By REBECCA BASKIN
A sign in Yiddish at the entrance to the Russian city of Birobidjan, a main street named after Sholem Aleichem, a statue of the Fiddler on the Roof in front of the opera hall, a market called Shalom and kosher vodka called “Jewish Happiness” are all signs of a culture that has faded but not disappeared and may even be on its way to making a comeback, with the region’s youth leading the way.
A Limmud conference in the city, from September 10-12, gave 300 members of the Jewish community in the region – the site of Stalin’s proposed Jewish homeland in Russia’s Far East – a chance to come together and learn about topics as varied as politics, feminism and biblical history, emerging as a group both engaged and strengthened.
The conference coincided with the 75th anniversary of Stalin’s official establishment of the Independent Jewish Oblast, his attempt at a Jewish state, which proposed to give Jews the opportunity to pursue Yiddish culture in a socialist framework.
Jewish immigration to the remote region on the border with China began in 1928, when Jews came from around the Soviet Union and the world under the slogan “Forward to the State of the Jews.” Birobidjan is the region’s capital.
According to Victoria Romanova, a historian who specializes in the Jews of the Far East, the establishment of a Jewish homeland was both a strategic decision for Stalin, who thought that Jewish colonization in the area could avert the possibility of Japanese invasion, and an opportunity for Jews throughout the Soviet Union and the world.
“My grandparents lived in the Pale of Settlement,” explained Romanova. “My grandmother lost her parents, and had a hard life… she saw in Birobidjan a chance for a new life, and she got it.”
For many, Birobidjan seemed to be an escape from economic hardship and famine, and Romanova noted that it saved many Jews from the Holocaust, but life there was not without its own challenges.
“Many came, saw the reality and left,” said Romanova. “It was a hard place to live, and they didn’t know how to deal with agriculture. They didn’t know the climate, they didn’t know how to work the earth [and they were plagued by] swamps and mosquitoes.”
Despite this, Romanova says that the Far East was a “good atmosphere” for common people. “There was no difference between Jews and Russians. There’s no tradition of anti-Semitism in the Far East.” In the 1930s, Yiddish was proclaimed an official language of the region, and all state institutions were obliged to write documents in Russian and Yiddish.
The rough conditions, as well as two Stalin-led purges and eventual aliya, have left the Russian Far East today with only a small Jewish community, one that is largely assimilated with the rest of the population. Birobidjan is home to some 70,000 residents, somewhere from 1 percent to 5% of them Jewish. Khabarovsk, a larger city some 240 km. away, has a few thousand Jewish residents.
ESTABLISHED FIVE years ago, Limmud FSU has already run conferences in five countries, on three continents. The conferences are run based on a formula that has proven to be successful around the world. They are volunteer-based, pluralistic events with lectures and workshops from community members and experts, which let each participant build his or her own experience.
Said Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler to the 300 participants in Birodbidjan at the opening ceremony, “We don’t tell you what to experience, we give you a platform to create your experience.” He later said that Limmud exemplifies “power to the people. They control their own destiny.”
Participants ranged from young children to the elderly, with students making up the largest contingent. All were full of incredible energy and enthusiasm to learn, teach and experience.
Chesler has wanted to bring a conference to Birobidjan since the first Limmud FSU event in Moscow. His enthusiasm and passion make up for his lack of Russian, and together with a group of dedicated young volunteers from Moscow, he came to the Far East to show that there is, and can be, more to Jewish life in Birobidjan than the remnants of Yiddish culture.
Even with modern transportation, there is still the same sense of remoteness that deterred many early settlers. Moscow is nearly 6,400 km. and seven time zones away. It’s either a week’s trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, or an eight-hour flight to Khabarovsk, followed by a three-hour trip by car or train through the countryside, past white birch forests and a former Jewish kolkhoz, collective farm.
Not surprisingly, many young people say that they feel disconnected from their capital and the rest of their country. However, they still feel a strong connection to the world Jewish community and Jewish culture. At the Limmud opening ceremonies, they sang along to Israeli Eurovision favorites from the ’70s along with Yiddish classics and “Gesher Tzar Me’od.” They joined together for Kabbalat Shabbat and havdala services, following along with Hebrew prayers transliterated into the Cyrillic alphabet.
It’s clear that for many of them Judaism is an important part of their identity.
Valentina Nemirovskaya is the program director of Limmud Birobidjan, as well as Hillel of Khabarovsk, which she says is the biggest student organization in the Russian Far East. She believes that Limmud is important for the community.
She sees Limmud as a way for people, young and old, to search for and define their own identities. She said that the young people are the ones that are the most involved and active in the Jewish community, and that she believes this could lead to a change.
She was born into a traditional Jewish family, and knew her whole life that she was Jewish, placing her, she said, in the minority.
A young reporter for a Birobidjan radio station exemplified the other end of the spectrum, saying, “I am a Jew in my origin… but I have no time for this life.”
He said that his grandparents came from Ukraine and Poland as a part of Stalin’s 1934 campaign.
His friend Vika, a non-Jewish student, said that when her grandparents arrived in Birobidjan from Khabarovsk, the Jewish influence was immediately clear.
“The first time they came here, it was only Jews,” she said. “They didn’t get what they were saying, even in Russian.”
The influence of Yiddish has since decreased significantly. “There’s no Yiddish left,” she said. One of the city’s universities has a well-known program for Yiddish study, and the language appears on many signs throughout the city. However, it has disappeared from everyday use.
Vika said that the Jewish community has a “big influence” on the city. “We live everyday life, all in Russian… [but there are] lots of holidays and lots of places connected with Jews.” She said that there is “no tension” between Jews and non-Jews.
ALISA ZILBERSHTEYN, 25, of Khabarovsk, was one of the organizers of Limmud. She describes herself as one of the few observant Jews in her city. She keeps kosher, wears skirts that cover her knees and shirts that cover her elbows, and walks the long distance to and from her synagogue on Shabbat instead of taking the bus.
Like many young people in the region, she studied Chinese in university, even going on to live for three years in nearby Harbin. “I left China because there was no Jewish community,” said Zilbershteyn. “You see remnants of it in Harbin, but it’s not there anymore.”
Since her return from China, she has been involved in the Khabarovsk Jewish community and has a Jewish boyfriend. “My boyfriend wears a kippa, but it’s risky,” she said, referring to incidents of anti-Semitism that have occurred in Khabarovsk. Indeed, the city’s synagogue was attacked with Molotov cocktails the day after the conclusion of the Limmud conference. But, she adds, “it’s better to be a Jew here than elsewhere.”
Like others in the community, Zilbershteyn has no aspirations toward aliya. Many made aliya from the region throughout the 1990s, and many who remained in Russia now have family in Israel. There are many, like Nemirovskaya, who even lived there for several years before returning home to the Far East.
“You don’t need to make aliya to be Jewish,” said Nemirovskaya. “In Birobidjan and Khabarovsk, there are many who came back, because this is home… It’s hard to find a good job [in Israel] and learn Hebrew.”
“I like Israel, it’s the Holy Land but it’s not home,” explained Nemirovskaya.
Pavel, 20 and Yuriy, 19, are students in Birobidjan who participated in the conference. Both are proud Jews and proud Russians but differ when explaining which is the main part of their identity. Yuriy calls himself a “Russian Jew,” while Pavel describes himself as a “Jewish Russian.” He hopes to complete his mandatory army service in the air force.
Judaism is clearly important to both Pavel and Yuriy, but they are more concerned with finishing their studies and then finding work. They, like many other young people at Limmud, anticipate having to leaving the Far East to find jobs. This could pose a significant obstacle to the growth of the region’s Jewish community.
In the meantime, however, the future of Jewish life in the region seems cautiously hopeful. Birobidjan has a synagogue and a Jewish community center with Sunday school classrooms, a library and a museum. A Jewish school is under construction. There are Chabad representatives in both Birobidjan and Khabarovsk, and a Jewish Agency emissary stationed in Khabarovsk.
That emissary knows better than anyone the challenges facing the region, but he also sees the situation improving. He says that the community recently had a kosher Jewish wedding, with a rabbi and huppa, for the first time in several years.
The Jewish community of the Russian Far East is one with a unique history and unquestionable tenacity. With initiatives like Limmud and the efforts and passion of its youth, though it may never be a Jewish homeland, it will be a community with a future.
Said Chesler, looking back at the conference, “[It was] an overwhelming success certainly. To have been in one of the most remote regions of Russia with the level of participation, enthusiasm, and excitement that we had indicated an intense hunger for Jewish engagement and learning and connection among those in the Russian Far East… These are young Jews who stepped forward to own this event, and they learned the skills and gained the confidence to be builders of Jewish community going forward.
“One young woman told me how privileged she felt to be part of this, and to use this experience as a building block for further involvement in building and sustaining Jewish community. She had tears in her eyes. How much more impact can you ask for?”