L'Chayim Comrade Stalin
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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
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 leitmotif.)
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.
It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote,
mosquito-infested region that was closer to
At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish
settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural
The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only
the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts
in my own
Although the economic changes in the post-Communist
I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.
Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.
Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe," there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the "Mountain Jews", about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.
From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:
Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.
Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain
Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of
chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food
was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There
are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in
Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: "As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham's practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would... lavish on them the finest foods and spirits...." (p. 165-166)
Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were "many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews" (p. 167). Furthermore: "The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers..." (p. 168).
Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were "skilled horsemen and
expert marksmen" (Blady, p. 166). They loved
horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and
owned many weapons (especially daggers).
Dress.Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the
Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a "house of kindness and charity" which helped poor and sick people.
This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.
These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom's first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.
Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/