Rebirth of Zion in deepest Siberia
Birobidzhan – a Soviet construct – wants its Jewish identity to thrive, discovers Shaun Walker
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.