[Marxism] Stalin's Jewish autonomous region
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 4 07:51:23 MDT 2012
NY Times October 3, 2012
Despite Predictions, Jewish Homeland in Siberia Retains Its Appeal
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
BIROBIDZHAN, Russia — Andrey Zasorin, the spiritual leader of the old
synagogue here in the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, is a
born-again Jew who found God after 23 years in prison for robbery. Even
then, he returned to Judaism only after flirting with the Russian
Orthodox and Pentecostal churches.
Yelena Sarashevskaya, the editor of the local paper, Birobidzhaner
Shtern, which still publishes two or three pages a week in Yiddish, is
not Jewish. She is a descendant of Cossacks, but married a Jew and
learned to read and write Yiddish in college.
Identity is a complex issue in the quixotic Jewish homeland established
by Stalin here in the mosquito-infested swampland of Russia’s Far East,
some 20 years before the founding of Israel. While the big menorah
standing outside the railroad station, the Yiddish street signs and
ubiquitous Stars of David give Birobidzhan the veneer of a Jewish
Disneyland, the city often seems to have the religious authenticity of a
pizza bagel with pepperoni.
Because of this gap between the city’s spirit and its spirituality — not
to mention the dwindling number of people who actually call themselves
Jews — commentators have been predicting the Jewish Autonomous Region’s
demise for decades. But whether on the Upper East Side, or in Jerusalem,
or on this last patch of Siberia along the Chinese border, Jewish is as
Jewish does. And when it comes to the so-called Soviet Zion, Ms.
Sarashevskaya, for one, is sick of the snickering.
(One of the most aggravating things about the crackdown on Pirate's Bay
is that this was the first place I'd go to in order to find a movie that
was not on Netflix, Amazon, or other for-pay sites. I saw this
documentary in 2003 and really found it fascinating.)
L'Chayim Comrade Stalin
When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two "sidukah" (charity)
boxes in his father's shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National
Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store.
The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region
that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish
homeland became the seed for his documentary "L'Chayim Comrade Stalin,"
now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.
Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival
material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the
period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an
under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of
reactions to the "Jewish Question." (Strom utilizes a graphic of these
two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of
Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project
tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a
desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the
Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that
anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a
geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this
as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his
biography of Bukharin that Stalin's despotic "revolution from above" did
not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface.
Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure
to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.
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