Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Andrei Malaev-Babel's Oral History

Andrei Malaev-Babel, theater director and grandson of writer Isaac Babel, was interviewed by David Schlitt on May 15, 2011 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Andrei begins his interview describing his childhood in Moscow, Russia as a member of a well-educated family that had great interest in the arts. When Andrei was born, his family moved to the suburbs of Moscow to a three-bedroom apartment in a five-story building. Andrei went to an English-language-focused school that happened to be next to the music school; Andrei's grandmother would walk him to and from school. Andrei shares stories of the many visitors who came to his home to discuss the work of his grandfather, Isaac Babel. Andrei shares complex stories of illusive familial heritages - and the desire to hide their Jewish identity under a cloak of Russian-ness - before detailing his family's political life. Nonetheless, Andrei grew up in a very Jewish environment, albeit a Soviet Jewish environment without much religious learning. Not being surrounded by Yiddish as a child, Andrei's interest in the Jewish National Theatre and the work of Solomon Mikhoels grew out of his grandmother's correspondence with Mikhoels. Andrei goes back to give the history of his grandmother's life, her intelligence, and her relationship with Isaac Babel. Andrei then describes life as Isaac Babel's grandchild, explaining the sense of exclusivity, the burden he carried after Babel's execution, and his own interest in the arts. After describing his childhood, Andrei traces his path from a young man interested in acting to an academic studying theatre and staging productions. Andrei explains how he met Alexandra Remizova, the actress-director and co-founder of the Vakhtangov Theater, which changed the path of his career. Andrei next describes his shift from actor to director while pursuing his Master of Fine Arts degree at Vakhtangov Theater Institute in Moscow at the age of nineteen. After finishing his degree in 1991, Andrei started the first private theatre company in Russia where he staged many "lesser known classic" plays. Andrei reflects on the opportunity to put on Russian theatre in the United States as opposed to Russia, and the counterintuitive ideologies that made the United States a better place than Russia. By 1996 Andrei had married his wife, who is American, and had convinced his family to join him in the United States. This section of the interview focuses on Andrei's academic career, his involvement in the Jewish community during his time in Washington, D.C., and the international interest in his work, including interest from Israel. The final section of the interview begins with Andrei explaining the task of adapting Babel's work for the theatre and both the benefits and the intellectual and personal difficulties of that task. Andrei considers his role in cultural transmission, which leads him to a discussion of Jewish identity and his grandfather's cultural activism. The interview ends with Andrei sharing his advice for young cultural activists: develop the discipline of "daily doing."

This interview was conducted in English.

Andrei Malaev-Babel was born in Moscow, Russia.

About the Wexler Oral History Project

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Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

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