Last fall, a small group of American Jewish tourists stood facing the statue of
Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem and began to sing Hatikva. Not unusual; there’s a
statue of Sholom Aleichem in Kiev, Ukraine.
However, this took place in
Siberia, in an area once called “the Soviet Zion,” or “the first Jewish
socialist (communist) city in the world,” or “Stalin’s answer to
Welcome to Birobidzhan – the capital of the “Jewish Autonomous
Region” – 5,000 miles east of Moscow, 100 miles west of the Russian Far East
city of Khabarovsk, and very close to the northern border of
Entering the city, it takes only a second to realize that Yiddish
was once the main language of this tidy, well-kept municipality of some 75,000
residents, of whom approximately 2,000 to 4,000 are Jewish.
that without its unusual Jewish history, you might feel that the town is just
another town in Siberia. To this day, however, whenever I mention Birobidzhan to
seniors or those who know Russian Jewish history, their eyes light up in
wonderment. “The forgotten city,” they tell me beamingly.
else are you welcomed at the railroad station by a huge sign in Yiddish (and
Russian)? This rail terminal reputedly remains the only station in the world
with Yiddish signage. Even if you go by car, the Soviet-style, monumental
welcoming sign just outside of town is in Russian and
Undoubtedly Birobidzhan is the icon of Jewish settlement in the
former Soviet Union. Indeed, the founding of this “Soviet Zion” so moved the
communist world that a Russian Jewish commissar purportedly uttered, “This is
the most important moment in the history of the Jewish people in 2,000
Birobidzhan was established in 1934 when Stalin had the bright
idea of moving Jews to this bleak, lonely swampy area near his vulnerable border
with China. Supposedly a proletarian Jewish culture could develop. Yiddish would
be the national language, and new socialist literature and arts would replace
religion as the primary expression of culture.
It was Stalin’s answer to
Zionism, Jewish farmers tilling the soil in a socialist republic, except that
much of that soil rested on a frozen wasteland. Once the Jews had their own
autonomous region, he believed, they would forget the lure of Zionism.
Soviet Jews and Jewish pioneers from all over the world, including the US,
Canada, Argentina, France – good communists that they were – drained the swamps,
cultivated the barren land, established agricultural cooperatives, started a
Yiddish newspaper, and opened a theater, schools and various other
These “true believers” literally transformed a forgotten
town into a city – all in the belief that with this “socialist paradise,” they
would be liberated from the unproductive trades of the so-called Jewish
bourgeoisie. American Jewish communists contributed money to support this
Tens of thousands of Soviet Jewish settlers traveled
eastward. After all, they were people who had never before possessed land, and
now they were promised their own plot of soil to farm.
But by the late
1930s and early 1940s, many Jews began to flee Birobidzhan – anything to escape
the misery of the region and to hide from Stalin’s mad purges. At least 2,000
Jews were murdered.
At its height in the 1930s, the Jewish population of
Birobidzhan may have reached 38,000. However, isolation, poor planning, and
administrative ineptitude eventually drove many away. Untrained for agricultural
work, the newcomers were also plagued with brutal winters, swampy land and few
Government mismanagement and the failure to provide it financial
support also doomed it. At the end of World War II, Jews constituted one-quarter
of the city’s total population of 100,000. The Soviet experiment of Jewish
national building had ended in failure.
Stalin died in 1953, and yet the
myth lingered throughout the Cold War. By the late 1960s, the Jewish population
was at 14,000.
After the 1991 fall of communism, many Birobidzhanian Jews
left for Israel.
Today, Jews from the JAR visit Israel, and their
brothers and sisters in the Jewish state come back to see family or friends;
some return here for good – “though the number is not something sensational,” as
reported in some American journals, says Dr. Ber (Boris) Kotlerman, senior
lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies and
author of two books on Birobidzhan, Bauhaus in Birobidzhan (with Shmuel Lavin)
and In Search of Milk and Honey: The Theater of Soviet Jewish
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer – the scholar, author and authority on
the exotic Jewish experience who led the American tour group mentioned above –
believes Jews here are proud and “wear their Judaism on their sleeve.”
researching my book, The Scattered Tribe, I flew to Birobidzhan. Strolling
around town, I glanced at street signs, town hall notices and posters in Yiddish
and Russian, even though today only a very small minority, mostly seniors, speak
Yiddish. One notices a Fiddler-on-the-Roof statue, a musical G-clef in the shape
of a menora, and various markers in Yiddish on buildings once occupied by Jewish
institutions. There is a taxi company bearing the name Tszimis, and a non-kosher
establishment with the same name. Another non-kosher restaurant, L’Chayim on
Gorky Street, serves Jewish and Russian fare. (For kosher food, one can contact
the main synagogue noted in this article.) The heart of the Jewish community is
located at a new Chabad-sponsored synagogue, at 14a Sholom-Aleichem Street, and
a Jewish community center next door, where cultural and social activities occur,
including JDC-sponsored welfare programs. Outside stands a statue in memory of
victims of the Holocaust, as well as a memorial for the Jews who died in the
2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai.
The synagogue features a prayer hall
that seats 122; a beautifully designed ark crafted of wood imported from China;
meeting rooms; a kitchen and canteen; a children’s center; and a room designated
for celebrating Shabbat and Jewish culture.
During much of Stalin’s time,
no synagogue existed in Birobidzhan, as religion was perceived to be
counterrevolutionary. The first synagogue opened at the end of World War II but
closed in the mid 1960s after a fire left it severely damaged. Then, in 1968,
the “hut synagogue” (so named because it resembled a wooden shtiebl, or prayer
hall), was established on Mayakovskaya Street. This modest structure with a tin
roof houses what is often described as a 19th-century Jewish village
congregation, held together by a small membership.
For many years,
Israeli-born Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner served as spiritual leader, but he
returned to Israel a few years ago.
According to reports, Chabad Rabbi
Eli Riss has been appointed. Born in Birobidzhan, he studied at Chabad in
Brooklyn and was scheduled to arrive in Birobidzhan this spring.
still buy the Birobidzhan Shtern, a newspaper that is now printed in Russian
(with occasional pages in Yiddish). And with Zionism no longer taboo here,
Hebrew-language study is gaining ground.
The alef-bet is taught in the
state kindergartens, Kotlerman pointed out.
We stopped to visit a
kindergarten, where the tykes in the Menora program moved us with Birobidzhan’s
story in Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Afterward we joined in for some Israeli
Yiddish is taught at the new School No. 23, which stands on
Pionerskaya Street, near the Bira Bridge. The Sholom Aleichem State University
also offers a Yiddish course, said Kotlerman, who is head of the university’s
Research Center for Jewish Culture and Yiddish.
The Jewish Agency offers
a Hebrew course, he added.
I stopped at the Vostok, the city’s only
hotel, which was especially spruced up in 2004 for the town’s 70th
Will Jews will remain in the JAR in the coming decades? Both
Tokayer and Iosif Brenner, a deputy of Birobidzhan’s duma, believe that
economics will play a big part in their decision. Certainly a new bridge to be
built over the nearby Amur River to China will enhance the area’s economic
survival, as will the fact that the entire JAR could be considered a “small
Kuwait” because minerals and oil exist in the Russian Far East.
does not believe the Jewish community will desert the area and has this message
for the outside world: “Send us your tourists. I invite them to take part in the
economic development of the area.” At our farewell from the city, my wife Riva
was offered a Hebrew school teaching position.
“I’m honored,” she said,
adding, “Let me think about it” – undoubtedly remembering Siberian
The writer, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the
just-published The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to
Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press), as well as A Travel Guide to Jewish
Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel
Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company).