge one ruble per lesson—a cheap rate. My grandfather, Leivi-Itskhok, was the city’s laughingstock and its adornment. He walked around the streets in a top hat and decrepit cutoff boots and helped resolve some of the most opaque arguments. He was asked to explain what a tapestry was, why the Jacobins betrayed Robespierre, how artificial silk is produced, how a cesarean section is performed. My grandfather could answer all these questions. Out of respect for his learnedness and madness, Zagursky charged us one ruble per lesson. And in fact, he made an effort with me, only because he feared my grandfather, because in fact there was nothing to make an effort with. Sounds slipped off my violin like metal shavings. These sounds sliced even my heart, but my father wouldn’t give up.
At home all they talked about was Mischa Elman, whom the tsar himself had released from military service. Zimbalist, according to my father’s information, was introduced to the British king and played at Buckingham Palace. Gabrilowitsch’s parents bought two houses in St. Petersburg. Wunderkinds brought wealth to their parents. My father would have reconciled himself to poverty, but he craved fame.