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Land pobyvanka: failed the project of the Jewish Autonomous region

In early September, in Birobidzhan, a festival of Jewish culture and art, organized with the support of the Russian Jewish Congress. For several days the Jewish Autonomous oblast was transferred to the past: on the streets again sounded Yiddish and Hebrew music and songs of the “titular” nation in the region. But the carnival was over, the overseas guests are gone and the area was left face to face with the statistics: the Jews call themselves, according to various estimates, from 1 to 2% of its inhabitants. Correspondent “MK” figured out, why not before the end of project realization the world’s first Jewish autonomy and what today dream of Birobidzhan.


photo: Love Glazunov
The station building is the oldest surviving in Birobidzhan was built by prisoners.

Shalom roll

— There are “Birobidzhan stern”? — I ask in the Birobidzhan newspaper kiosk. The clerk shakes his head.

— In General, it happens?

— It happens.

Apparently, the guests of the festival sold out the entire edition in the first days of the holiday. I’ll have to go home without the only instance in Birobidzhan newspaper in Yiddish. But this language can be found not only on printed pages. Almost all the signs with addresses in the city are duplicated in the Jewish dialect. However, to find those who speak it, in Birobidzhan today almost as difficult as to find a number of “stern” in the city newsstands. In Israel in the course of Hebrew, Yiddish as the language of European Jews has become a part of history.

In the Birobidzhan religious community “Freud” notice the number of community Newspapers. Maybe, though it is printed in Yiddish? But no, in Russian. Later it turned out that a large part of the vaunted “stern” is published today on the great and mighty. In Yiddish, printed in it are only two lanes.

“The exact number of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous region can not be called one. We should not forget about assimilation, it’s very much intertwined. We have here a lot of people with Jewish roots, and the surname will not tell” — says Yefim Smain, head of the Russian Jewish Congress in the JAR. According to him, not all ethnic Jews in the census indicate his true nationality. Therefore, in his view, the official percentage of the Jewish population in the region is underestimated.

“A Jew can you not be, but in Hebrew is obliged to live, as we say here,” concludes Yefim Smain. Residents of Birobidzhan really proud of the friendship of peoples. On every corner will tell you about how the local Muslim community in one of the Jewish holidays together with the Rabbi prepared kosher pilaf and treated them all comers.

“The issue is not the percent of the population, and the preservation of traditions, the spirit, the Jewish historical heritage, says Governor EAO Alexander Levinthal. — For the Jews of the world it is very calm to live. We have from the point of view of interethnic relations absolutely no problems. In Israel the situation is also complicated, all combat operations are conducted. And we have complete peace of mind.”

Maybe inter-ethnic problems in the Autonomous region is because the representatives of the “titular” nationalities in there remained so little?

The Jewish question without an answer

The history of the Jewish Autonomous region begins in 1928, when the Presidium of the CEC of the USSR adopted a decree on the allocation of land in the Amur region Jewish workers. Since the Soviet government tried to solve the Jewish question and at the same time earn points in the eyes of the world. For resettlement was chosen virtually uninhabited region on the border with China. However, a favorable climate, it was not different. In summer, the land covers the stuffy heat in the winter — the bitter cold, intensified by high humidity. Marshy soil does not allow a wide turn around agriculture, and mosquito mosquitoes to livestock farming. In addition, almost the only settlement within the boundaries of the autonomy was deaf Tikhonkaya station. Many of the first immigrants went back, as soon as saw what actually was waiting for them in the promised land. Remained the most persistent. “I created this area of the Jews. Immediately before us was taiga,” — emphasizes Yefim Smain.

In 1934 the proportion of the Jewish population in the Jewish Autonomous region reached 45% and never went higher. One of the reasons that the children of Israel were in no hurry to move to their allocated land is an ambiguous attitude of the Soviet government towards religion. Until 1947 in the field there was no synagogue, then it was built, but in 1956 burned down and until the collapse of the Union was not restored. Over time it became clear: the purpose of the Union was not the creation of the prototype of the state of Israel, and the gradual assimilation of Soviet Jews in one of the remote areas of the country. “Yes, the Jews were the persecuted. You speak Jewish! It was impossible. And to bring it back, it takes time,” — said Yefim Smain.

He was echoed by the Chairman of the Jewish religious organization “the Community of Beit Teshuvah” of the city of Birobidzhan Valeria Bulkina. It shows the books stored in the city’s wood synagogue. It looks like a normal Soviet literature: textbooks, school diaries, scientific-popular… But under their covers hiding Jewish religious texts. The local Jews went with them to pray: books secret was allowed to keep their faith in secret. “Adults who spoke Yiddish, were silent, when the room was part of the children,” recalls Valeria. The language died out, because they Birobidzhan Jews decided that he must die. For the sake of future generations.

The situation changed only with the restructuring. In 1988, the local authorities gave the Jewish community a normal wooden house, resettling his mistress an apartment in the city. The building was adapted for the synagogue, which is still in effect. Until 1994, when the city was built a big and modern synagogue “Beit Menachem”, the wooden house remained the only officially authorized gathering place of the Jews. However, today there is no Rabbi. The Torah service, reads from one of its members.

“In 60-70 years of the last century began the decay of Jewish culture in Birobidzhan, — says Valeria Bulkina. — They hide, they all hide… When I arrived in Magadan, met two sisters. Typical Jew, all of Israel are similar to them. They said their mother had confessed that they are Jews only when they died. She said, “girls, I’m sorry, but I have all the documents burned. I became Tatiana Meshalkina, just because I was standing next to a cement mixer”. How to be Jews? To get to the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue, the documents needed that you are a Jew. And how can I give the document, if my father said that this issue is closed to me? Everything here is messed up, intertwined. Nothing and no one can prove that: in the passport do not put a nationality. So we decided that the wooden synagogue will be just for all.”

Oh, where are you, brother?

Although the number of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous region in the years of Soviet power the already hovered around 25%, after the borders are opened they became even less: most moved to Israel. According to representatives of local communities, the Jews in Birobidzhan remain for several reasons: the elderly is difficult to adapt to the new location, and some, like the congregation of a wooden synagogue, just hard to prove their belonging to the Jewish people. Those in the Autonomous region today, about 1,600 people, according to the latest census. It’s about 1% of the population of the region.

“Consider the experiment of establishing a Jewish Autonomous region failed hard because he still exists, noted in an interview with “MK” the President of the Russian Jewish Congress Yuri Kanner. — It was the first Jewish administration education in the world. And compared to the Zionist project for the creation of a Jewish state in Uganda or Madagascar, it has been most successful. Today among the Jews differently relate to the EAO. Someone skeptical, some of it just doesn’t know. Some nostalgia: because a lot of natives of Birobidzhan live in Israel and fond memories about his hometown. I was in Birobidzhan, I have it too caused a warm feeling. It is very similar to the Jewish town of the pale, but moved to the far East.

Whatever it was, the Jewish Autonomous region was not likely to become an alternative to Israel. It’s just an administrative unit, and it is far from economic centers. When it was created, Jews had worked in high-tech and industrialnaia industries. And the region was conceived as a completely agricultural land. And of course, to attract scientists, doctors, metallurgists, miners was very difficult. In addition, the structure of the Autonomous region are not allowed to build an independent economic policy.

Today Russia is making enormous efforts to develop the far East. But the number of people employed in the economy of the region is very small in comparison with its neighbors — China, Japan and South Korea. Birobidzhan is part of the Far East. And I know that in Khabarovsk of the Jews living more than in Birobidzhan, much more. So, now the question of the return of Jews in the Jewish Autonomous region is not a question of nationality. There can not be such that will attract Birobidzhan Jews, and Khabarovsk will attract Russian. If there are conditions for development of economy, the demand for professionals, people will go, they will be pulled to where they can realize themselves”.

“It’s important for us to raise the level of the Jewish population, — stressed the Governor Alexander Levinthal. We hope to attract tourists, business from Israel. Close to huge market — China, we have a preferential treatment. Where you have such conditions in Russia? EAO needs to become a gateway for Jews in Asia. We hope that as economic development of the region and improve the quality of life, and the number of Jews will increase. People will see that there are well paid jobs, they will come.” The regional authorities focus on the development of the mining sector, industry, logistics… But the question of how these areas of interest to the Jews, remains open. The impression that the regional authorities are simply not willing to put up with the obvious: the name of the Autonomous region has long been not reflect its essence.

And the proximity of China in the Jewish Autonomous region is really notable: the border of the two States is only half an hour away by car. Here and there are the ads carefully duplicated for Chinese guests from the other Bank of the Amur river. Asian eateries in Birobidzhan tout compatriots native characters. No shop or restaurant with kosher food in Birobidzhan yet. But the Chinese products are found in abundance.

Desperate to find the city’s gifts with a Jewish theme, I took home a spicy Asian sauce and noodles.

Birobidzhan – Moscow.

See photo essay on the topic:

Birobidzhan: the area created by the hands of Jewish settlers

9 photos

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