In 1934, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin announced the creation of the USSR's Jewish Autonomous Region in a small province 5,000 miles east of Moscow, in a distant corner of Siberia on the border with Manchuria.
With its capital at Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomy was meant to be a Soviet alternative to the Zionist project in Mandatory Palestine. Yiddish was its official language, "secular Jewish culture" its official creed.
As with the other autonomous districts in the USSR, the Soviet government hoped to oversee the creation of a political entity that was, as the Soviet formula had it, Jewish in form but Socialist in content.
More than 70 years and four generations later, the Jewish Autonomous Region, with a population nearing 200,000, has barely 4,000 Jews, many intermarried and most lacking even vague memories of the rich Yiddish culture that once permeated the region.
Though Yiddish is still an official language of the province, it long ago became the private reserve of a few elderly individuals and academic specialists. But now, Dr. Boris Kotlerman of Bar-Ilan University's Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies hopes to help revitalize Yiddish culture in a region that once, with 50,000 Jews and many intellectuals, was a remarkable and creative outpost of Yiddish civilization.
At the request of the local university, the Birobidzhan Far Eastern State Academy for Humanities and Social Studies, Kotlerman has established the "International Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Culture." The program will bring participants from around the world - applications and interested queries have been received from Japan, France, Germany, the United States and Israel - to study over the summer at a new center established in the Academy's Faculty of Foreign Languages. As part of the new initiative, the Academy is also founding a new research institute for the study of Yiddish language and culture.
"This started as a local initiative," Kotlerman told The Jerusalem Post. "They came to me saying they were going to close the Yiddish program because they lacked instructors. They didn't know why they should keep teaching Yiddish," the language of a nearly-extinct culture. Most of their students opted, for obvious reasons, to study Chinese and Korean. But, says Kotlerman, "I explained that they're the only Jewish autonomy where Yiddish is an official language."
The story of Yiddish culture in Birobidzhan under the Soviets is a tragic one. Despite initial enthusiasm on the part of the Soviet authorities, Stalin's purges did not spare the Jews of the Autonomous Region. The Jewish leadership was killed off in the mid-1930's on suspicion of conspiring to establish a pro-Japanese state on the border with Japanese-controlled Manchuria, perhaps a reflection of attempts by some Japanese authorities to attract the well-educated and idealistic Jews to move to areas under their control. In 1949, during the second wave of Stalinist purges, nearly all the Yiddish institutions in the region - with a few exceptions such as the still-running Birobidzhaner Stern newspaper - were shut down, including schools, theaters and communal institutions.
"There was enormous pressure," Kotlerman relates. "There was nowhere to learn [Yiddish]; no one to speak it with" and even the Birobidzhaner Stern "wrote mainly about agriculture," he notes. The tragedy of this loss is particularly acute for Kotlerman, who believes that "Yiddish culture is a completely different narrative, with different literature and cultural codes that aren't familiar to Israelis today."
As an example, he tells of a course that he teaches each year on renowned Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem. "I give [the course] different titles each year, such as 'It's Hard to be a Jew' or 'Tuvye the Dairyman,' and the Israelis don't recognize these names," he says in anguish.
"I'm sad that this narrative is disappearing, and I'm doing everything I can to preserve it. I think there's a real value to the conversation between Israeli culture and Yiddish culture." Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner is a Yiddish-speaking Israeli and Birobidzhan's only rabbi. A Chabad shaliach, he operates out of the town's single five-year-old synagogue, and is awaiting the refurbishing and registration of a newly-purchased three-story building in the town that will become its first Jewish school since those were closed in the purges of the late 1940's. The Birobidzhan Jewish community, though numbering no more than 4,000, with many intermarried, is slowly growing, he says, while Jewish learning has also seen a slow rise in recent years. Reflecting on the possibility that the study of Yiddish would be renewed in Birobidzhan, Sheiner says that, in his view, the value of Yiddish culture lies in its connection to Judaism, not in restoring what he sees as a deceased anti-religious secular culture.
While he supports reviving Jewish culture generally, "I think teaching Yiddish without Judaism is pointless, like learning Turkish." Furthermore, he told the Post, "there is no Yiddish here anymore; it's just on some old signs. What Dr. Kotlerman suggests is something new, not a continuity of something older. It's coming from Israel and starting something new." Asked if he supported such an initiative, he was quick to offer his services and those of his wife, both Yiddish-speakers, as teachers in the program.
"There is a hassidic concept of klipat noga, a mixture of good and bad," he explains.
"This can produce gold and diamonds, but it doesn't have a point without Jewish education. What interest, besides entertainment, is there to teach perfect Hebrew to an African living in Africa? It's pleasant to hear Hebrew in Africa, but what purpose does it serve? I will help as much as I am at all able," he promises, but repeats that "it doesn't have a point without Jewish education. Eating pork in Yiddish doesn't make it kosher; it misses the point."
Kotlerman, who is religious, agrees that Yiddish has little context without Judaism, but maintains that Judaism without Yiddish is also lacking. He dreams of creating a Yiddish-speaking community that would revive the lost cultural treasures of a thousand-year period of Jewish history. And the revival of Yiddish is also about the lessons of history.
"I want Birobidzhan to be on the map," he says. "Why not? We're not talking about political competition [with Zionism]. Israel won, and it's good that it did. But there is another history other than the one written by the Zionists, and we can still learn from the tragic experience of Birobidzhan. They tried to establish a secular Jewish cultural nationalism, and it went nowhere. It's a critique of this attempt, and I want to learn from this. There is room for research into another history."
While the Academy does not conduct research into Yiddish culture, Kotlerman says it "sits on a rich archive that chronicles the establishment of Jewish independence in the area during the 1930's and 40's. There are items there about the establishment of a Jewish culture - architecture, art, Yiddish - that are unique."
But, he laments, "it's hard to get into Russian archives generally. It's a leftover from the Soviet mind-set. When I went to Birobidzhan two years ago, [the archivists] tracked every document I opened."
Recently, the closure of the local archives dealing with Jewish autonomy was extended for another 25 years, "and I don't know why." But, though its Jewish community has all but collapsed and high Yiddish culture has nearly vanished everywhere, recent years have seen a modest revival of the local brand of Yiddish culture, with Yiddish-language radio programming, classes in local schools and a Yiddish section of the now-Russian-speaking Birobidzhaner Stern.
Since encouraging Yiddish culture could help preserve the Jewish Autonomous Region at a time when the post-Chechnya war Kremlin is moving to dismantle the national autonomies throughout the Russian Federation, local leaders have also expressed support for the initiative. In addition, the Academy is willing to support the Yiddish course financially, Kotlerman says, and its rector visited Bar-Ilan recently to discuss establishing an exchange program with the Israeli university.
For his part, Kotlerman is "willing to encourage every corner of the Yiddish [world]. We're in a global village today, and it doesn't matter whether it's in Birobidzhan or somewhere else."
But, at the same time, "it's hard to point to somewhere more relevant to Soviet Yiddish culture." Though it may seem ridiculous today, Birobidzhan was once spoken of as a real alternative to Israel.
"Today, local Jews don't even connect themselves to Jewish history," Kotlerman notes, adding, "four generations after the first settlement, they don't even remember what they're doing there; they think Jews have always been there." In passing, Kotlerman tells an anecdote about one Prof. Yosef Lieberberg, a Jewish intellectual from Kiev who arrived in the Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934 to take the position of chairman of its executive committee, the second-highest political office in the region.
Lieberberg was killed in March 1937 in a Soviet purge, a murder that stopped short his plans to establish an academic research institute to study Yiddish culture. Now, just such an institute is being established in Birobidzhan, and its parent university is cooperating with a similar institute operating out of a university in Israel.
Meanwhile, a five-year-old synagogue headed by a Yiddish-speaking Israeli rabbi is the center of a slowly-expanding community that will soon open the first local Jewish school to operate in the town for six decades. Perhaps the short, stifled history of Jewish Yiddish Birobidzhan has a few stories left to tell. And maybe, just maybe, some of those stories will be written in Yiddish.