Food for Thought: From Russia with love

About almond mandelbrot and autonomy under Stalin.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Many an outsider has thought that the solution to the perceived Jewish problem was relocation, and many a place has been proposed. Hitler suggested Madagascar, the British were willing to forgo Uganda and an American intellectual named Mordechai Manuel Noah proposed Grand Island, an island in between Buffalo, New York and Toronto. In my estimation, that would have had the Jews living in the middle of Niagara Falls. Who knows? It may have worked. But it was Stalin's proposal that gained the most popularity; that is, if you take Palestine out of the equation. In 1858, Russia annexed the region of Birobidzhan, a swampy area twice the size of New Jersey on the Chinese border. Stalin was crafty, not just in getting and keeping his position, but in knowing how to take advantage of opportunities. By 1917, Russian Jews numbered well over 2.5 million, mostly living in the Pale of Settlement, the west and southwest area of the Soviet Union. The Jews were prohibited from owning land, and earned their keep and paid their rent by practicing unskilled labor and small crafts. Between 1914 and 1921 the Jews were hard hit by economic collapse, war, revolution and pogroms. The Kremlin and Stalin considered the region of Birobidzhan and the Jews an ideal match. By giving the Jews land to work that no one really wanted, while reclaiming the swamp, the Jews would act as a human buffer to keep the Chinese on their side of the border. At the same time, the Jews would learn how to farm and earn their keep by tilling the land, all for the great Motherland. As so often happens to autocrats, Stalin changed his mind. In 1936, seeing that all was going well, he chose to shut down all Jewish institutions throughout the Soviet Union, even in the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan. After all, what is autonomy if not something that can be given and taken away at will? The experiment could have worked, and at some point it had worked. By 1939, all the Kremlin-spun propaganda had convinced over 100,000 people to move to the area. In truth, only 18,000 of them were Jewish, and of those, less than one quarter engaged in agricultural activities, but the official language of the town was Yiddish. There was a Yiddish newspaper, Yiddish theater and even a library that contained a vast selection of Yiddish books. Following World War II, more Jews appeared at the Russian border. They, too, were encouraged to relocate to Birobidzhan. Between 1946 and 1948, another 10,000 Jews made the region their home. And then Stalin let the power get to his head once more. Angered by the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, he went on a rampage, killing, arresting and burning leaders, people and books, respectively. His experiment came to an abrupt standstill. Today, a few hundred Jews live in Birobidzhan; most have assimilated, none has ever been in a synagogue in their own town, and only the grandparents still remember Yiddish. I'm fortunate to live in the Jewish state experiment that did succeed. Despite complaints and dissatisfaction, Israel works on many levels and I celebrate her independence as well as mine, with the knowledge that I could perhaps have been calling a remote African state "my home." It is I and my neighbors and so many that came before me who make Israel work, and it is the many, varied challenges that Israel faces on a daily basis that make her viable today. The failure of Birobidzhan, though mostly Stalin's fault, cannot be blamed on him entirely. Birobidzhan sought to create a new Jewish identity devoid of religion, heritage and tradition. What would have held these people together? What was there to keep them focused on the task ahead? What was the purpose of moving to the Chinese border? Yiddish is not an identity, it is a language. The failure of Birobidzhan is that until 1947 it did not have a synagogue. The synagogue that was eventually established that year was only open for Rosh Hashana services with a Torah borrowed from the Siberian city of Irkutsk, and there was no rabbi. Seating capacity at the synagogue was for 400, and 500 showed up for services. We live in a country with many religious differences and almost as many levels of observance as there are observers. The way we practice our religion is often what divides us, but it is our belief in the intrinsic connection between our people and our land that unites us and moves us forward. ALMOND MANDELBROT The first time I made mandelbrot at home, a friend whose family came from Birobidzhan recalled her grandmother making them. It seems that mandelbrot have accompanied the Jews everywhere. 2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour 1.5 tsp. baking powder 0.25 tsp. salt 0.75 cup sugar 110 gr. margarine, room temperature 2 large eggs 1 tsp. vanilla 0.5 tsp. almond essence (optional) 1 cup almonds, unpeeled, coarsely chopped 0.5 cup chocolate chips Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and margarine in large bowl to blend. Beat in eggs one at a time, then vanilla and almond essences. Add flour mixture and beat until blended. Stir in almonds and chocolate. Take the dough and divide in half. Wrap in plastic and freeze 20 minutes to firm. Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 180 . Using floured hands, make each dough piece into a long, thin log. Transfer the logs to a prepared baking sheet, spacing two inches apart. Bake until light golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer parchment with logs to rack. Cool 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 150 . Place one log on cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut log into half-inch-thick slices. Stand slices upright on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining log. Bake until dry to touch and pale golden, about 30 minutes. (Can be made a week ahead. Store.)