Searching for Isaac Babel in pen and ink

Michael Iofin recounts two dates with the finality of an artist signing a completed painting.

On April 10, 1991, the now 45-year-old Russian artist signed a contract with a St. Petersburg book publisher who agreed to publish an uncommissioned project he had privately worked on for close to a decade. On April 11, 1991, he left his home at 6 a.m. and traveled first to Washington, D.C., to visit a cousin and then to San Francisco. He would never return to the city of Peter the Great. And the city by the bay would become his new home.

The project (that was never published) is a moving, personal collection of pen and ink illustrations of Isaac Babel’s stories. Born in Odessa in 1894, Babel was one of the most renowned Jewish authors of his generation. He lived his life under the Soviet regime.

Iofin began the project in 1981, at a time when all art was still government regulated.

“In 1991 when I finished with the Babel project it was a time when people weren’t yet talking about Babel and his works,” Iofin explains from his Richmond District home studio.

Sixteen of the original Babel illustrations, accompanied by 15 Iofin illustrations from the children’s book “A Coat for the Moon and Other Jewish Tales,” are on exhibit through Dec. 30 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco as part of the program “The Russian Connection: Babel and Beyond.”

“When I was in Moscow I saw a huge collection of Babel books with different types of illustration techniques,” Iofin explains about the origin of the project. “But they didn’t have the soul of Babel’s stories.”

Thus began an intense and tedious exploration to express the “soul” of Babel’s work through pen and ink. Iofin read each story as many as 25 or 30 times. He drew countless sketches. He explored the many ways in which readers respond to Babel’s work.

“For some people he is funny, for some people he is tragic. For me he is like the Russian Shakespeare,” says Iofin, who was trained at the Mukhina Art and Design Institute and the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, and whose work is featured in public and private collections all over the world.

Iofin began reading Babel at age 12. As a youth, it was Babel’s humane discussion of Jews and Jewish culture that struck him.

“People used the word “Jew” as a bad thing. Nobody was talking about Jews in a positive way,” he recounts.

As an adult it was Babel’s point of view on revolution and his unique use of language that spoke to Iofin.

“His language is unbelievable. It is so unusual and poetic. He began speaking Russian at age 5 or 6. Before, everybody was talking to him in Hebrew or Yiddish. The language is so poetic. Only foreigners can speak like this.”

The illustrations, busy and layered with historical and modern symbols, fragments of landscapes, pained and searching characters, carefully incorporate Babel excerpts.

“Words are very, very important,” he explains. “My point is to put together an image with words, and to make some kind of balance.”

The second half of the exhibit is original illustrations from “A Coat for the Moon and Other Jewish Tales”, a book of international Jewish folktales by Howard Schwartz and Barbara Rush.

“I wanted to make an outstanding children’s book. These are great sophisticated, stories read in different nations showing we are one people. Our love can be the same, and our hate can be the same.”

An exhibit of Michael Iofin’s work is on display through Dec. 30 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F., (415) 567-3327.
Michael Iofin’s website is
Other events in the “The Russian Connection: Babel and Beyond” program at the libary are a discussion about Iofin’s work with Ori Z. Soltes, author of “Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, and a discussion about Isaac Babel and Philip Roth with Gregory Freidin and Steven Zipperstein of Stanford at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11.