Postcards from Birobidzhan:
The Life & Death & Life of the Jewish Autonomous Republic

Shelley Salamensky

“On the Eastern Rim of the Habitable Earth”

In the Biblical tale of Enoch, a tzadik, or sage, is flown by an angel to Paradise. A Paradise not in Heaven, but “on the eastern rim of the habitable earth.”

My grandmother told the story of an uncle who left Ukraine for “China,” on foot, with his children. In each town across the steppe in which he stayed to work, he wrote her family. One by one, the children died. At some point, the letters stopped.

Had it really been China he sought?

The Promised Land

In the 1920s and ’30s, Josef Stalin established a “homeland” for Jews in the swamps of what was then called Manchuria, in the far east of the USSR between China and the Arctic Circle.

As throughout the Soviet Union, religion would be banned. But the daily culture of the Jews would be promoted. Communism would be strengthened, Stalin believed, through hybridization with traditional folkways.

Hebrew, likewise, would be discouraged. But Yiddish, the Jewish “workingman’s” tongue, would hold a status equal to that of Russian. The JAR is, and remains, the only place in history where Yiddish has ever been an official language.

Settler Barracks, Scale Model

While Stalin established other ethnic republics—the Chechen, the Kyrgyz, the Ingush, the Udmurt, and more—these were roughly in these groups’ home locations. The JAR would be peopled from the Ukraine, 5000+ miles west. The Jews would be removed from an area in which they were unwelcome and historically tied to mercantile—“petty-capitalist”—pursuits and retrained as proletarian farmers: “peasants,” as they joked. And they would serve as a Western bulwark against Japan in this native Inuit and Asian region.

Over time, nearly 40,000 Jews from Ukraine and elsewhere—including the US—lured by ideology or incentives of both, made the treacherous overland journey. Conditions were primitive, the climate deadly, the wetlands near-unfarmable. Over half of the settlers perished or left.

Still, for those who remained, this mock-Zion grew to be a home. Yiddish was taught in the schools and graced all buildings and street signs. Yiddish theater was performed, Yiddish literature written, a Yiddish newspaper published daily. Films were made.

In his later reign of terror, Stalin revoked most of the freedoms he had accorded the oblasts. Nonetheless, far from Hitler’s reach, the JAR proved a haven for Jews, and remains, in a sense, the world’s only continuous shtetl society.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, most Jews of the JAR emigrated to Israel. Yet, recently, some have moved back and others, despite options, have chosen to stay. Today, sixteen percent of the residents of Birobidzhan, the JAR’s capital—and admixture of ethnic Russians, Asians, Inuits, and more—are of Jewish extraction.

“Tanya & Tanya,” Settler & Native

The writer Michael Chabon describes finding a book of Yiddish “travel phrases” —the way to the train station, how to buy a stamp. For an instant he believes that the phrasebook must correspond to the Yiddishland of his forbears as a living place he can actually travel. When he realizes that, even in 1958, the year the book was published, that Yiddishland was no more, he is devastated. The book—a palpable artifact with no source in reality—strikes him as a cruel prank.

Raised by people grounded in neither the Old World nor the New, and rather lost in life myself, I, like Chabon, longed to “go home.” Yet my “homeland” was real. Like Enoch, like the uncle—or like Abraham, impelled by something, or some One, to Go—I went.

Birobidzhan train station

Birobidzhan is an historian’s nightmare, or dream. A video game arcade and a disco stand steps from the marketplace, where commerce is still conducted by abacus. Vast, near-empty plazas with brutalist monuments and grandiose fountains (one rainbow-lit, blasting Stravinsky and muzaked Lionel Richie 24-7) patchwork between mud streets. Tree-lined mansion boulevards give way to squalid Bloc-Mod ghettos, then rickety pastel huts with outhouses and oft-frozen pumps, finally, the infinite expanse of birch-and-grass taiga plain. Old women sit selling cups of dried beans by deserted roadways.

Even by Russian standards, Birobidzhan is poor. Employment rates and life expectancy are low, alcoholism and child abuse high. The only business booming in town is the town. For its seventieth anniversary, grants arrived to reface crumbling mansions re-cobble the central square. By day, Chinese workers from over the border jackhammer outside the town’s sole, stern, Soviet-remnant hotel. The new cheap-allow statute of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who never set foot east of Ukraine, gazes on. By night, the Chinese workers camp and picnic out on its concrete ramparts. I watch them sleep, four floors below my window.

Birobidzhan coat of arms

The Birobidzhan coat of arms—a stylized rendering of a six-branched menorah bisected by a Soviet-era radio tower and the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, for which the town is named—is emblazoned onto a boggling number of buildings, walls, walkways, and fences. In an inverse “Where’s Waldo,” I chalk up one-hundred, then lose count.

Yiddish, similarly, still shows up on signs: for the post office, the utilities building, streets, cafés. The newspaper includes one Yiddish page per week. Yiddish is still taught in the schools, and still occasionally spoken here. I live out Chabon’s dream by purchasing a stamp in Yiddish, the only tongue that a man in line trying to help me and I vaguely share.

Yiddish ATM sign

And here, unlike elsewhere in Russia, or indeed nearly anywhere else in the world, Jewish “blood” is a point of pride. Everyone I encounter, Jew and non-Jew, speaks of it well. A few members of a would-be Goth gang who call themselves “The Rockers”—though they don’t seem to rock as much as to aimlessly shuffle about on the same set of public steps every afternoon—boast of it. The ones who can’t appear envious, but nod supportively.

Jewish heritage brings the possibility of repatriation to Israel, viewed in this backwater as the sophisticated “West.” And, without its bizarre history, Birobidzhan would be just another dull little town on the tundra.

“Rockers”

I join a tiny coterie of scholars, including two Chasidim and two Yiddishists from Japan, and hobbyists, among them Hirsh, a British-Jewish bird-watcher rumored a billionaire, and Leybl, an itinerant British-Jewish solar-eclipse-viewer salesman. We are feted like celebrities, inevitably—kosher laws long ago having lapsed—with shrimp or ham-and- cheese.

Hirsh and Leybl are introduced to a Leybl and a Hirsh. A student “Jewish dance” recital is assembled in our honor. Some costumes are constructed of chopped-up Jewish prayer shawls; others seem recycled from events commemorating Russia’s pagan origins and something to do with medieval Christian clergy. An evocation of a Jewish shtetl wedding features children in chefs’ toques bearing trays laden with papier-mache roast geese, plastic vegetables, and “brick- pack” fruit juice boxes—juice being a luxury in poor parts of Russia today.

While two or three indubitably Jewish kids hora past, few of the students are of Jewish lineage. But all are well-drilled, Soviet-style, moving in machinic precision. Their faces glow with zeal and promise. Our group is divided. Can Jewish culture continue without Jews? Does it matter?

Fiddler on the fountain

Similar dissent arises around which shul the group should attend for Shabbat. Chabad, a worldwide Jewish missionary group of sorts, has erected an enormous stucco synagogue with arched doors and windows limned with red and green neon, oddly suggestive of a Taco Bell. Its education wing is flanked with faux-brick panoramas of the Wailing Wall and stocked with blond mannequins gotten up as Jews.

The young rabbi and his wife, however, are extremely kind, offering much-needed support to the community and us. The rebbetzin cooks up massive, sumptuous spreads from what sparse kosher provisions she can find. Her dinners demolish any resistance we may have had to the sect. Still, it appears few locals enter.

Model Jews

Across town, in a tumbledown cottage, an elderly lay-rabbi and his even more elderly mother-in- law lead services for a small, impoverished cluster of the aged. Gaunt cats leap between pantry shelves and onto the shaky card table that holds the Torah. Two toothless men borrow the eyeglasses of a third to struggle aloud through the Russian prayer book, line by line. Women in babushka headscarves take their turns. The lay rabbi, hobbled by a twisted foot, moves painfully about the room, beaming his encouragement.

It is rumored in Birobidzhan that until the glasnost period, permitting greater information from abroad, worship here involved Jesus, as well as Moses as a Jesus-like figure. “When you walk in they will hide the icons,” I am told. But no apostasy is evident.

Indeed, this seems exactly like shabbos, as my grandmother recalled, it in the snug shtetl in Ukraine. A beggar woman raps at the back door. The mother-in-law, ready with a bag of bread, steps quickly to the porch, then silently rejoins us. Surely this motion, in its simplicity and grace, is one transmitted through the ages wherever the Jews have been: this elder’s elders, my own.

Cottage synagogue

We aren’t as tough as the settlers, or even as present-day Birobidzhaners. In mere weeks, euphoria turns to exhaustion. Two of our group, contracting salmonella, are locked in infectious diseases wards on the far edge of town. No news in or out, shattered windows—worst, no toilet paper. Their exit papers, when they are finally released, are marked “USSR 1982.”

After a bowl of rancid cabbage-meat soup with a big dollop—plop!—not of sour cream, as anticipated, but cheaper, steaming mayonnaise, I stick to cucumbers and tea.

Local minerals; local linoleum.

Leybl, the eclipse-viewer salesman, takes a homeless Inuit girl to his room. They share—chastely, he says, and there is no reason not to believe him—the lean plank the hotel calls a bed. She makes tea, watches TV, sings with the commercials. The forbidding Soviet-hangover hall monitor ladies look past it all, as do we.

One night she plies him with beer, combs his thinning hair, attempts to steal his phone, changes her mind, cries, leaves. He’s not angry.

He draws a diagram for me of how eclipses work. He’s been through England, Turkey, Libya—next stops Siberia, Somalia—to hawk his wares at precise angles of the moon and sun.

We’re everywhere and nowhere, sunk in history and lost in space. The petty rules we thought we knew cease to apply.

Lost in space

The fate of the JAR itself is not so sad. The place has held up pretty well, considering.

But me, I am jarred loose by the homey-yet-out-of-context Jewish faces, the landscape, the extremity, the way Leybl’s sun and moon seem here to hang too low, too close.

It is as if I have reached the end—of what, I cannot say. The earth? History? In some way, my own life? Though I’ll survive, it seems, what will remain will be an afterthought, an afterlife—as with Enoch, flown back just briefly to report on Paradise before the angel whisked him off again.

And I can’t shake it.

New Russian-Chinese friendship monument

The final leg of my trip, a bumpy cross-taiga ride into achingly bright dawn, is with Menachem, an ultra-Orthodox scholar of sorts from Israel. At fifty-something, he has fifty grandchildren. He has a sly sense of humor and, beneath his long crinkly beard, oddly resembles the actor Gene Hackman.

I doze. He nods his head in time with rock music clearly produced in some Islamic republic, but which he proclaims to be klezmer. We have managed, throughout our stay, to disagree on everything.

My Western ways, I know, are odious to him. His politics and views of women sicken me. Yet in the strangeness of this place we have become something like friends. He is named for the same rabbi my great grandfather was. His family’s shtetl was not far—not near, but not far—from my family’s. We are landsmen—less than cousins, yet more than neighbors—from way back. And that’s enough for him. And me. We talk about the Old Country as if we’d wandered from it for a week. Even in the Holy Land, he says, he feels as lost, as homeless as I.

Onlookers—less hostile than frightened by his antique, bizarre garb—gather, calling “What are you?” Suddenly protective of him, I shoo them away. When my plane boards, I fear to leave him.

Or fear to allow him to leave me. Tricked out as a ghost from home, Menachem is no more authentic than the JAR itself. But, as with the JAR, he may be as close to where I belong as I’ll get, and I have become somewhat attached to him.

My return west is a relief. But before long I come to feel desolate, hollow. Others, back where they live, around the globe, write the same. We promise to meet up in the JAR again. In the moment, we mean it.

The cost is prohibitive, the journey far.

Still, could it be possible that in Stalin’s faux-Zion we found a home, illusory and makeshift as it seemed? ❧