From Russia to Israel and back (to Siberia) again

Birobidzhan – a Jewish homeland in Siberia, endorsed by Stalin. It sounds like either the beginning of a Soviet joke, or a satirical novel by someone like Michael Chabon. I’d heard about Birobidzhan before, but had thought the idea died off a long time ago. It was established by Stalin in 1934, and is still known at the Jewish Autonomous Region today. This all took place during a relatively benign period in Stalin’s attitude towards Soviet Jews.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the city is now enjoying a Jewish revival: “Why some Jews would rather live in Siberia than Israel.”

Families who’d left for Israel after perestroika are now returning to this pseudo-homeland. When I’ve been interviewing Soviet Jewish immigrants, my own focus has been on people who came to Canada and the US, rather than Israel, largely because their post-immigration experiences have been so widely divergent. So I noticed immediately that the people mentioned in the article are mostly those who’d initially immigrated to Israel. It’s a phenomenon I’ve long been aware of, although more often, people relocate to North America, or back to Russia proper, and occasionally Germany.

Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia, has a fantastic online exhibit, titled Stalin’s Forgotten Zion, if you want to learn more about Birobidzhan. (Or you just want to look at some cool graphics.)

Birobidzhan still has a menorah in the town square, probably the only one in any post-Soviet country, and signs in Yiddish. Who knows, the town may be the site of a Yiddish revival—two schools recently introduced mandatory Yiddish classes for elementary-age students.

In the early days before Stalin turned on the community, Jews arrived from around the world to build their own version of a worker’s paradise and share Yiddish. …”This was the opposite of Babylon. When Babylon was destroyed everyone stopped understanding each other, here people arrived from 14 different countries and communicated with each other by speaking one language: Yiddish,” says Yosef Brenner, a leading local historian.

I found this video at the top of this post on YouTube when I googled Birobidzhan. It’s surprisingly well-done and captures a lot of different perspectives on the city and its unusual heritage. Watch for some good old-fashioned Soviet-style xenophobia at the two-minute mark (newsflash, Chinese citizens make for dirty cities). And don’t be put off by the Russian and Yiddish singing—the subtitles kick in after a minute or so.