So many of us arrive in Israel speaking little to no Hebrew, and choose to enroll in ulpan (Hebrew-language school) to immerse ourselves in the language of the land. Those of us who have been through ulpan in Israel know quite well that learning Hebrew is only a piece of what our teachers intend to give us. More important than learning to speak Hebrew, is learning to be a good Zionist, even if the teachers are preaching to a captive audience.
Every Monday and Thursday night I would sit in my ulpan class on Rehov Lasalle wondering just how long my teacher would rant about how Israel “was a country for the Jews” to a class with a Jewish minority that included myself and two girls from France who rarely showed up.
My teacher particularly enjoyed pointing out that Israel is the sole home of the Jews, the only place that we are safe and sovereign. Her rants usually went unchallenged. Most of my classmates stopped listening when she veered off topic from the lesson, but after a particularly lengthy post-Passover discussion, one student asked about Birobidzhan.
When most people hear “Birobidzhan,” it sounds foreign - far off and unknown - like the proverbial “Timbuktu.” Even the majority of Jews aren’t sure what Birobidzhan is. A city in Asia? A foreign dish? In any case, few would conjure up a picture of a Jewish autonomous region in Siberia with Yiddish street signs and plaques marking snowy roads.
The word “Birobidzhan” was instantly ignored by my Hebrew teacher. Her automatic dismissal made me think that she’d been conditioned to disregard any mention of the possibility of a Jewish homeland outside of Israel.
Maybe she has a point, at least to a certain extent. When considering the Jewish homeland, there is really no question: Israel is, without a doubt, the one and only home of the Jews and our common language here is Hebrew. Yet Birobidzhan is the only true, “official” home of Yiddish and Yiddish culture that has ever existed in the world.
Stalin may have detested religion in all of its manifestations, but he did respect culture so long as God wasn’t involved. His policies helped foster the creation of a Soviet Jewish identity that divorced “Jewishness” from Judaism, leaving the culture intact. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was declared in 1928 as a place where Yiddish culture would hopefully settle and make its permanent home. It is the only state in which Yiddish has ever been the official language.
This isn’t to say Birobidzhan was devised because Stalin had genuine hope for a Yiddish state. Situated in the far reaches of Siberia bordering China, Birobidzhan was not an easy place to lure Jews to.
Birobidzhan was a strategic choice for the Kremlin for three reasons. Firstly the idea of moving the Jews from Ukraine and neighboring areas that were densely populated with Jews was met with great resistance. Secondly, Stalin and his advisers realized they could use the Jews as a buffer against Japanese and Chinese expansionism as the region of Birobidzhan bordered China. The third reason Birobidzhan was selected was that the Kremlin already intended to make an agricultural society of the Jews and there were many untapped resources surrounding Birobidzhan.
Hebrew was rejected in Birobidzhan for it’s religious qualities, but Yiddish was embraced. All street signs were in Yiddish and Russian, Yiddish lessons were mandated in all schools, and all local government documents were in Yiddish.
Once officially declared an autonomous region in 1934, Birobidzhan gave the Jews a status that they had not recently known. Prior to this their nationality was not considered “normal,” and from then on it would be. This sparked interest from Jews around the world interested in socialist Jewish nation building, and around 2000 of them unsatisfied with the distance would move to Birobidzhan to be directly involved.
Naturally the attempt to create a “Soviet Zion” was a failure. Jews did not take well to agricultural work and instead began to assimilate in order to get ahead. Additionally, there was a series of purges and new government policies that began to dismantle Jewish life in Birobidzhan with little effort.
Throughout the 20th century there was a consistent back and forth between Soviet Russia supporting Jewish cultural life in Birobidzhan and attempting to destroy it. Whatever the case Birobidzhan never became a center of Jewish cultural life as Stalin may have intended, but it did spark an interesting debate regarding Yiddish in the public sphere and the status of Soviet Jewry.
Yiddish is now inextricably linked to the history of Birobidzhan and remains an important part of the cultural landscape. It is still known as the Jewish Autonomous Region even if more Koreans and Chinese students are taking Yiddish than Jews and it becomes more difficult every shabbos to find ten men for a minyan.