Masha Gessen Journeys to a Jewish Land Without Jews

For a couple of weeks several years ago, my Facebook wall filled up with photos from friends participating in the First International Summer Yiddish Program in Birobidzhan, the capital city of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia’s Far East. These were delightful group pictures taken next to the main points of interest for visiting Yiddishists and seekers of Jewish curiosities: the monument to the writer Sholem Aleichem located in front of a Soviet apartment block, the statue of Jewish settlers in a horse-drawn cart next to the train station, signs marking government ministries in Russian and Yiddish —the two official languages of this federal region located on the border with China.

Then I began seeing photos from inside hospitals, paint peeling off their walls: many program participants had fallen ill with salmonella. In time, thankfully, they all recovered and returned to their home countries with stories to tell. Far fewer participants came to Birobidzhan the following summer. There was never a third time, or, for that matter, a fourth. The program’s twenty-first century participants ended up recreating the pattern of Jews who traveled to the region in the early Stalin years and after the Second World War: each wave of migrants discovered that Birobidzhan was a place where Jews could not be.

Masha Gessen’s new book about Birobidzhan conveys this realization in its title: the Jewish Autonomous Region is a place “Where the Jews Aren’t.” The Soviet Union created Birobidzhan as a Jewish region in the context of its nationalities policy, based on a view that ethnic groups were historically, culturally, and linguistically linked to particular geographic areas. Jews presented a problem: they were an ethnic group lacking a discrete “national” territory. Birobidzhan was intended to resolve this discrepancy — thousands of miles away from the center of Jewish historical geography in Russia’s Western borderlands, an area known as the Pale of Settlement. For a century and a half, distinct patterns of everyday life and culture developed in the Yiddish language in the Pale, beyond which most Jews were not permitted to settle. Roughly two million Jews moved from there between 1881 and the First World War — mainly to the United States but also to South Africa, Palestine, and elsewhere. More departed in the wake of pogroms after the Bolshevik revolution, around 1920, and moved to European countries, including Germany. Still, millions more Jews remained in the former Pale, whose territory had been divided into new Soviet republics named after titular ethnic groups such as Belarusians and Ukrainians.

The Soviet government built on — or, rather, as Gessen explains, co-opted — the enthusiasm of some proponents of Jewish cultural autonomy, such as the historian Simon Dubnow, as it sought to have Jews defined as one of the Soviet national groups. After a failed attempt in the early 1920s to establish agricultural Jewish colonies in Crimea, the new territory in the Far East was selected; ethnic Koreans and Chinese, among other groups, populated the area at the time. In the late 1920s the first Jewish settlers moved to the region at the confluence of the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, enticed by the promise of creating socialist Jewish culture in Yiddish and also by the expectation that they would undergo a transformation from an economically backward people into muscular builders of factories and tillers of the soil. The territory was upgraded to the status of an autonomous region in 1934, and was championed across the Soviet Union and abroad as the home of the Jewish people.

But no more than a few thousand Jews moved to Birobidzhan in the 1930s. Many — faced with the harsh climate and isolation — returned home or moved on. Many others were killed in Stalinist purges. The project went dormant toward the late 1930s, only to experience another short-lived renaissance after the Second World War, followed by another purge. For the rest of the Soviet period, the region remained a backwater, made all the stranger by continuing to carry the word “Jewish” in its name on the country’s maps, including during times of systemic anti-Semitism.

The Jewish Autonomous Region is still part of the Russian Federation and Yiddish is still, nominally, its official language. At present, an estimated 1,500 people out of its roughly 165,000 residents are Jewish; only very few of them speak Yiddish. When Gessen traveled to Birobidzhan in 2009 — two years after salmonella sickened the international Yiddishists — she found little more than the esoteric remnants of a place that has always existed somewhat tenuously. An influential observer of contemporary Russian life, Gessen offers perceptive details of Birobidzhan in the present, taking a tour of its museums, monuments and remaining Jewish institutions. These appear to her “like so much of Birobidzhan, an unconscious exercise in the falsification of history.” She is told by one of the last speakers of Yiddish that although some captions in the local museum are incorrect, they will never be corrected because no one can read them anyway. She orders, at Café California, a “schnitzel a la Birobidzhan,” which turns out to be made of pork. She observes that like many local museums in Russia, the exhibit on Birobidzhan’s history begins in a “profoundly ahistoric” fashion with a section on geology. Rocks are “an ideal museum exhibit,” Gessen writes, because, unlike exhibits on culture, history, and politics, they “do not need to be rearranged in case of a regime shift.” Throughout this concise and engaging book, Gessen strives to offer the story of Birobidzhan as idea, location, and experience.

The map created for the book by the cartographer Darya Oreshkina, skillfully illustrates how Birobidzhan sits at what Yiddish idiomatically calls ek velt — the edge of the world. Gessen, too, quips that the town’s original name, Tikhonkaya, which means “Little, Quiet One,” was “someone’s polite way of saying ‘godforsaken.’” At the same time, Oreshkina’s map, drawn as a segment of a spherical globe, reminds us that the Earth is round and that any point on the planet could become central if framed accordingly. Gessen’s narrative similarly aspires to locate Birobidzhan at the center of several inter-related stories: the international context of the Jewish experience in the twentieth century; the global story of Yiddish language and culture; and, finally, the complicated story of the Soviet Jewish experience itself. Not all of these constitutive narratives align in Gessen’s effort to have them converge on the central axis of Birobidzhan.

The story of the Jewish Autonomous Region relies on stories of Jewish mobility both before and after the region’s addition to the Jewish map. As many Jews moved from the Pale of Settlement and were displaced by revolution and war, this distant enclave became a destination for some Jews from around the newly reconfigured Jewish world. “Where the Jews Aren’t” tells some parts of this story: for example, Gessen alludes to the many Jews who relocated from the Pale to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century but moved to Birobidzhan as American citizens in the 1920s and the 1930s. However, this part of the narrative lacks wider contextual details, such as the fact that the onset of the Great Depression led to increased interest in Soviet socialism among the Jewish working class.

Other geographic points on the map also get short shrift. The relationship between the Soviet project of Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan and Zionism in Palestine is mentioned only in passing despite the fact that many representations of the Jewish Autonomous Region deliberately coopted Zionist clichés, for example the extended cultural metaphor of the “land of milk and honey.” Birobidzhan was thus not merely thousands of miles from Tel Aviv: for the Soviet government, it was a kind of “Red Zion,” intentionally conceived as an alternative to the Jewish settlement in the Middle East, seen in the USSR as a branch of British colonialism.

While the Zionists were building their society with the help of a modernized and vernacularized Hebrew, the Soviet government designated Birobidzhan as a territory where Yiddish — the native tongue of the majority of Russian Jews in the 1920s — would enjoy the status of an official language. Though much of Gessen’s book focuses on Yiddish, it does not explain how Yiddish came to be viewed in the USSR as the national language of the Jewish proletariat and Hebrew a language of both retrograde religious practice and bourgeois nationalism.

However, Gessen is certainly aware of the fact of Yiddish’s international context at the time, and to tell this part of the story, she recruits the writer David Bergelson (1884-1952) as her book’s central protagonist. Bergelson’s peripatetic life exemplifies for Gessen the spirit of unsettledness and upheaval. She focuses on Berglson’s relocation to Berlin, from Kiev, via post-revolutionary Moscow, in 1921; his 1926 declaration of allegiance to Soviet socialism; and his subsequent return to the USSR in 1934. “When a man has no home but a great need of belonging, he must build his own world,” Gessen observes of Bergelson’s modernist prose, which revolutionized Yiddish literature. A key aspect of Bergelson’s world for Gessen is what she identifies as the writer’s well-developed survival instinct, which involved maintaining connections to multiple places in case historical developments demanded a quick escape. Sensing the dangerous turn of events in Germany in the 1930s and in advance of his eventual return to the Soviet Union, Bergelson visited Birobidzhan.

Bergelson’s visit inspired writings vastly different from his acknowledged Yiddish masterpieces “The End of Everything” and “Descent,” which Gessen reads in their Russian translation. His work on Birobidzhan mainly toed the Party line about the project of settling Jews in the Far East. Gessen speculates that Bergelson may have been motivated to write this material in exchange for securing another location where he could escape if the need arose. Recounting Bergelson’s 1932 encounter in Birobidzhan with the young Yiddish poet Emmanuil Kazakevich, Gessen concludes that, “Bergelson might have suspected that this was the only place in the world where young people, plural, were writing poetry in Yiddish.” This speculation is important because it suggests that Bergelson’s propagandistic writing about Birobidzhan may have been motivated by at least a partial belief that this faraway place offered a unique incubator of Yiddish literary talent. But this conjecture, however empathetic, offers a misleading narrative of the history of Yiddish in the twentieth century — particularly for a story with Bergelson as its subject.

By the early 1930s, Bergelson was an acknowledged figure in Yiddish letters. Bergelson knew this international scene well, and he knew that it stretched from America, where experimental poetry was being written in New York, to Poland, where a group of poets — including Avrom Sutzkever, who was the same age as Kazakevich — called themselves Young Vilna to emphasize the newness of their aspirations. While Kazakevich ceased writing in Yiddish in the 1940s and would go on to win the Stalin Prize as a Russian-language writer, Sutzkever continued actively writing in Yiddish for another seven decades. The interwar years were one of Yiddish literature’s most productive and experimental periods — Bergelson’s meeting with Kazakevich in Birobidzhan was hardly its representative encounter, nor was Birobidzhan a central point on the international map of Yiddish.

In fact, there is a misalignment evident throughout the book between the parts of the story that focus on Birobidzhan as a place “where the Jews aren’t” and an attempt to make it central to other narratives where the Jews actually were — and, indeed, are. Dubnow’s ideas about Jewish cultural autonomy, for example, were more often discussed in relation to regions where Jews already lived, than to Birobidzhan, as Gessen herself recounts. Birobidzhan was not the central site for Yiddish literature, nor did Yiddish come to die in the Soviet Far East, the way Gessen’s book suggests. Most crucially, Birobidzhan offers an inconvenient model for the story of Soviet Jewry. “I kept circling back to the story of Birobidzhan, which, in its concentrated tragic absurdity, seemed to tell it all,” Gessen writes regarding the questions about the Soviet Jewish experience that animate her book. While straining at times to spin the globe to focus on Birobidzhan, Gessen in fact offers a far more compelling narrative to illuminate the story of Soviet Jewry: her own.

Gessen’s two emigration stories frame the book: more recently from Putin’s Russia, fleeing in 2013 the anti-LGBTQ legislation that endangered her family, and her first departure as a Jewish teenager, from the Soviet Union in 1981. As she recounts two goodbye parties held three decades apart she ponders Bergelson’s repeated migrations through her “own experience of being a stranger in a strange land.” Employing her expertise reporting on contemporary Russian court trials, she contemplates the writer’s eventual trial and execution in Stalin’s USSR. She considers Jewish migrants’ vision of a new home in Birobidzhan in light of her own search for Jewish identity as a child coming of age in the USSR in the 1970s: “they had been very much like my friends and me, convinced that their mission in life was to find and secure the one place in the world that would make a true home for the Jews.”

Snippets of Gessen’s own biography as a Jewish Muscovite turn the book’s mistakes and omissions into a telling part of the larger story it tells. For example, while examining a single copy of Birobidzhan’s Yiddish newspaper, Birobidzhaner shtern, that ended up in her possession in the 1970s — without having the language skills to read it — Gessen assumes it to be the only Yiddish periodical in the USSR. She didn’t know at the time, nor does her book reveal any subsequent realization, that as she pondered the inscrutable text as a Soviet Jewish child, the editorial offices of Sovetish heymland — a Yiddish-language monthly — were located much closer to home, in Moscow. Gessen wonders how the Soviet Union—home to several million Jews after the Second World War — “rid itself of Jewish culture altogether,” without offering new ways of conceptualizing a great deal of its Jewish culture, which scholars including Anna Shternshis, David Shneer, Gennady Estraikh, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, and Harriet Murav have written about in the last decade. Gessen dedicates her book to her parents for having had “the courage to emigrate” and summarizes the main story of “Where the Jews Aren’t” as one “about Birobidzhan, the concept of home, and knowing when to leave.” Her book, however, succeeds not for its story about Birobidzhan, which doesn’t carry the weight of the far more interesting narrative at the heart of the book. That other story, of Gessen’s winding journey toward seeing herself as part of a people who were and are, offers the reader a rich primary source about a still ongoing process of post-Soviet Jews gaining awareness of the Soviet Jewish experience.

Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Russian Studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is currently writing his first book, “How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Culture and Mobility after the Revolution.” His and Harriet Murav’s translation of David Bergelson’s “Judgment: A Novel” is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

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