LETTER FROM BIROBIDZHAN
Wherever you went last month in Birobidzhan — crossing the road, pausing on the sidewalk, entering a store or public building — you couldn’t escape the city’s frantic makeover. The capital of Russia’s so-called Jewish Autonomous Region, one of the odder footnotes of 20th-century Jewish history, underwent a face-lift. Work crews were sweeping the streets, filling potholes, wiping down monuments and whitewashing buildings. The facade of the town’s only hotel, the Vostok, got a thorough scrubbing. So did the railroad station, reputedly the only train station in the world with signs in Yiddish.
The occasion for the makeover was a weeklong celebration, beginning September 6, marking the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region. It was in 1934 that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin announced the creation of a Jewish national homeland in this forlorn district of the Russian Far East, 5,000 miles from Moscow along the northern border of China. Today, after a rocky history of tyranny and repression, the city is a tidy, well-kept municipality of some 70,000 residents, of whom about 4,000-5,000 are Jewish.
It’s a far cry from the “Jewish socialist republic” promised by the Soviets when they proclaimed the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. But the locals consider the statistics to be something of a success story. For 40 years after World War II, Jewish culture was all but banned in the Jewish Autonomous Region. A decade ago, when communism fell, most observers predicted that the region’s entire Jewish population would immigrate to Israel. But a hardy few remained and several hundred have returned in the past year or so. Today the Jewish Autonomous Region is experiencing a modest Jewish revival.
Plans for the celebration included speeches, a concert, the unveiling of a new statue of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem and a visit by a 15-member delegation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which played a role in the region’s establishment in the 1930s. Birobidzhan’s Chinese sister city, Hegang in the nearby Heilongjiang province, donated $12,000 to buy computers for the local Hebrew school. Capping it all, a gleaming new synagogue was to be dedicated Friday, September 10, with the chief rabbi in attendance, all the way from Moscow.
As it happened, the festivities began under a cloud of gloom. With all Russia reeling in the wake of the terrorist massacre in Beslan, a continent away in North Ossetia, organizers decided to cancel the gala opening concert, and all the subsequent events had a decidedly somber cast, said the city’s Israeli-born rabbi, Mordechai Shainer. Each event was opened with a moment of silence. But in a way, the occasion has been deepened.
“The terrorist attack has drawn people closer together,” Shainer said. “Relations between Jews and non-Jews here have always been excellent, but now there’s a new element, a sense of shared fate.”
The Jewish community of Birobidzhan was settled in 1928 by pioneers from Argentina, Lithuania, the United States and elsewhere. They soon left, however, and it was only three years later, when small groups of would-be farmers began moving east to found Yiddish-speaking collectives, that the community established a permanent presence.
They were part of a Jewish back-to-the-land movement encouraged by Stalin as a reply to Zionism. Efforts were made to create the trappings of a native Yiddish culture, including a theater, a newspaper, a publishing house and schools — all in Yiddish. Hebrew, the language of the Zionists, was banned.
In the end, the Jewish population never topped 38,000, less than one-fourth of the region’s overall population. Untrained for agricultural work, the newcomers were plagued by brutal winters, swampy land and few roads. The harsh conditions, combined with government mismanagement, caused many dropouts.
Most observers now believe that the plan was doomed in advance, little more than a cynical manipulation by Stalin. The recruits were filled with idealism, but the project was at best “artificial,” in the words of current resident Galina Zazulya. “It was all a myth,” another resident said.
After the fall of communism, thousands of Jews left for Israel and elsewhere. But those who stayed unexpectedly began returning to their roots. Yiddish was reintroduced in the schools, and for the first time, Hebrew was taught, as well.
A stroll around town reveals the scope of the Jewish revival. My guide is Yelena Belyaeva, who teaches Yiddish and Hebrew at the State Pedagogical Institute, the Jewish community center and the Jewish Sunday school. Though not Jewish, she studied the languages in New York, Tel Aviv and Moscow. Entering the JCC, she greets people with “Sholom Aleichem!” They fire back “Aleichem Sholom.” Later, we view the new Sholom Aleichem monument at 2 Sholom-Aleykhem Street. Then we stop in at the state kindergarten at 19 Pionerskaya Street, where the youngsters in the Menora program offer their own version of the Birobidzhan story in Yiddish and Hebrew.
We pass a food store called Tzimmes and the non-kosher L’Chayim restaurant on Gorky Street. Passing the offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel, we reach the old Hut Synagogue on Mayakovskaya Street, a modest structure dating to the dark years of the 1960s. In the divided world of post-Soviet Judaism, with nearly every community split between the Chabad-backed FEOR faction and the older, more pluralist Keroor, the Hut Synagogue belongs to Keroor.
The community’s heart is the JCC at 14a Sholom-Aleykhem Street. Next door stands the new synagogue, affiliated with Chabad. The Joint Distribution Committee donated $85,000 of the synagogue’s $800,000 cost. Chabad chipped in another $125,000, and a significant sum came from the Russian government, marking the first time Moscow donated funds to a Jewish cultural center.
The terror attacks might have changed the tone of the anniversary celebration, said a determined Shainer, Birobidzhan’s 33-year-old rabbi, but they won’t shut it down.
“We’re going ahead with the programs,” he said. “One thing I learned growing up in Israel is that terrorists want to stop us from living our lives. To let them do that would be to give them a victory. We’re going ahead.”
Ben G. Frank is the author of “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe,” third edition; “A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia & Ukraine” and the forthcoming “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America,” (all Pelican Publishing, Gretna, LA).