Arriving in Birobidzhan on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the first thing you notice is the large sign in Yiddish on top of the Constructivist train station. And as you exit the station, there’s a fountain and monument dedicated to the city’s first Jewish settlers. Stroll around the pleasant downtown area and you’ll notice that every street sign is in Yiddish and the main drag is named for legendary Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.
Welcome to Jewish Autonomous Oblast, an area founded some 80 years ago as an alternative Jewish homeland in the Russian Far East. Its capital, Birobidzhan, is a city of some 75,000 people, and the region (“oblast” in Russian) stretches over some 36,000 square kilometers (14,000 square miles) of austere and largely uninhabited land.
The so-called Red Zion was established in the 1930s as a Soviet alternative to British Mandatory Palestine. The first official Jewish entity managed to attract a fair few prominent Jews in its heyday – including Yiddish poet Peretz Markish. The settlers didn’t come only from the Soviet Union, but also from such far-flung places as Argentina and Mandatory Palestine itself.
This remote spot was first chosen by Joseph Stalin in 1928 for a variety of reasons – mainly to strengthen the southern border with China following repeated incursions by the Chinese, something that became even more important after the Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929.
Another reason was an attempt to try to cozy up to overseas Jews and attract investment. It was also intended to connect the Trans-Siberian Railroad and Amur River Valley.
As Jews settled in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the 1930s (to this day, the JAO’s status remains safeguarded in the Russian Constitution), it became increasingly influenced by Yiddish culture: a Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, was launched, and a Yiddish theater founded. By 1939, almost 18,000 Jews lived in the region – some 16 percent of the population.
This Russian rival to Zionism was short-lived, though. The region was shaken by Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s and, despite enjoying another influx of Jews following World War II – when the local Jewish population peaked at some 50,000 – it was again hit by Stalin’s growing anti-Semitism in the late ’40s. The school teaching Yiddish was shuttered, likewise a Jewish theater and other cultural institutions.
In the 1980s, during then-President Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of perestroika (literally, “restructuring”) and following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, most Jews in the JAO left for Israel.
But Birobidzhan still retains part of its identity, including the street signs and a section in the local newspaper that is still printed in Yiddish. And though the official 2010 census says only 1.5 percent of the local population is Jewish, the local government and various Jewish institutions are trying to “make Birobidzhan Jewish again,” including introducing Yiddish into local schools and organizing festivities connected to the Jewish holy days.
Rabbi Eli Riss was born here. I visited him on the eve of Sukkot, finding him sweeping pine needles from the floor of his sukkah. The Chabad rabbi has to suffice with what’s available to him in the Russian Far East, so uses pine branches instead of the traditional palm leaves for the structure’s roof.
Riss, 28, grew up in Israel after his parents emigrated from Birobidzhan in the ’90s, but he could be the poster child for efforts to re-Judaize these parts. Dressed in a light blue sweater and black pants with tzitzit, full beard and yarmulke, he even seems a bit cocky about his task.
“I didn’t even speak Russian when I came back. Hebrew was my native language,” he says. “Today, after 13 years in Russia, I speak it well, but with a bit of an accent. In fact, it’s an actual speech impediment – I can’t pronounce the Russian ‘R’ properly. I wanted to go to a speech therapist, but my dad forbade it. He said, ‘It’s the only thing that distinguishes you as Jewish here among the non-Jews.’ I didn’t have a beard back then.”
Though he comes from a family of non-observant Jews, Riss says he always enjoyed studying Torah. After attending the rabbinical academy in Moscow, he was ordained a rabbi at 19 and left Russia for New York to continue his studies. Then the position of Birobidzhan’s chief rabbi suddenly came up and Riss applied.
“My friends looked at me like [I was] crazy when I decided to move here. But it was my mission,” he says, explaining his decision to return in 2012. “The Talmud says the poor of your city come first, and that’s why I chose Birobidzhan over Moscow or New York.”
Today’s Birobidzhan is a mixture of Soviet modernism, Constructivism and wooden barracks built as temporary dwellings back in the ’40s, but still occupied by unfortunate residents today.
Riss is currently overseeing the construction of a kosher restaurant, kosher supermarket and mikveh (Jewish ritual purification bath). All are expected to be open by spring 2018. Kosher products will come from Moscow, Israel and the United States. The kosher restaurant will provide prepared foods, while kosher baked goods will also be sourced locally.
Birobidzhan already has a “Jewish-cuisine” restaurant, Simkha, and a supermarket chain, Brider (“Brothers” in Yiddish), but Riss says there’s nothing remotely kosher about either of them.
The construction is being funded by Russia’s rabbinate, while donations come from all over the world, he says.
Riss is actively promoting the Jewish way of life. The community center at his synagogue, Beit Menachem, is expanding, and non-Jewish parents enroll their kids in youth programs there. Beit Menachem is one of two synagogues in the city, but the Chabad envoy’s site is the bigger of the two. Riss says about 50 people come for regular prayers, but that the numbers soar to about 800 on major holy days.
“We are the center of Jewish life in the Far East,” Riss declares. “There are opportunities here for proper Jewish life that aren’t available in, say, Khabarovsk [the nearest large city, some 190 kilometers (120 miles) east of Birobidzhan. “If you tell your supervisor at work that it’s Shabbat and you can’t work – he will definitely work something out,” says the rabbi.
Riss is trying to market Birobidzhan as a safe place for Jews. Along with Birobidzhan’s head Orthodox priest and the local mullah, he recently signed an assistance pact, meaning each of the communities marks the others’ holy days and tries to look out for each other.
“It’s an idyll – a unique situation in Russia, or maybe even the world,” Riss says. “Birobidzhan is the only place I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism,” comparing it to Russia and even Israel. “I walked around for 40 minutes the other day and haven’t heard anything but ‘Shalom!’ Try to walk around dressed like this in Moscow and you’ll see the difference.”
The local government tries to stress its unique status at every opportunity, fearing that it may otherwise be merged with the much larger neighboring region of Khabarovsk Krai. It offers Yiddish as an extracurricular subject in some schools, and Jewish holy days are celebrated on a city-wide scale.
Because of its unique history, Birobidzhan attracts a lot of foreign researchers and artists interested in Yiddish and Ashkenazi culture. In September, for example, the Austrian Cultural Forum organized an exhibition at the local philharmonic building.
Russian-Israeli artist Haim Sokol presented a video that cross-references Jewish and Soviet heritage in the region. The total collapse of industrial infrastructure is reflected in Sokol’s shots of the dilapidated Dalselmash tractor plant, which used to be Birobidzhan’s primary employer.
Another artist, New York-based Anton Ginzburg, created “Birobidzhan Atlas,” a film that contrasts the beauty of the region, its hills, green swamps and virgin forests with the failure of the Soviet collective farming system: empty granaries and Chinese farmers growing corn and selling it on the road.
In fact, the Chinese presence is seen everywhere here. The JAO has an extensive border with northern China along the Amur river – about 600 kilometers. The first railway bridge across the river, linking the two countries, is being built and is set to be completed next year. Indeed, international cooperation with China is what makes the local economy tick.
Valery Gurevich, former deputy regional governor and now head of a local Jewish nongovernmental organization, says it’s a convenient spot for Jews to work together with the Chinese. He believes the region’s Jewish population is much higher than the official figure of 1.5 percent: “When emigration to Israel started in the 1990s, three times more Jews left the region than were officially registered in the region,” he says.
Gurevich says that even people of non-Jewish origin come to his NGO and seek assistance in getting their kids into the local Jewish kindergarten or school. The last decade saw an influx of Jews coming back from Israel, he adds – people like Rabbi Riss’ own parents.
One of the biggest challenges facing returnees will be the Siberian winters. While the average winter temperature in Jerusalem is 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit) in January, the equivalent temperature in Birobidzhan at the same time is -23 degrees Celsius.
Visiting Yad Vashem
One of the local government’s most recent efforts to safeguard its Yiddish heritage is introducing a new textbook with elementary schoolchildren in mind. And at School No.23, with its “ethno-cultural Jewish component,” children are offered the opportunity to study Yiddish with veteran teacher Tatyana Mesamed, who’s been a pedagogue for almost 40 years.
Mesamed was born in Birobidzhan after her grandparents fled the Nazi horrors of World War II in Ukraine and Belarus. Her grandmother and mother spoke Yiddish. She learned some of it from them and some at university (the local university, by the way, is named for Shalom Aleichem). She also went to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for an internship, in order to be able to teach a special Holocaust class at her school.
She is a Birobidzhanist through and through, but the jury is still out on what fate awaits the Jewish Autonomous Oblast: A possible administrative merger with Khabarovsk Krai, or the unlikely triumph of Jewish culture and Yiddish language.
Setting up Red Zion in the Far East was never a logical move, but a lot of Jews remain here and hope it will remain a peculiar Jewish outpost on the Chinese border – at least for the foreseeable future.