Johnson's Russia List
2 September 2003
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A CDI Project
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 1, 2003
ALONG THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILROAD
Stalin's experiment in Birobidzhan sees revival after brief interruption
By Adam B. 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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."