Menu JTA Search

Russia’s Jewish republic renewed


Students study Hebrew at the state-sponsored Jewish day school in Birobidzhan. (Adam Ellick)

Students study Hebrew at the state-sponsored Jewish day school in Birobidzhan. (Adam Ellick)

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia (JTA) — The sign dangling from the chipped facade of Restaurant L’Chaim reads “estaurant.” Inside, the lengthy dining hall is without a flicker of light or the sound of a soul. In Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Republic, the Jewish restaurant is ostensibly abandoned. After a few minutes, however, the stillness is broken by the sudden appearance of a blue-eyed, blonde waitress in a skirt so short it would be shocking anywhere but in Russia. Declaring the restaurant open, she is asked to recommend a traditional Jewish dish in this curious capital, Birobidzhan. “Baked ham covered in cheese,” she says. The Jewish Autonomous Region isn’t predominantly Jewish or truly autonomous. And if Restaurant L’Chaim offers any indication, it hasn’t exactly evolved into the “God’s heaven” that Josef Stalin vowed to create in 1928 on this remote chunk of swampland, about the size of Belgium, along Russia’s border with China in the Far East. Valerie Gurevich, the regional deputy governor and a Jewish activist, smirks embarrassingly at the mention of L’Chaim, which he calls “our small shame,” where new owners “simply hired nice girls with long legs.” He prefers to speak about his plan to reveal Birobidzhan’s Jewish soul, something that has yet to occur because of a 70-year Soviet clampdown followed by a decade of mass aliyah. “You can smell the Jewry here, and we want to strengthen it because we consider Birobidzhan the center of Jewish life in the Far East,” he says. “We’re only beginning.” Designated in 1934 as a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” Birobidzhan had 108,000 residents by 1939, but only 18,000 Jews. They fled the Pale of Settlement, Western Europe and the Americas to build a Jewish socialist homeland — or, as Stalin saw it, to solve the “Jewish question.” But the place was forbidding: After a 10-day train ride from Moscow to the basin of the Biro and Bidzhan rivers, travelers found swarming mosquitoes, frigid temperatures and impenetrable swamps. Some 20 percent of them quickly returned home. Those who remained built their own wooden dwellings and cultivated the land while enjoying a short stint of Jewish culture through the 1930s. However, a swelling population and an anti-Semitic state policy led the regime to launch purges and repressions for decades to come. The Jews managed to retain islands of Yiddish culture: The Birobidzhan Stern newspaper and Yiddish radio prevailed as state mouthpieces. But when freedom arrived in the 1990s, many fled to Israel. In sleepy Birobidzhan, where a mere 5 percent of today’s 88,000 residents are Jewish, the superficial trappings of Jewish life are more common than real Jewish spirit — mainly because regional authorities are cognizant of the federal benefits that the republic’s Jewish identity can attract, observers say. The remodeled train station is crowned with a sign in Yiddish, and a grand menorah dominates the square below. All government buildings, including the post office, are marked in Russian and Yiddish, the official second language. The capital’s Jewish mayor, Alexander Vinnikov, whose family arrived from Belarus in 1947, says a dozen locals receive official city documents in Yiddish each month. Religious spirit is glaringly absent, however. Leaders hope Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner, who arrived in fall 2002, can fill the new synagogue upon its completion, expected this fall. Moscow allocated $112,000 to finance the synagogue, the first in Russia to receive federal funds. “I’m worried for large numbers of Jews who aren’t aware of anything and without a place to study,” Gurevich, the regional deputy governor, says over sips of cognac. “That’s where we’re focusing now, to build a community, not to just sing Jewish songs or dances.” But even a full synagogue doesn’t impress native Raisa Linshtein, 69. “People don’t go to synagogue for truth from God, they go to eat free meals — just to eat,” she says. “They’re hungry, hungry. Those who are hungry for God can be fed in the soul, not in the stomach.” Lev Toitman, 77, is chairman of the local office of the Federation of Jewish Communities, the country’s largest Jewish organization. That makes him a macher in Birobidzhan, and he drives around town blaring a cassette of Yiddish folk music. Fleeing famine in Odessa, the Toitmans came to Birobidzhan in 1934. During World War II, Toitman fought the Nazis with the Red Army. He is the only local to bring home two prestigious Order of Glory awards, a fact he offers nearly as quickly as his hand. “We’re building the soul,” he shouts in between cigarettes. “We’re interested in souls. People are coming, and this region must live on.” Before offering anything more specific, Toitman returns to his favorite subjects: last year’s theatrical Chanukah celebration and the expected arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Birobidzhan’s 70th anniversary next year. Jewish spirit is a blip on the radar screen at a crammed wooden cabin where Boris Koffmann, 53, leads the Orthodox Keroor congregation of two dozen seniors. A hunched, disabled man with a long beard, Koffmann has been praying for decades in Hebrew, which he taught himself. He soon may close shop, he says, since Keroor and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are cutting funds. “The mayor just helped us, but it’s embarrassing to keep asking,” Koffmann says. Koffmann refuses to sell the dozens of valuable antique Yiddish books from Lithuania and Poland, which were donated by members. “Our synagogue wasn’t artificially created like window dressing for democracy,” he says. “During Soviet times, I confessed to my parents that I attend synagogue. I said, ‘What is better, a drunk or a believer?’ My parents hated drunks, so they said a believer is better. It was a call to my heart.” At the state-sponsored Jewish day school, a short stroll down Sholem Aleichem Street, some 600 Russian students study Jewish culture and Hebrew. “It’s the closest school to home,” boys giggling in the back row say as their teacher scowls. Yet Yiddish obstinately retains a foothold here. At the neighboring state-sponsored kindergarten, toddlers speak a few words in Yiddish. And 13 serious Russian students toil in Yiddish at the linguistics faculty at the local teacher training college. “Yiddish is some kind of development of the soul and mind,” says Sveta Dimmova, a ravishing 20-year-old. “Even though I lived in this Jewish region for so long, I didn’t know much about this culture. This world was so mysterious and enigmatic,” says Russian Yelena Sarashevskaya, a recent graduate of the teacher-training college. She writes for the Yiddish pages of the biweekly Birobidzhan Stern. The local television station airs a 15-minute weekly Jewish affairs program called “Ark.” Program director Mikhail Klimenkov, 52, who is not Jewish, says much was lost here during the years of Soviet repression, but Jewish life is slowly reviving in the region. “When our ancestors made the tough decision to move east, they saved themselves from the blood. That’s the great mission of Birobidzhan,” says Mikhail Golub, a Jewish geography professor. “The second mission will depend on our children.”