Re­birth of Zion in deep­est Siberia

Biro­bidzhan – a Soviet con­struct – wants its Jewish iden­tity to thrive, dis­cov­ers Shaun Walker

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review - A long way from Is­rael … Biro­bidzhan is on Rus­sia’s bor­der with China

In front of Biro­bidzhan’s rail­way sta­tion, loud­speak­ers blast out bal­lads in Yid­dish while hun­dreds of school­child­ren in er­satz folk cos­tumes dance cir­cles around the meno­rah mon­u­ment that dom­i­nates the square. Across town, labour­ers are build­ing a kosher res­tau­rant, the city’s first. A two-storey build­ing un­der con­struc­tion next door will house a mik­vah, the rit­ual pool in which re­li­gious Jews must bathe.

The Jewish re­nais­sance in Biro­bidzhan is the lat­est chap­ter in the sur­real tale of this would-be Siberian Zion. Nes­tled on the bor­der with China, seven time zones east of Moscow and a six-day jour­ney away on the Trans-Siberian rail­way, the re­gion was first set­tled en masse dur­ing the 1930s as part of a plan to cre­ate a Soviet home­land for Jews un­der Stalin. Its story since then has re­flected the vi­cis­si­tudes of Soviet and then mod­ern Rus­sian his­tory. The pop­u­la­tion of the area, still of­fi­cially called the Jewish Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, is barely 1% Jewish, but the au­thor­i­ties are try­ing to cul­ti­vate the mem­ory of Jewish cus­toms and his­tory among the res­i­dents and even hope to at­tract new Jewish mi­grants.

Eli Riss, Biro­bidzhan’s 27-year-old rabbi, said the lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity cur­rently num­bered 3,000 at most, and only 30 were reg­u­lars at the syn­a­gogue. His par­ents em­i­grated to Is­rael but af­ter re­li­gious school­ing he re­turned to his birth­place as a rabbi.

“We are a long way from Is­rael here and a long way even from Moscow, where there are big Jewish com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “My task is for peo­ple to un­der­stand what it means to be Jewish.”

When the area was of­fi­cially es­tab­lished as the Jewish Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion in 1934, 14 years be­fore the foun­da­tion of Is­rael, it was the first ex­plic­itly Jewish ter­ri­tory in mod­ern times. By 1939, 18% of the pop­u­la­tion was Jewish and Biro­bidzhan had a Yid­dish the­atre and Yid­dish news­pa­per. The work of the po­lice de­part­ment, courts and city ad­min­is­tra­tion was car­ried out at least par­tially in Yid­dish.

Some his­to­ri­ans have sug­gested the Biro­bidzhan project was tainted with an­ti­semitism from the start, creat­ing a “dump­ing ground” for Jews. But in the 1930s many Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als pro­moted the project with vigour. Jews trav­elled to Biro­bidzhan from in­side the Soviet Union, west­ern Europe and even farther afield – in­fected with a revo­lu­tion­ary fervour that gave a Jewish flavour to the utopi­anism that char­ac­terised many of those in­volved in the early Bol­she­vik project.

The op­ti­mism was short-lived. Dur­ing Stalin’s purges, much of the lo­cal party lead­er­ship was ex­e­cuted and ex­pres­sions of Jewish­ness were dis­cour­aged. Af­ter the sec­ond world war, the re­gion saw a new in­flux of Jews who had es­caped the Holo­caust and had no homes to which to re­turn. A new wave of an­ti­semitic purges was fol­lowed by decades of di­min­ished in­ter­est in Jewish iden­tity. Then, when the Soviet Union col­lapsed, many Jews left for Is­rael to es­cape the eco­nomic mis­ery. Iosif Brener, a lo­cal his­to­rian, es­ti­mates that 20,000 Jews left Biro­bidzhan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ma­jor­ity for Is­rael.

Alexan­der Lev­in­tal, the re­gion’s gov­er­nor, said Biro­bidzhan was still suf­fer­ing from the ef­fects of mass Jewish em­i­gra­tion. “When the Soviet Union col­lapsed and the bor­ders opened, about 70 fam­i­lies of Jewish doc­tors left, and medicine in the re­gion has still not fully re­cov­ered,” he said.

Riss, the rabbi, said that among those who re­mained there was lit­tle Jewish cul­tural iden­tity. “Our com­mu­nity has lost the un­der­stand­ing of what it means to be Jewish.”

Biro­bidzhan Stern, the town’s Yid­dish-lan­guage news­pa­per, is now pub­lished in Rus­sian but has two pages in Yid­dish each week. The edi­tor, Elena Sara­shevskaya, although not Jewish her­self fell in love with Yid­dish as a child, stud­ied it at uni­ver­sity and now writes the Yid­dish pages. She in­tends to go on pub­lish­ing the Yid­dish pages even though most peo­ple in the city can­not read them.

“Yid­dish is im­bued with a real life-force; maybe it’s linked to the suf­fer­ing of the Jewish peo­ple,” she said. “Peo­ple are al­ways pro­nounc­ing Yid­dish dead but it’s still very much alive, it’s al­ways find­ing new ways to sur­vive.”

In Biro­bidzhan street signs use both Rus­sian and Yid­dish, and one school still of­fers Yid­dish lessons, although the uni­ver­sity Yid­dish fac­ulty shut a few years ago. A Jewish cul­tural fes­ti­val held last month in the city fea­tured a con­cert from a can­tor of Vi­enna’s main syn­a­gogue and the open­ing of an ex­hi­bi­tion on the city’s his­tory fea­tured Rus­sian, Amer­i­can and Is­raeli artists.

Ar­chive pho­to­graphs in the ex­hibit show the en­thu­si­asm with which many Jews took to the project, in­clud­ing shopfronts with Yid­dish sig­nage and the first years of Valdgeym, a Jewish col­lec­tive farm es­tab­lished just out­side the city. How­ever, re­li­gious Ju­daism was alien to Soviet athe­ism and thus frowned upon. The lo­cal mu­seum con­tains leaflets in Yid­dish warn­ing lo­cals not to cel­e­brate Passover.

With so few Jews now liv­ing in Biro­bidzhan, the massed Yid­dish dances and man­nequins that wel­come vis­i­tors to the Jewish cul­tural cen­tre give the im­pres­sion of a Jewish Dis­ney­land rather than of a thriv­ing com­mu­nity. If the lo­cal gov­ern­ment gets its way, more Jews would come to the re­gion, es­pe­cially some of those who left in the early 1990s. Rostislav Gold­stein, the sen­a­tor for the re­gion in Rus­sia’s up­per house of par­lia­ment, said Biro­bidzhan’s prox­im­ity to China could pro­vide ad­van­tages for Is­raeli busi­nesses want­ing to crack the Chi­nese mar­ket. He said he wanted to cre­ate a lo­cal ver­sion of the Aliyah, the name given to the process of at­tract­ing Jews from the di­as­pora to Is­rael. “We have one big ad­van­tage over Is­rael, and that’s that there are no Arabs shoot­ing here,” he said.

Lev­in­tal, the lo­cal gov­er­nor, was more cir­cum­spect. He said his chauf­feur had em­i­grated from Biro­bidzhan to Is­rael in the early 1990s but re­cently re­turned as he could not get used to the men­tal­ity there. “If the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion here im­proves then more peo­ple will want to re­turn,” he said.

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