Where the Jews Aren’t

  • Review
By – May 24, 2016

Wel­come to Biro­bidzhan: some­thing between a fan­ta­sy and a joke … per­haps the worst good idea ever.” Thus award-win­ning jour­nal­ist Masha Gessen describes the main sub­ject of her book, Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Sto­ry of Biro­bidzhan, Russia’s Jew­ish Autonomous Region. By her own admis­sion, Gessen grew up with a Russ­ian Jew­ish iden­ti­ty of non-belong­ing.” Here she explores the sto­ry of Russ­ian Jew­ish­ness through the lens of the fan­tas­ti­cal, failed Yid­dish state, search­ing for Biro­bidzhan, the con­cept of home, and know­ing when to leave.”

At the far east of Rus­sia, by the Manchuri­an bor­der, lies the land of Birobidzhan,which was declared a Jew­ish autonomous region in 1934, with Yid­dish as its offi­cial lan­guage; the Sovi­et com­mit­tee in charge envi­sioned a site for the preser­va­tion of [The Jew­ish People’s] nation­al­i­ty.” It was designed as an agri­cul­tur­al colony, but the region’s dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures were vicious mos­qui­toes, swamps, and rocky ter­rain. The farms soon flopped and were replaced with indus­tri­al plants. Ear­ly set­tlers were flee­ing pover­ty and pogroms in the 1930s; by the 1940s, they were refugees of World War II. At its peak, Biro­bidzhan had six Yid­dish-lan­guage schools, the Biro­bidzhan Star news­pa­per, and a library. But the vision was short-lived. Des­ig­nat­ed to accom­mo­date minori­ties in post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia and favored for the patri­ot­ic boost it gave dur­ing the war, it was con­demned as the fuel of an inter­nal ene­my” short­ly after­wards. By 1948 the Jew­ish nation­al­ist project was per­ceived as a threat. Stal­in­ist purges cleansed the region of its activists, thou­sands of Yid­dish books were burned, and Rus­si­fi­ca­tion set in with full force. A Times cor­re­spon­dent vis­it­ing Biro­bidzhan in 1954 remarked sim­ply, I could not see that the place had any spe­cial Jew­ish character.”

Gessen’s book reports on Biro­bidzhan as a his­tor­i­cal enti­ty, but also inspects the Jew­ish Autonomous Region” as an idea. Between shtetl and state, reli­gion and regime, where do the Jews belong? What lan­guage does the Jew use to express the polit­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al and cul­tur­al feel­ing of home”? Zeev Jabotin­sky and Theodor Her­zl are dis­cussed, but Gessen finds the answer in two oth­er fig­ures: his­to­ri­an Simon Dub­now (1860 – 1941) and poet David Bergel­son (1884 – 1952). Dub­now, reject­ing Zion­ism and social­ism, argued that the Jew­ish peo­ple could domes­ti­cate dias­po­ra: Judaism did not need a land, but a strong mem­o­ry and mul­ti­po­lar com­mu­ni­ty. Bergel­son believed in a cul­tur­al Judaism expressed in Yid­dish, and in Why I am in Favor of Biro­bidzhan (1935), he described the region as the place to build a glo­ri­ous Jew­ish cul­ture, social­ist in form and nation­al in con­tent.” Grant­ed, this was a pro­pa­gan­da piece. More than a decade ear­li­er, he had cursed the Bol­she­viks. In two decades, he would dis­ap­pear, accused of trea­son, on the Night of the Mur­dered Poets. Gessen high­lights Dubnow’s ide­ol­o­gy, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the dream of Jew­ish dias­poric nation­al­ism. Through Bergelson’s sto­ry, she presents the com­plex­i­ty of that dream for the Yid­dish activist of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, des­per­ate for sur­vival — first, dev­as­tat­ing­ly, in West­ern Europe — and then, very soon, in the Sovi­et East.

Where the Jews Aren’t, though elo­quent­ly writ­ten and chrono­log­i­cal­ly ordered, wan­ders as unex­pect­ed­ly as its sub­jects, shift­ing dizzy­ing­ly from Dub­now to Bergel­son to Biro­bidzhan and back. As Gessen explains, the book is best under­stood as a reflec­tion on Russ­ian Jew­ish­ness with Biro­bidzhan as its case study. Two forces charge the his­to­ry of Biro­bidzhan. One is Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, a puls­ing mem­o­ry of the pow­er of Yid­dish prose and pol­i­tics. The sec­ond is ter­ror. Gessen stress­es the impor­tance of a flight instinct”: the suit­case, packed, is always by the door.” Gessen’s moves — from the Sovi­et Union to the U.S. to Rus­sia and back — book­end the Biro­bidzhan sto­ry, becom­ing a con­tem­po­rary frame for the cycles of fear and hope of Russ­ian Jew­ry. Where the Jews Aren’t begins and ends with bags packed, ready for depar­ture. But how lucky we are that Gessen takes the suit­case by the door and opens it: a glimpse of what is being tak­en along, and what is left behind.

Discussion Questions