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.

Alfonso Daniels
A new Jewish community complex located in the center of Birobidzhan includes a synagogue (left) to replace one burned down in the 1950s. The Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia's far east was created by Stalin 75 years ago as an alternative to the Zionist project in Israel.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

At first glance, Birobidzhan seems like any other Siberian city, with its massive statue of Lenin, World War II monument, and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks. But then you notice that Jewish symbols are everywhere, from the huge menorah dominating the main square to the large sign in the train station welcoming travelers to "Birobidzhan" in Yiddish.

Those symbols are a reminder that this Siberian territory bordering Manchuria and seven time zones east of Moscow is a Jewish republic. The Jewish Autonomous Region was created by Stalin 75 years ago as an alternative to the Zionist project in Israel. As many as 18,000 Jews moved here. At first it flourished, with Yiddish theaters, schools, and newspapers everywhere, but Stalin soon wiped out most of the elite. Those Jews that could flee, did. Birobidzhan's last synagogue burned down in the 1950s and today, just 6,000 of the region's 200,000 residents identify as Jews.

But the Jewish dream in Siberia is not quite dead yet, and the region is now experiencing a small revival, thanks to Jews arriving from Israel.

At the gleaming central Jewish community complex, which includes a synagogue built five years ago, Oleg Oroshko, a 60-year-old construction worker who spent a decade in Israel, explains why he returned home. "Russia was a mess and we saw no future for our children so we left, but we were aliens there. This is our home."

Optimism here is fueled by booming agricultural and raw material exports to neighboring China. But the Jewish revival is still fragile.

'Jewish revival is obvious'

Boris Kotlerman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, ran a Yiddish summer program for scholars here for two years, before it petered out last summer. "The Jewish republic has a good potential for a real revival, but the authorities are keeping the status quo.... They're not really interested in pushing it forward," Kotlerman said by phone from Israel. In recent years, Russia has sought to fold its ethnic-minority regions into larger, Russian-dominated ones.

Still, Roman Leder, the head of the Jewish community here, says 80 families left last year but another 120 arrived. He adds that more would return if they had money. "A decade ago I would have told you that this was a failed experiment, but not anymore. The Jewish revival is obvious. In the future we may even become the world center for Yiddish, who knows?"

In the early days before Stalin turned on the community, Jews arrived from around the world to build their own version of a worker's paradise and share Yiddish, the now vanishing blend of Hebrew and German that uses Hebrew characters and was once spoken by millions of European Jews.

"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.

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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