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A Promised Land in the U.S.S.R.

Masha Gessen's book about a failed Soviet experiment asks searching questions about Jewish identity.

Alexey "Lifewatch" / Wikimedia Commons

The twentieth century did not bring an end to Jewish wandering. I’m a case in point: All four of my grandparents, originally from Poland, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. There my parents were born. But the socialist ethos of Israel in its early years did not sit well with my paternal grandfather, and he did not feel safe there. He had seen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the gas chambers of Majdanek. And having sent two of his sons to the Israeli army, he was not eager to send another two. His attachment to a Jewish state was strong, but his survival instinct was stronger. My grandfather continued to wander, looking for the safest place for his family to remain Jewish, moving to Los Angeles well into the middle of his life, where he started a factory in East L.A., and where I was born.

Jewish Encounters Series, 192 pp., $25

The idea of Israel as the glorious culmination of Jewish history has left these alternate endings in the shadows. But other notions of Jewish home and Jewish survival have always jostled against Zionism, both before there was a state and long after. At the end of the nineteenth century, as Jews and anti-Semites alike grew obsessed with the “Jewish problem,” debates and sub-debates proliferated about what a solution should look like. The Jews needed their own place? Fine. But did that place need to have its own political and military power? Did it need to be in Palestine? Was it reasonable or desirable to imagine a fantastical return to the glories of the temple period and the rebirth of an ancient language?

Cultural autonomy emerged as the levelheaded answer. If the Jews had an opportunity to build and flourish together as a people while still under the protection of a beneficent state—a place to speak their uniquely diasporic language, Yiddish—this would free them both from anti-Semitism and the quickly accelerating forces of assimilation.

It is no small historical irony that it was the tyrant Joseph Stalin who first took a stab at realizing this idea when, in the late 1920s, he created Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region in the far off, godforsaken eastern borderlands of his empire. It should be quickly said though that he also proved just how untenable such an experiment could be. Or, as Masha Gessen puts it, this home for the Jews, both “a haven and a nightmare,” was the “worst good idea ever.”

Her new book, Where the Jews Aren’t, is an attempt to grapple with this very different kind of Promised Land. It’s a slim book. And Gessen is not so concerned with the lived reality of Birobidzhan, with its unforgiving landscape festering with giant mosquitos; it’s what the place represented that interests her, how it attempted to answer a set of questions that have bedeviled Jews for the past two thousand years: “When should Jews stay put and when should Jews run? How do we know where we will be safe? Does departure ever signal cowardice? Can the failure to leave be a betrayal of life itself? There is only one right answer to any given question at any given time, and how can I tell when the time has come to know the difference?”

Though now it’s little more than the butt of a joke, a ridiculous artifact of Soviet kitsch—a place that once had Yiddish newspapers but no Yiddish speakers—Birobidzhan was, for some, a fantasy fulfilled. It was an answer to these existential questions.

Plans for Birobidzhan began with a 1927 report by agronomists about the viability of settling Jews in an underpopulated region on the border of contested Manchuria, defined by the rivers Bira and Bidzhan. The short answer was no, this swampland was not a place that would be amenable to agriculture. The weather was extreme. The terrain rocky and hard to traverse. The bloodsucking insects “evil.” Not to mention the local population, which was far from enthused about an influx of Jews.

The Soviet government, not averse to creating its own reality, ignored all the recommendations and the first trainload of settlers soon arrived in April 1928, 504 families and 150 individuals. They found almost nothing for them there—no electricity, no running water, no paved roads. It is safe to assume, Gessen writes, that those who stayed were either refugees from pogroms and simply had no other home or had no money for a return ticket. They started a couple of collective farms, supported in part by American Jewish donations, but out of the hundreds of settlers only a handful had ever worked the land. And in Birobidzhan they dealt with terrible conditions. That first summer of 1928 they were hit with torrential rains that ruined their crops, followed by a winter of hunger and isolation.

For Gessen, the best way to understand the promise of cultural autonomy, is through the men who took it seriously. The two thinkers she focuses on—Simon Dubnow, the great Jewish historian, and the Yiddish writer, David Bergelson—also, tellingly, happened to end up with bullets in their heads.

Dubnow was born in a shtetl in what is now Belarus and lived in Odessa, St. Petersburg, and Berlin before finally being cornered by the Nazis in Riga, where he was murdered at the age of 81, along with most of the Jewish community there. In his writing, he had argued that what made Jews special as a people, what should be preserved, is their status as a nationality without an actual nation. Jews were a “cultural-historical” kind of nation, he wrote in one of his “Letters on Old and New Judaism,” published around the turn of the 20th century. “Deprived of any possibility of aspiring to political triumphs, of seizing territory by force or of subjecting other nations to cultural domination (language, religion, and education),” the Jewish people “is concerned with only one thing: protecting its individuality and safeguarding its autonomous development in all states everywhere in the Diaspora.”

Jews were unique, in other words, not because of their religion, but because they had poured their collective energy into creating and maintaining a culture for themselves. Dubnow thought the Zionists were wrongheaded for pushing the Jews to be a nation like all nations. Power would corrode their purer pursuit. And assimilationists, on the other hand, were committing “national suicide” by giving up their cultural birthright. What he aspired to was the sweet spot of securing national rights while also having the protection and privileges of full citizenship.

This happened to be the essence of the Birobidzhan idea. The Bolsheviks’ nationality policy, as articulated by Stalin in the early 1920s, envisioned the Soviet Union as a conglomeration of ethnic and cultural entities. Each of these groups would have a piece of autonomy while also being subject to the greater Communist enterprise.

If Dubnow was an intellectual precursor who dreamed of something like a Birobidzhan before it even existed, the man who came to place the greatest hope in the success of this actual muddy homeland was Bergelson, a now mostly forgotten figure. Gessen’s book is as much a biography of him as it is of Birobidzhan. Like Dubnow, he was born in a shtetl and spent much of his life wandering and trying to guess where best a Jew could stay alive. He bounced from Warsaw to Vilna to Kiev, was swept up by the Bolshevik Revolution, but then abruptly left the new Soviet Union for Berlin in 1921.

His real home, though, was Yiddish. After first trying to write in Hebrew and Russian, he fell in love with the home language of his youth and saw it as the perfect medium for his Chekhovian stories about shtetl life. Jewish identity for him was this secular Yiddish culture. He too sought some refuge between the Zionist fantasists who wanted a brand new Jewish culture and those would easily abandon their Jewish identity altogether, like Soviet Jews after the revolution, who, he accused in 1923 of “scratching off their own Jewishness until blood starts to run.”

When he took his first long trip to the Soviet Jewish region in 1932, Bergelson found the ramshackle settlement, just reeling from a terrible flood, still without sidewalks, and not much improved from those first years. And yet, there were six Yiddish-language schools. There was a Yiddish-language newspaper, and a printing plant under production. The language lived and thrived there, and to Bergelson this was as important as the physical land.

Bergelson produced reams of propaganda to sing its praises, which coincidentally, kept him and his family in the Politburo’s good graces. In January 1935, he published a manifesto in which he declared, “In Birobidzhan, I will help build a glorious Jewish culture, socialist in form and national in content…” The following year, Bergelson intimated that he would be moving to the Jewish Autonomous Region. He had already completed a social realist novel, “Birobidzhaner,” about the pioneers who drained the swamps and made the taiga bloom.

This was the high point in Birobidzhan’s existence. The region had in Bergelson a kind of Yiddish noble lord and protector and for the first time, in 1935, almost all of the 8,000 settlers who arrived stayed (the year before, nearly half had returned). But, like everything in the Soviet Union, survival was ultimately dependent on Stalin’s whims. And by the late 1930s, he had grown suspicious of the nationalism and autonomy he had granted the many ethnic groups of the Soviet Union. Overnight, the nationalities policy changed and the Great Terror arrived. Lazar Kaganovich, the most powerful Jewish official in the empire had been greeted victoriously in 1936 when he visited Birobidzhan. By the next year his hosts were accused of having tried to kill him with poisoned gefilte fish.

Any expression of cultural activism, of particularism of any sort, was now seen as treasonous, evidence of “nationalist tendencies.” The death of Birobidzhan was slightly slowed down during the war and Bergelson himself was part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a state-sanctioned group of prominent Jews organized to rally support and funds by appealing to world Jewry. But this did not stop the suspicion of all things Jewish and Yiddish. If anything, Bergelson’s work during the war, heartfelt appeals to “we, Jews,” who “will be the first to be thrown into the fire,” made him look even more nationalist in his allegiances.

The knock on the door in the middle of the night came in 1949. Bergelson, along with other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, were imprisoned and tortured for the next three years as the absurd Soviet legal process unfolded, producing 42 thick binders of proof that he and his co-conspirators had tried to “awaken among the Jewish population the desire for nationalist separation.” This was, of course, precisely what they had been instructed to do by the state years before.

The same reversal happened in Birobidzhan itself. It became dangerous to speak Yiddish. And in perhaps the greatest and saddest irony of all, in 1949, the Sholem Aleichem Library of the Jewish Autonomous Region staged a book burning to destroy every Yiddish-language book that had been found in the region. That same year only 63 houses were constructed out of 755 that had been planned. By 1950, Gessen writes, Birobidzhan was “a shadow of the illusion it had once been.”

As for Bergelson, he was brought down to the basement of the Lubyanka Prison on the night of August 12, 1952, along with 12 other defendants, leading lights of the Yiddish literary world, and shot. With him died the promise of a culturally autonomous and secular Jewish existence in the Soviet Union.

The story of Birobidzhan resonates for Gessen because, born in Moscow in 1967, she grew up in a Soviet Union in which this dream had long been immolated and Jewishness was only a negative signifier—the school she could not attend, the job she could never have, the experience, she says, of “non-belonging.” When her family decided to try and emigrate in the 1970s, she was thrust back into the same thinking about Jewish options that dominated the lives of Dubnow and Bergelson. There was Israel, an ideologically pure choice that appealed to her twelve-year-old self, and the West, which offered the possibility of normalcy, of no longer identifying as different, disappearing, and which appealed to her parents.

What she no longer had, the option that does not exist today, is Birobidzhan. The actual place, the experiment, was a mess. And on a visit in 2009, Gessen found that its Jewish character had long ago been trampled out of existence. Birobidzhan clearly teaches us not to count on dictators for autonomy. What they give, they can take away. It is a lesson that contains in it the rationale for Zionism, and a pretty convincing one.

Gessen doesn’t arrive at this conclusion herself, probably because, like many Jews, she prefers to inhabit a kind of Birobidzhan of the mind—a Jewish identity that resembles nationalism but with an allegiance not to flag or army but to culture and language, not to religion as faith but as the bearer of a long written tradition of thought and disputation and storytelling.

There is no Jewish home for that identity today. Instead there’s Israel, which doesn’t feel particularly secure—and, as Dubnow might observe, has exacted a heavy moral price for having a Jewish army. There is the United States, where Jewish identity is increasingly a stark choice between the religious ghettos of the Orthodox or erasure and melting into America. Why wouldn’t the impossible dream of cultural autonomy look attractive? How can we understand the limited choices offered by reality, after all, if we don’t have fantasies like Birobidzhan to measure them against?