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.
“I don’t blame foreign journalists, even our own native journalists suffer from this,” Ms. Sarashevskaya said, sitting in her office on Lenin Street. “They say, ‘Stalin’s experiment, the Birobidzhan Project, failed’ — these are the clichés they use — and honestly it’s annoying already. By God, we are talking about living people, you understand. And it’s not for them to judge. History turned out this way and made all this possible. At least the Jews who came here survived the Holocaust. This place saved many lives.”
Of course, some survived the Nazis only to die by the thousands under Stalin. But if coaxing Russia’s Jews virtually to the end of the land always had the feeling of a cruel joke, the comrades in the Kremlin could hardly have predicted the punch line.
Unlike other places contemplated for Jewish resettlement over the years, like Uganda or Alaska or Japan, Birobidzhan, (pronounced bi-ra-bi-JAN) cannot be written off as a historical footnote or dismissed as fiction. Though it never became the agrarian, socialist-Jewish utopia that some founders envisioned, Birobidzhan remains a Jewish place.
The old synagogue, a ramshackle, one-story wooden house, is still functioning, after closing briefly in the mid-1990s. A new synagogue, financed by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, has been built in the center of downtown, along with a Jewish community center. Sholem Aleichem Street remains the main road, and a statue of the Fiddler on the Roof still greets concertgoers outside the symphony hall.
No doubt, the Jewish population has dropped, to less than 7 percent of the 76,000 people who live in Birobidzhan, and less than 2 percent in the wider region. Very few are religious.
But some Jews who left for Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union have returned — tugged home even from the Promised Land, which still cannot promise peace or tranquillity.
On the same weekend last month, Birobidzhan celebrated Rosh Hashana and the city’s 75th anniversary. Visitors arrive by train, a stop on the Trans-Siberian, to see the city’s name written in huge Yiddish letters. One local elementary school still teaches Yiddish.
“For me Birobidzhan was a shock, because I was born in Yiddish civilization,” said Marek Halter, the French-Jewish novelist, who was so struck by the place when he visited in 2011 that he made a documentary film, “Birobidzhan, Birobidzhan,” and wrote a novel set in the city. “It was like Jurassic Park.”
Among the Jews to return to Birobidzhan from Israel is Gershon Riss, whose son, Eliyahu, 22, is now the rabbi of the new synagogue.“
In 2004, after a long absence, we came here for vacation,” Mr. Riss said. “We saw new buildings, a new, beautiful synagogue and the revival of the Jewish culture.”
As a boy, Mr. Riss recalled going to the Yiddish theater with his father, to see productions like “Tevye the Milkman,” by Sholem Aleichem, and “The Witch,” by Abraham Goldfaden.
Officials recently announced that they had allocated land for the city’s first mosque. At the ceremony, Roman Leder, a Jewish leader, gave the local imam a copy of the Old Testament.
Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, said in an interview in Moscow that Stalin’s goal was to exile Russia’s Jews to where “they wouldn’t be able to do much harm.” Historians say another goal was to use the Jews as a buffer between Russia and China.
As a result, Rabbi Lazar said, Birobidzhan was never really a homeland. “Is it any more Jewish than any other area of Russia? Surely not,” he said. “He took the Jewish soul out of the Jewish people.”
But while Jewish imagery is rare in Moscow or St. Petersburg, Birobidzhan revels in it. Even signs in Russian often use a Hebraic calligraphy. Such pride was not always in evidence.
“There were times when we were young when it was not very convenient to be Jewish, it was even dangerous,” said Vilen I. Arnapolin, who, on Dec. 24, 1937, became the very first baby recorded in the city’s birth records. “Now everybody wants to be Jewish.”
But to say a renaissance is under way would be going too far.
Mr. Arnapolin’s daughter and two grandchildren have assimilated and are listed as Russian, not Jewish, in their passports. His granddaughter, Vlada Yakshina, 18, is studying not Yiddish but Chinese.
There is no kosher supermarket or restaurant — only a Chinese chef named Van Bao-lin, who goes by Kolya, serves up the occasional schnitzel and delights in toasting guests at his restaurant with a hearty “L’Chaim!”
The religious, meanwhile, are surviving as best they can.
Mr. Zasorin, who rejoined the synagogue his grandmother attended when he was a boy, leads an aging congregation, called Beit T’Shuvah — House of Redemption — that often cannot muster the 10 men required for a prayer group. The rabbi of the new synagogue, Eliyahu Riss, is hoping its Sunday school will engage a new generation.
Riva Khaskelevna Shmain, a founding Birobidzhaner who recently celebrated her 78th birthday, said she has hope for the future. “There is a Jewish kindergarten,” she said. “So I think all this will continue.”
Ms. Sarashevskaya, the editor, said those who declared Stalin’s experiment a failure missed the point. “Of course, this is not Israel,” Ms. Sarashevskaya said. “But that was not the goal. The Jewish Autonomous Region is wonderful as it is. This is a quiet, tranquil and cozy place, good for married couples, elderly people and children.” She added, “This is a Jewish place.