Babel's "The Awakening" is set in Odessa circa 1910 or so, and begins with all the parents dreaming of their children being discovered as musical prodigies:

And sure enough, over the last few decades our town had sent a number of child prodigies onto the stages of the world. Mischa Elman, Zimbalist, Gawrilowitsch all came from Odessa -- Jascha Heifetz started out with us.

--Babel, Collected Stories, W.W. Norton edition (Peter Constantine trans.), 2002, page 392

Later in the story, the first-person narrator's father tells "a new story about Jascha Heifetz."

...father had run into Mendelson, Jascha's uncle. It turned out the boy was getting 800 rubles per performance.

--page 397

I found this surprising, because Jascha Heifetz was from Vilnius, Lithuania, quite far from Odessa, and according to his Wikipedia page, he was born there. My question is, did Heifetz really have a family connection to Odessa? Or are we to infer that the parents are telling tall tales in order to convince their children to dutifully practice violin instead of (like Babel's narrator) hanging out with sailors down by the port?

2 Answers 2


According to a biography of Jascha Heifetz, in the summer of 1911, the 10-year-old him was giving concerts in Pavlosvk and Odessa. A whole chapter is devoted to this, here's a minor extract:

During this visit to Odessa, Jascha participated in two concerts, the first a benefit scheduled for August 30. What Jascha played is not known, but a report states that "in the absence of an orchestra," several "small concert pieces" were performed. [Jascha Heifetz, Early Years in Russia]

But the anecdote itself may not be true. From that same biography,

The local press described the difficulties facing Jascha's parents, and how they had been persuaded to allow their son to perform just two concerts, in Odessa and Chişinău. "According to Mr. Eichenwald," writes "Bemol," the music reviewer for Bessarabskaya zhizn,

Heifetz is overloaded with proposals from abroad, America and Russia, but, despite the temptations offered by the entrepreneurs, they decline all the proposals. The parents are very careful with Jascha, who at the present time, besides music, is seriously studying other educational subjects. Only thanks to the holidays (Easter break) did his family agree to let him go to Odessa and Kishinev. Despite rare performances Jascha, according to his father, earns up to 30,000 rubles a year, receiving, 2,500 rubles per concert.


Jascha Heifetz was Jewish, from the Russian empire (which included both Lithuania and Ukraine/Odessa), so it is safe to assume that he could have had family connections in Odessa or, at least, could tap into the support of the Jewish community, which highly prized musical education (Jewish kid learning to play violin or piano is somewhat of a stereotype.) He was also extremely popular in this community - so Babel and the Odessites could somewhat exaggerate their connection to the achievements of such a great man.

Jewish community was quite vibrant in pre-WW2 Europe - including Yiddish language literature and theater, which were practiced all over Europe, although, of course, mostly to those who were capable of understanding this language. Such ethnic/religious/cultural interconnectedness may sound odd to those who grew up in monolongual states, where the majority language and culture is also state language and culture, but it was a reality at the time. It is also worth noting that Russian Jews were more reliant on each other due to the official discriminating policies against them (see, e.g., Pale of settlement.) People like Heifetz were then not only symbols of success in their own field, but also examples of self-emancipation via talent and hard work.

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