WSJ: Rabbi Brings Kosher to Birobidzhan, Stalin’s Siberian ‘Zion’

Photo: eJP archives

By Staff

There’s only one place in the world where Yiddish is an official language, and that’s the Jewish Autonomous Region in the far reaches of Siberia, Russia. Established by Stalin in the late 1920s, the region was presented as the Communist answer to the Jewish Question. But in the region’s capital of Birobidzhan, The Wall Street Journal reports, the top concern of its 3,000 Jews is kosher food.

“When [Chabad-Lubavitch] Rabbi Eli Riss flies from Moscow to his home near the Russia-China border, he carries three full suitcases. One contains clothes, the others kosher steaks and cheese,” writes Amie Ferris-Rotman in the Journal.

“There is no open anti-Semitism in the region,” she reports the 26-year-old rabbi telling her. “At night, traditional Jewish Klezmer music plays from the city’s loudspeakers.”

But the 5,000 miles between Birobidzhan and Moscow – and the other Jewish centers of Russia – means that obtaining kosher food for the region’s Jews can be a logistical nightmare.

“So Rabbi Riss, a Birobidzhan native who grew up in Moscow and Israel, has embarked on a mission to ship in kosher food by rail and help start a kosher shop for his tiny region, where he returned as chief rabbi in 2012,” reports Ferris-Rotman. The synagogue led by Riss “is waiting to hear if its application to local authorities for a kosher food shop is successful.”

“Under the rabbi’s plan, frozen kosher goods such as beefsteaks and sour cream will travel in bulk to Birobidzhan from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“From the meat factory, it will take 21 days for the kosher food to reach Birobidzhan’s train station, which features Hebrew letters and a large menorah fountain out front.”

Riss and his wife, Anna, are among a growing number of locally-born Chabad emissaries in the former Soviet Union, young men and women who have returned to lead the communities they grew up in.

Rejecting the “bourgeoisie nationalism” of the Zionist movement – with its focus on the land of Israel – the Soviet government pushed this remote section of Siberia on the Chinese border as an alternative Zion, where working Jews from all over the world could freely settle and make an honest living working the land. Significant efforts to popularize the idea among Jews were expended by the government in the early 1930s, with celebrated Jewish writers and poets such as David Bergelson and Peretz Markish enlisted to glorify the harsh, frozen land.

It didn’t catch on for various reasons – its remoteness and harsh climate among them – and even among those Jews who did try to settle there, large numbers left a short time later. Jews who championed the scheme on Stalin’s behalf, Bergelson and Markish among them, were later executed.

Closer to the capital of China than to Russia’s, Ferris-Rotman writes that “Beijing’s influence is evident in Birobidzhan, where Chinese-language signs compete with Yiddish.”