The pioneers came in the late 1920s, lured to the uninhabited Siberian forests and mosquito-infested swamps by a mixture of communist ideological fervor and their dream of a Jewish homeland.
They pitched tents and planted farms. They were followed by thousands of others -- cobblers and barbers, haberdashers and milliners -- fleeing famine and the Nazis, hoping somehow to make a better life.
Josef Stalin encouraged settlers in the Jewish Autonomous Region to develop a community that would keep alive traditions such as the Yiddish language and Jewish songs and dances. But the religion itself -- synagogues, holidays, formal worship -- was stamped out.
“Stalin’s idea was to get inside the fruit, take out its heart and leave only the peel. That’s why there were signs in Yiddish, and there was a school in Yiddish, but as far as the religion [was] concerned, it simply wasn’t there,” said Rabbi Mordehai Sheiner, who moved to the region’s capital, Birobidzhan, from Israel in 2002. “Maybe somewhere in a basement someone observed some rites.”
But today, as religion makes a resurgence across Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, this region along the Chinese border has become one of the nation’s most important centers of Jewish life.
Last September, Sheiner opened the area’s first formal synagogue in seven decades. The Freid Jewish Community, the main Jewish organization in Birobidzhan, now runs a school attended by about 100 children that meets on Sundays, teaching Hebrew, Jewish traditions and activities such as dancing.
The community has also purchased a building in which it plans to open a Jewish school, probably next year, that would start with a limited number of grades but eventually serve kindergarten through high school, Sheiner said.
“There’s no question that the Jews there feel much more Jewish than anywhere else in Russia, and not because of their history or what they’ve gone through, but mainly because of the new opportunities they have there,” Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar said.
It’s not that the area has the nation’s largest population of Jews. Out of the 190,000 people in the autonomous region, Lazar estimated that only about 5,000 are Jewish -- although it is difficult to count because children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers may think of themselves as Jews but are not considered so by religious law unless they formally convert.
But Birobidzhan, a city of 77,000, has a Jewish flavor that belies its small Jewish population.
Numerous signs are in Yiddish as well as Russian, including the lettering on a monument marking the city boundary. A billboard for Sholom Motors greets drivers soon after they enter town. A downtown cafe is called Tsimes, a Yiddish word for a stew or pudding usually made of vegetables and dried fruit.
In front of the train station, a huge menorah rises out of a fountain. One of the main streets is named after Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish writer on whose stories the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was based.
Birobidzhan has long had a state-run Jewish school. The Jewish School, as it is called, has about 225 students and includes Hebrew among its course offerings. But community leaders do not view it as capable of helping spread the Jewish faith to students.
“It was the Jewish school from old times,” Sheiner said, “but it didn’t really correspond to its name in religious terms.”
Now, the Freid Community -- which is aligned with a nationwide Jewish organization headed by Lazar, one of two chief rabbis in Russia -- sponsors the Birobidzhan Jewish People’s University. It has 60 students, said Lev Toytman, the community’s chairman.
The community also runs 10 clubs, with 600 members, that bring together people with various special interests, he said. And the city has a theater with performances in Yiddish.
“To be frank, it’s common knowledge that the highest level of restoration of Jewish culture [within Russia] is in the Jewish Autonomous Region,” Toytman said. “We do a lot of publishing. We publish calendars, textbooks, storybooks.”
Toytman, 79, was among the early settlers, arriving here as a child with his mother and stepfather in 1934, the year the autonomous region was formally established. Efforts to settle the region, which lies along the Trans-Siberian Railway, had begun in 1928, with the trailblazers living in tents as they drained marshes and cut down forests.
“At first there were Jewish collective farms and state farms here, and industrial enterprises began to be built,” Toytman recalled. “There was a period when there were up to 46,000 Jews here.”
But many of the newcomers didn’t stay long. Most were “tailors, hat-makers, shoemakers, barbers, hairdressers,” Toytman said. “Agriculture wasn’t attractive to them, but they had to build everything from scratch, and not everyone could cope with that.
“There’s another small detail: All this was mainly swamp, and there were so many mosquitoes and black flies that people couldn’t stand them,” he said. “That’s why many people left.”
Foreign Jewish leftists were among the pioneers. There was even a Jewish-American commune in the region, but it was destroyed after Stalin launched a nationwide campaign of repression and terror in the late 1930s, Toytman said.
“It was a commune that had an extremely high technical level for Russian standards at the time,” he said. “In 1938, it practically ceased to exist. Only women and children remained. All the men were arrested and shot. They were all considered American spies, counter-revolutionaries, although all of them were Communists. They were all Jews who came from the United States.”
During and after World War II, migration to the region surged again as Jews sought it out as a haven. “During the war, a lot of Jews were evacuated from Ukraine, from Lithuania, from Latvia,” Toytman said. “They came here and they survived. My wife with her brother also fled here during the war.”
Dov Kofman, 55, was born in Birobidzhan after his parents, both teachers and devoted Communists, moved to the city in 1948. That same year, a new period of repression began. Even Jewish cultural activities were suppressed, and many of the region’s leaders were imprisoned or executed.
Kofman said his parents came “to find employment, and idealistically they thought that they would build communism. But life finally brought them to the understanding that all the Communist slogans were a deception. My mother was one of the first to abandon her party card.”
From the 1950s through the mid-1980s, the region’s Jewish character gradually dissipated, although it never quite disappeared.
Under former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a new period of openness paved the way for the possibility of emigration, and about half of the region’s remaining Jews moved away, most to Israel. But it also led to a small renaissance of Jewish culture.
Kofman began seeking out his Jewish roots in the 1980s and started trying to observe religious rules. People laughed at him, he recalled.
“I was a young man and I looked pretty young,” he said. “I didn’t have a beard then. And they thought that only old men needed religion and young men didn’t. So they had no faith at all. That was the Communist pressure.”
Today, Kofman heads the Beit Tshoova Jewish Community, much smaller than the Freid group and aligned with a different nationwide organization. Beit Tshoova runs its own small synagogue in a converted wooden house, but with no rabbi, Kofman stands in.
The change in the city, residents say, is palpable.
“In the past, even old people didn’t know as much about Jewish culture as young people do now,” said Vladislav Tsak, a 50-year-old painter. “In the past, I had no idea what the Jewish holidays were. Now any schoolboy can give you the names of the Jewish holidays. Every Friday on radio and television there’s a program on which our rabbi speaks for 15 minutes.”
The future of Jewish life in the region depends on people such as Ksenia Malyarskaya, 23, who was born in Uzbekistan to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Her father was born and grew up in the Jewish Autonomous Region, and in 1994 he brought the family home.
Now, she keeps a database on participants in Freid Community activities, part of an effort to build the group’s size and strength. She says it really doesn’t matter that she may not “technically” be Jewish because her mother is not Jewish; she still intends to raise her children as observant Jews, and does not seem overly concerned about the issue of formal conversion.
“Here in Russia, the general notion is that if you think you are a Jew, then you are a Jew,” she said. “I think that I am Jewish.”
For Lazar, Sheiner and many others, the rise of the new synagogue and growing interest in Judaism among residents such as Malyarskaya are satisfyingly ironic.
Stalin created the autonomous region “in order to fight religion, and all of a sudden, in that same place, in the center of town, a synagogue has been built,” Lazar said. “You can even call it revenge.”
Holley was recently on assignment in Birobidzhan.