Birobidzhan, in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia's far
east, drew Yiddish-speaking Jews before Stalin turned on it.
Refugees are beginning to return from Israel.
At first glance, Birobidzhan seems like any other Siberian city,
with its massive statue of Lenin, World War II monument, and
crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks. But then you notice that
Jewish symbols are everywhere, from the huge menorah dominating the
main square to the large sign in the train station welcoming
travelers to "Birobidzhan" in Yiddish.
Those symbols are a reminder that this Siberian territory
bordering Manchuria and seven time zones east of Moscow is a Jewish
republic. The Jewish Autonomous Region was created by Stalin 75
years ago as an alternative to the Zionist project in Israel. As
many as 18,000 Jews moved here. At first it flourished, with Yiddish
theaters, schools, and newspapers everywhere, but Stalin soon wiped
out most of the elite. Those Jews that could flee, did.
Birobidzhan's last synagogue burned down in the 1950s and today,
just 6,000 of the region's 200,000 residents identify as Jews.
But the Jewish dream in Siberia is not quite dead yet, and the
region is now experiencing a small revival, thanks to Jews arriving
At the gleaming central Jewish community complex, which includes
a synagogue built five years ago, Oleg Oroshko, a 60-year-old
construction worker who spent a decade in Israel, explains why he
returned home. "Russia was a mess and we saw no future for our
children so we left, but we were aliens there. This is our home."
Optimism here is fueled by booming agricultural and raw material
exports to neighboring China. But the Jewish revival is still
'Jewish revival is obvious'
Boris Kotlerman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel,
ran a Yiddish summer program for scholars here for two years, before
it petered out last summer. "The Jewish republic has a good
potential for a real revival, but the authorities are keeping the
status quo.... They're not really interested in pushing it forward,"
Kotlerman said by phone from Israel. In recent years, Russia has
sought to fold its ethnic-minority regions into larger, Russian-
Still, Roman Leder, the head of the Jewish community here, says
80 families left last year but another 120 arrived. He adds that
more would return if they had money. "A decade ago I would have told
you that this was a failed experiment, but not anymore. The Jewish
revival is obvious. In the future we may even become the world
center for Yiddish, who knows?"
In the early days before Stalin turned on the community, Jews
arrived from around the world to build their own version of a
worker's paradise and share Yiddish, the now vanishing blend of
Hebrew and German that uses Hebrew characters and was once spoken by
millions of European Jews.
"This was the opposite of Babylon. When Babylon was destroyed
everyone stopped understanding each other, here people arrived from
14 different countries and communicated with each other by speaking
one language: Yiddish," says Yosef Brenner, a leading local