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Why some Jews would rather live in Siberia than Israel

Birobidzhan, in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia's far east, drew Yiddish-speaking Jews before Stalin turned on it. Refugees are beginning to return from Israel.

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"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.

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According to Valery Gurevich, the region's vice-governor (he is Jewish, as is the governor), "Yiddish should be developed and should not be allowed to die, but it has to be done voluntarily. If you try to enforce a culture on others you may provoke internal protests. Now all is quiet; let's keep things that way."

Yiddish in newspaper, schools

Today, Yiddish is the language of instruction in only one of Birobidzhan's 14 public schools, though Jewish culture and literature are studied everywhere. Last September, two schools representing a quarter of the city's students introduced compulsory Yiddish classes for children aged 6 to 10.

Natalia Mohno, who isn't Jewish, runs the Menora Kindergarten. The school has both gentile and Jewish students, a symbol of tolerance in a country with a long history of anti-Semitism.

Pictures showing Jewish holidays line the dark corridor walls of the two-story brick building. "Non-Jewish parents bring their children here because they consider all this part of them. We even have Chinese kids. Everyone is interested in Yiddish and Judaism," says Ms. Mohno, as groups of students noisily file down the corridor, a few stopping to say "shalom."

The lively Elena Sarashevskaya edits the Yiddish section of the main local newspaper, the Birobidzhan Shtern, though she isn't Jewish. "Many authors who write about the region only do so in Yiddish, so it's normal that I wanted to learn it. Initially it was very hard, letters are unusual, you read from right to left, it didn't make sense but I learned slowly and realized that Yiddish was not only a language, it was about Jewish history and literature, our culture," says Ms. Sarashevskaya.

Nowhere are the ties between Jews and non-Jews here clearer than in Birobidzhan's tiny second synagogue, located on the outskirts of the city. It is Sabbath and it could be a 19th- century Jewish village were it not for the phone in the corner. The building is no more than 40 paces long, with low ceilings and a tin roof. A dozen mostly middle-aged parishioners sit on benches, a simple curtain separating men from women.

The rabbi, Dov Kofman, an affable man who walks with a cane, says when the ceremony is over: "I love Israel, my son is now there serving in the army, but this is my fatherland." Suddenly a non-Jewish neighbor stops by to say hello, sitting down on one of the benches. An engineer by training, Yevgeni Stolbov oversaw the construction of most of Birobidzhan, and is now retired.

"I love coming here, I would do anything to help this synagogue, it's part of my life and want to see it here forever," he says as his friend, the rabbi, looks on with a smile.


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