A link to Judaism in the Far East

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: Interest in Judaism is being revived in a province, tucked away on the border with China, that results from a Stalin social experiment.

February 16, 2000|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia -- In 1945, Mikhail Kul returned home from the war against Hitler to find that the Holocaust had nearly emptied his Ukrainian village.

The survivors told of German atrocities, of the Nazi soldiers who drove a crowd of Jewish villagers into a river and machine-gunned them. His cousin had died holding her baby.

Then a group of recruiters showed up in 1947. Far away, Jews were building a new state, and settlers were invited to contribute to the rebirth of their people. So Kul and his surviving family left Ukraine and traveled 6,000 miles to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, their new home on the border with China.

Kul, 73, is editor of the Yiddish section of Die Birobidzhaner Stern, the newspaper of this Far Eastern Russian region. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast -- oblast means province -- is one of history's strangest attempts to resolve the question of a Jewish homeland. Supported by some Jewish Communists, Josef Stalin decided that a stretch of swamps and forest in the Far East would become the center of a new Soviet Jewish identity, with Yiddish as its national language.

Despite its artificial origins, Jewish culture thrived here for a time, and even today, when Jews make up less than 5 percent of the population, the region is witnessing a rebirth of interest in its Jewish identity.

Economy limping

In some ways, the Birobidzhan region, so called for its capital city, is a typical provincial Russian region of 219,000 people. Industry and agriculture in the area the size of Belgium are limping, and former mill foremen and military officers earn spare cash as gypsy cabbies.

The winter streets of the capital are paved in snow and lined with Soviet-era apartment blocks. A statue of Lenin stands across from the concert hall.

In the market, money changers swap rubles for dollars and yen, and Chinese and Russian merchants sell frozen fish, sheepskin coats, plastic firetrucks, cheap alarm clocks, batteries and sweaters. On Shalom-Aleikhem Street, women in ankle-length coats stroll with a gloved hand covering the mouth and nose -- protection against the cold.

The region's self-image seems tied to Judaism. Federal offices post signs in Yiddish and Russian, and Yiddish and Hebrew are taught in the university. The oblast administration's Web page (www.eao.ru) uses Yiddish-looking script and menorahs in its design. Jewish holidays are celebrated in the House of Culture, and there are Jewish clubs, soup kitchens for the elderly and a small synagogue.

At a weekly Sunday school, funded in part by the region's department of education, 107 children study Yiddish, learn Jewish folk dances and memorize dates from the history of Israel. The Israeli government helps finance the program.

"We do everything we can so that people can feel that they are Jewish here," says Lev G. Toytman, head of the Birobidzhan Jewish religious community.

Although the Jewish population has dwindled with emigration to Israel, Albina Sergeyeva, director of the Jewish center, believes the culture will survive in Birobidzhan. More people are claiming Jewish ancestry, she says, adding, "Those people who kept silent for so long, it now turns out they have Jews among their relatives."

On Sunday morning, the school is crowded with children. In one room, Polina Davydovich scribbles Yiddish words and Russian translations on the chalkboard while the thumping of Jewish folk music comes from the room next door.

Davydovich is one of the school's founders, and although her son has moved to Israel, she has no intention of leaving Russia. She wants to help children rediscover their Jewish roots.

Gateway to Israel

For many children, the school is a gateway to Israel. "The language is interesting, and it's fun to speak it," says Ira Tseitelovskaya, 14. "And if I come here, it will be easier to go to Israel."

Stalin founded the oblast in 1934 with two ends. He wanted to check Japanese expansion in Manchuria by establishing a European settlement along the Chinese border. (Migration to Birobidzhan was voluntary.) In addition, the Soviet leaders wanted to create a Jewish peasantry tied to a national territory.

"Yiddish was intended to serve as the bedrock of a secular, proletarian Soviet Jewish culture and community," writes Robert Weinberg, a Swarthmore history professor, in his essay "Jewish Revival in Birobidzhan in the Mirror of Birobidzhanskaia Zvezda."

The Soviet government hoped to pry Jews from the traditional trades of the shtetl and create a Jewish peasantry in the Far East. The new land also drew urban idealists.

`Hopeful mood'

The parents of Inna Dmitrenko, editor of Die Birobidzhaner Stern, were St. Petersburg Jews who joined the first wave of settlers. "There was such a hopeful mood," she says, "because everyone lived in a Soviet country, and they decided to heed the party's call and come here."

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