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Film focuses on Soviet Jewish homeland

Local Jews take part in an oneg shabbat in the one remaining synagogue in Birobidzhan, Russia, in the Yale Strom film 'L'Chayim Comrade Stalin.' (Yale Strom)

Local Jews take part in an oneg shabbat in the one remaining synagogue in Birobidzhan, Russia, in the Yale Strom film ‘L’Chayim Comrade Stalin.’ (Yale Strom)

BERLIN, Feb. 19 (JTA) — Yale Strom thinks in pictures — which is a useful talent for a filmmaker. Just the other evening, as he played his fiddle with a non-Jewish klezmer group here, surrounded by sweating, dancing Berliners, Strom imagined that the sound was fading out around him. "It was as if I was an actor in a grand play and there was a director above me," says Strom, a 44-year-old New Yorker whose movie about the Soviet Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan, "L´Chayim Comrade Stalin," had its world premiere Feb. 10 at the Berlin film festival. "I was imagining that those who had died" in the Holocaust "could look down from ‘olam habah,´ the world to come, and they were focusing on me and this weird, strange atmosphere," Strom said. "I felt genuine feelings of brotherhood with the other musicians. I couldn´t help it, 60 years later, thinking about this." Strom, a musician, filmmaker, photographer and writer who speaks Yiddish at home with his wife, Elizabeth, and their 4-year-old daughter, Tallulah, seems to enjoy having one foot in the past and another in the present. His approach to life is in keeping with the Jewish tradition of storytelling, which posits that all Jews were there for the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments — and even somehow during the Holocaust. In his new film, Strom goes from the 1930s to the present, using historical clips and interviews to describe Stalin´s creation of a Jewish region in the far reaches of Siberia in 1934, and to paint a picture of life there today. The result is a collection of images of idealism, struggle, disillusionment, irony and hope. Strom touches only briefly on Stalin´s paranoia and purges against Jews. Connecting past and present is the sound of the train clacking over the tracks on its way to Siberia — tracks that pointed Jews toward Birobidzhan in the 1930s and that brought Strom there last year. "My goal was to let people know about this amazing place that was artificially created by Stalin," he said. "People went and started a life with nothing. It was mud, tents. They built houses brick by brick. What made people believe in such ideals? They were not nuts, crazy." At its heyday, some 40,000 Jews lived in the area. Today, there are only a few thousand Jews left, but Yiddish is still the official language, studied alongside Russian by Jews and non-Jews. And, as Strom discovers, some non-Jews know more about Jewish culture there than the Jews do. Strom first heard of Birobidzhan from his parents, David and Phyllis, "extreme left-wingers" who also practiced Judaism enthusiastically. Strom was born in Detroit, the oldest of eight children, and then moved with his family to San Diego. The family never moved to the Soviet Union, but they did talk about the committed Jewish Communists who moved to Birobidzhan. But it would be many years before Strom would focus on this story. In between, he became a long-distance runner, got bachelors degrees in American studies and furniture design at San Diego State University — and chose not to attend law school in order to live the life of an artist focusing on Jewish themes. He has since produced several books: on Jewish life in Europe — East and West — and in Brooklyn; on the life of Roma, or Gypsies, in Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Sweden; on the immigrant experience for youth in the United States today; and on a comprehensive history of klezmer music. He also has recorded CDs of klezmer music and made three previous films: "At the Crossroads: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Today" (1989); "The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music" (1994); and "Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years" (1996). Strom, who now has a graduate degree in Yiddish studies from Columbia University in New York, said he is the only artist in his family. While his parents and siblings are all supportive and proud, once in a while someone asks, "So when are you going to get a real job?" he said. Sometimes it is not easy to make ends meet, Strom admits. But "long-distance running has shaped what I am," he says. "It taught me how to set a goal and see it through to the end. It´s like a camera, and you are focusing and thinking about overcoming pain." For the new film, Strom interviewed several Americans whose parents had dragged them to the Soviet Union to help build the Jewish homeland there. Luckily, they left after a few years. Many of the American immigrants to Birobidzhan later were accused of being spies, deported to labor camps and never returned. The most fascinating interviews are with people who spent their lives in Birobidzhan, including some who only recently emigrated to the United States. There is Yelena Baeleva, a young non-Jewish woman who teaches Yiddish to children in Birobidzhan today. There is Anna Peller, a member of the local legislature, who laments that her children "don´t speak Yiddish, can´t read the works of Sholem Aleichem." And there is Kolya Borodulin, who left Birobidzhan about 11 years ago and lives in New York City. He recalls how a non-Jewish friend in Birobidzhan wished him a happy holiday on the street, and he had no idea it was Rosh Hashanah. "I was teaching Yiddish to others, while not knowing the simplest crucial element" about Judaism, he said. Strom said he considered putting more into the film about Stalin´s paranoia and anti-Semitism, but the film was already long. He does, however, touch on anti-Semitism in Russia today, through interviews with people he met during the seven-day train journey from Moscow to Birobidzhan, and through choice exchanges with his own bodyguard and translator, Slava. "I am not anti-Semitic," Slava says. "But sometimes Jews don´t behave properly. They organize problems and they call it anti-Semitism and then they get a lot of money for it." "It was almost scary," said Strom, who developed a liking for Slava during their time together. "How could I use this word ‘friend´ to describe him? He was the enemy." "I thought, ‘That´s how Jews must have felt´ " during the Nazi years, "when someone saved them, yet you still know that person probably had blood on their hands," he said. Strom, who has been to Berlin several times, said he was pleased that his film could premiere here. His audiences seemed appreciative, though some asked tough questions about why he had not fully confronted Stalin´s murders of Jews, and about whether he thought Yiddish culture would survive in Birobidzhan — or anywhere. After the second screening, Strom picked up his violin and played a klezmer tune for the audience, who applauded heartily — a real live, Jew playing klezmer in Berlin, where one is more likely to run into non-Jewish klezmer groups. "I know it makes me exotic, being Jewish in Germany," Strom confided. "I use it to my advantage." But it is not so simple. On the night he jammed with the non-Jewish klezmer band, the night when the sound switched off in his head and Strom watched himself fiddling away under the lights, "it was an out-of-body experience." After "my 15 minutes of fame," he said, "there I was, walking along" a historic Jewish section of Berlin "at 1 a.m., and it was quiet, and these thoughts were running through my mind. And for Jews, these things always will run through our minds, at least for several centuries to come."