Nivroko: Babel''s False John

Gabriella S. Safran, Princeton University

In Isaak Babel''s brief 1916 story, "El'ia Isaakovich i Margarita Prokof'evna," a traveler stays with a prostitute for two nights without having sex with her. As a Jew without special permission to be outside the Pale of Settlement, El'ia Isaakovich is in danger of being sent from Orel back to Odessa, which would keep him from completing his business deal. In order to stay in the city without having to show his documents, he takes refuge with Margarita Prokof'evna. She is initially hostile when she realizes why he is paying her, but the two eventually become friendly, drink tea together, and discuss philosophy and business. They express their concern for each other in their own ways. The prostitute brings the skinny traveler pastries [piroshki]; he carefully averts the evil eye before each of his admiring references to her considerable weight. He uses neither the Russian formula for this, "ne sglazit'," nor the Yiddish, "keyn ayn-horo," but instead a Ukrainian word popular among Jews in the south of the Russian Empire, "nivroko."

The many references to averted eyes, highlighted by the traveler's macaronic vocabulary, warn the reader to be on the alert: things in the story may not be as they seem. The traveler appears to be an underdog forced by an oppressive regime's arcane regulations to compromise his modesty. However, Babel' mocks the liberal typecasting of the Jew as virtuous victim. His tale of a false john evokes the urban legend of the false prostitute. Novels, films, and memoirs produced in the period in Russia and abroad repeated the story of the nice Jewish girl who signs up as a prostitute solely to get permission to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg. This narrative was undoubtedly so popular because of its titillating combination of sex, deception, and chastity. Babel''s story, I will argue, parodies this plot and the stereotype of virtuous Jewish victimhood in order to deflect the reader's gaze in an unexpected direction.