Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Where the Jews Aren’t

Being a Jew in Russia as a preteen, Masha Gessen had to begin her journey to find “home.” Was it Israel, as she suspected? Was it America, as her parents decided? Along the way, Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, discovered the story of Birobidzhan, the “autonomous Jewish state” beyond Siberia, that was going to offer the Jews of Russia their own homeland. And for 80 years it did, sort of, until it didn’t. This fascinating sliver of history, of a place with a Yiddish-language newspaper but no Yiddish speakers, animates Gessen’s Where the Jews Aren’t. But, despite Birobidzhan’s hopeful beginnings, it led to an age-old question: When should the Jews stay and when should they run? 

Our excerpt is the prologue to Where the Jews Aren’t. You can buy Gessen’s book at local booksellers and here and here.

AT THE AGE of twelve I sat on the floor and had what felt like the most important conversation of my life with my best friend, who was mostly silent. I sat on the floor because I had been ambushed by puberty and now towered over my friend when standing. He was the other Jewish kid on the block, so we had been inseparable for years. There used to be two other jewsarent2webJewish children our age living one block over, in another nine-story, twelve-entrance concrete apartment monolith. One of those kids had disappeared about a year earlier, and his friend, the other one, told us in a hushed, serious voice that the kid had emigrated to Israel.

I sat on the floor because doing so underscored the dramatic bareness of the room. The apartment had felt desolate and barely inhabited for the last six months, since my parents had shipped all our books to America. After filing our exit-visa application with the appropriate authorities, they had spent night after night at the kitchen table poring over two different world atlases, letters from friends who had emigrated long ago, and assorted magazines—choosing their destination, under the yellow light of a kitchen lamp, in the dark. Except for one recent trip to Poland, they had never been outside the Soviet Union; the world seemed too large and too silent for them to make a choice. Finally, citing friends, purported job opportunities, and a familiar climate, they settled on Boston—and shipped all our books there.

“This is crazy,” I said to my best friend. “Why leave one place where Jews are in a minority, only to go to another?” He listened uncomfortably. His parents had opted to stay in the Soviet Union. This choice had opened a chasm between us. My friend and I, our parents, the parents of the kids from the other block, all of our extended families going back for centuries—our people—had been engaged in an ongoing argument. When should the Jews stay put and when should the 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. If you get it wrong, you may pay with your life.

Before applying for an exit visa, my parents had spent six years arguing about emigration—in the way in which they argued: my mother cajoled my father, reasoned with him, and screamed at him, and he played stone stubborn. My mother argued that it was necessary for my future: if we stayed in the Soviet Union, I would not be admitted to university. In their preoccupation with my imaginary college career in the United States or the USSR, my parents were oblivious to the fact that in grade school I had been beaten almost daily for being Jewish and in middle school I was ostracized and feared, because I had learned to fight back. When I was eight, my brothers born and my parents turned to arguing about whether they had to emigrate for both of our futures. In 1978, when my brother was three and I was eleven, they made the call—and we all finally landed on one side of the debate. From here, the people who were staying looked lost. But I thought my parents were acting foolhardily, too; I was sure that the only place we could be safe was Israel.

Masha Gessen photo by Lee Towndrow

Author Masha Gessen. / Photo by Lee Towndrow.

I talked about this with my best friend and with my parents and with the friends I saw on Saturday nights in front of the synagogue in central Moscow. That was an unofficial Jewish youth hangout: we moved around in clumps, exchanging news and rumors on the state of everyone’s exit-visa application, then broke off to go to someone’s house to sit around singing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Once, following a Simchat Torah celebration in front of the synagogue—it was the one night of the year when we sang out in the street, in plain view of the police—I ran into the mother of the remaining Jewish boy from one block over. She and I took the subway home together, and on the way I talked to her about this.

Our conversation hovered over a very limited range of choices. There was the possibility of staying in the Soviet Union, an option that my parents had taught me to believe was irresponsible and immoral. We lived in a country where we were hated. Throughout my childhood, this hatred assumed the relatively benign form of consistent discrimination: Jews faced extreme hurdles gaining admission to universities and obtaining jobs; the study of Hebrew and most forms of Jewish communal life were criminalized. Who could tell when this daily hatred would again turn deadly for the Jews? There was the Israel option, which, for lack of any reliable information about that country—and in the presence of unrelenting anti-Zionist propaganda in the Soviet papers—was reserved for those brave enough to face utter uncertainty in the name of the cause. I believed myself to be one of these people, but my parents had other plans. There were the countries of the New World—the United States, Australia, and Canada—which granted asylum to Soviet Jews with relative ease and were considered an option for those who were not so idealistic as they were enterprising. My parents, two exceedingly shy intellectuals in their mid-thirties, were trying on this role. And then there was the Old World, whose geographic proximity and cultural luster made it the object of our dreams, but it was, as ever, off-limits: the countries of Western Europe were not giving out visas to Jews fleeing Russia.

Just two generations earlier—indeed, even a generation earlier, just after World War II—this conversation would have included one more option, one that had now receded to something between fantasy and a joke. Time was, it was spoken of with the same breathless hope with which my friends and I now spoke about Israel or Paris; it had seemed, to some, as logical a solution to the Jewish question as the United States or Canada. The place was called Birobidzhan. Founded in the 1930s, it was perhaps the worst good idea ever. It was born, as such ideas are, of a rational premise. It was, as such ideas are, deceptively simple. Why dream of a Jewish state? the logic went. Why conjure up utopias of inaccessible places, restored languages, of Jews creating their own military might? All the Jews really need, according to this thinking, is to be left alone, with their language and their culture, in the confines of their own home. A home should be familiar and well-protected—best when it is protected by the might and authority of an established state. The Soviet Union had taken the logic of autonomism—I wouldn’t learn that word for another several decades—and turned it into a haven and a nightmare.

At twelve, I knew nothing of autonomism, but I had an instinctive understanding of the argument—and a stubborn fixation on its radical opposite, Israel. “They might as well drag us to Birobidzhan,” I said bitterly, and this served, among other things, to dissipate the tension, allowing my best friend to relax slightly. For us, at the tail end of the 1970s, Birobidzhan was a comic aside to the conversation.

What did I know of it? One of my grandmothers, an inveterate traveler, had once brought home a Birobidzhan newspaper, picked up during a journey to the Soviet Far East. The newspaper was in indecipherable script, and my great-grandmother, the last surviving shtetl Jew in the family, identified the language as Yiddish. The study of Hebrew was illegal in the Soviet Union, and a newspaper that used the ancient Jewish alphabet (but was not in Hebrew) held, to me, the flavor of both a forbidden fruit and a mockery, very much like the land from which it came. I examined the newspaper closely, repeatedly, and fruitlessly, since I would never be able to learn what it said. I tried to imagine who might be in the business of printing a Yiddish-language newspaper in some faraway city, somewhere beyond Siberia. Were they young Jews like my friends and me? Some of us took Hebrew lessons, though my parents forbade me to, because they feared the teacher was an agent provocateur. Did any of them secretly rearrange the letters to make Hebrew words? Or were they men and women of my great-grandmother’s generation, urbanized Yiddish speakers from the shtetlach? My great-grandmother considered Yiddish to be something less than a language; she referred to it, with evident condescension, as “the jargon.” Or were they the Jews from Sholem Aleichem’s stories, preserved in their shtetl ways as miraculously as the language itself?

They were all of it, and they were nothing I could imagine. They were indeed urbanized former shtetl Jews, and they had indeed miraculously preserved some of the old ways. The people who put out the Birobidzhan Yiddish paper were old men (and one woman) then, but in their youth, in the 1930s, they had been very much like my friends and me, convinced that their mission in life was to find and secure the one place in the world that would make a true home for the Jews. They had been just as righteous, just as scared, and just as hopeful as we, the crowd of similarly overliterate and underinformed young people who gathered in front of the synagogue on Saturday nights. Half a century earlier, they had traveled to the end of the earth to build that home, and the story of the dissolution of their dream, in its cruel absurdity, can be read as the quintessence of the story of Jews in Russia.

It was a story no one could tell me when I was a child. The story of Russian Jewry had been told in English, by American Jews; to them, it was a story that began with antiquity, culminated with the pogroms, and ended with emigration. For those who remained in Russia, there had been a time before the pogroms and a time after: a period of hope, then a period of fear and even greater fear and then brief hope again, and then a different kind of fear, when one no longer feared for one’s life but feared never having hope again. This story did not end; it faded into a picture of my parents sitting at the kitchen table poring over an atlas of the world, or of me sitting on the bedroom floor talking at my best friend.

The history of the Soviet Union itself remains a story without a narrative; every attempt to tell this story in Russia has stopped short, giving way to the resolve to turn away from the decades of pain and suffering and bloodshed. With every telling, stories of Stalinism and the Second World War become more mythologized. And with so few Jews left in Russia, with so little uniting them, the Russian Jewish world is one of absences and silences.

I had no words for this when I was twelve, but what I felt more strongly than anything, more strongly even than the desire to go to Israel, was this absence of a story. My Jewishness consisted of the experience of being ostracized and beaten up and the specter of not being allowed into university. Once I found my people milling outside the synagogue (we never went inside, where old men in strange clothes sang in an unfamiliar language), a few old Yiddish songs and a couple of newer Hebrew ones were added to my non-story. Finally, I had read the stories of Sholem Aleichem, which were certainly of a different world, as distant from my modern urban Russian-speaking childhood as anything could be. In the end, my Jewish identity was entirely negative: it consisted of non-belonging.

How had I and other late-Soviet Jews been so impoverished? Prior to the Russian Revolution, most of the world’s Jews lived in the Russian Empire. Following the Second World War, Russia was the only European country whose Jewish population numbered not in the hundreds or even thousands but in the millions. How did this country rid itself of Jewish culture altogether? How did the Jews of Russia lose their home? Much later, as I tried to find the answers to these questions, I kept circling back to the story of Birobidzhan, which, in its concentrated tragic absurdity, seemed to tell it all.

The Bolshevik state, born in October 1917, was to be international in spirit and national in structure. The Russian Empire would be reconstituted as a federation of national autonomies—a Jewish autonomy one among many, for the Jews, after centuries of discrimination and decades of pogroms, would finally be treated like any other ethnic group. After a series of false starts, ground for the Jewish Autonomous Region was broken in the Far East, near the border with China.

Over the next eighty years, Birobidzhan would hold a cracked and crooked mirror up to the story of the Jews in Russia. Anti-Semitic purges would be magnified; gains in Jewish identity fostered by the formation and persistence of Israel would be minimized. In the end, Birobidzhan would be, nominally, one of the world’s two Jewish states—the one where the Jews did not live. It would go through all the stages of failed state-building: from hope to hardship to pain and fear to loss and emptiness, until it seemed, finally, ridiculous. It would be a place with a Yiddish-language newspaper and no Yiddish-speaking residents.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, tens of thousands of Jews moved to Birobidzhan, chased from the shtetlach by poverty, hunger, and fear. They were enticed to come, greeted upon arrival, and written about breathlessly by a small group of intellectuals who envisioned building a country like no other: a home forged by the Jews for the Jews, a place where the Jews worked the land, a place where the Jews had nothing to fear but the cruel climate and the Siberian tiger. They envisioned turning Yiddish, the “jargon” of their households, into the universal language of secular Judaism, the language of literature, theater, and education that would form the basis of a twentieth-century, post-oppression Jewish culture. What had been the language of Jewish poverty was to become the language of their poetry, and half a dozen young poets toiled to make it so. In the 1930s, Yiddish was, briefly, the unofficial state language of Birobidzhan. The short period of state-building ended in the mid-1930s with arrests and purges of the Communist Party and the cultural elite. The Yiddish theater was shut down; the young Yiddish poets were de-published. The Birobidzhan project went silent.

Hope, crippled by tragedy but still alive, reasserted itself in Birobidzhan after the Second World War, when the Jewish Autonomous Region, as it was now called, received a new influx of Jews. Once again, these were the hungry, the maimed, and the dispossessed from what had once been the Pale of Settlement, the part of the Russian Empire where Jews could legally settle. Most of them had lost their families in the Holocaust. They had no one and no place to return to. If they held any hope for building a home in Birobidzhan, it was hope of the desperate sort.

Another wave of arrests swept through Birobidzhan in the late 1940s, taking the middle-aged Yiddish-language poets to prison and frightening the rest of the Jews into silence. The poets returned to Birobidzhan almost ten years later, frail old men (and one woman). It was they who, in the late 1970s, were publishing the Soviet Union’s only Yiddish-language newspaper. Their readership was dwindling by the day as the last of Europe’s Yiddish speakers were dying of old age in the center of Asia. Most of them were still too frightened to speak Yiddish in public, or to tell their children that being Jewish had once meant something.

As the last of the poets died, in the late 1980s, the memory of the dream that never came to be in Birobidzhan lived on only in their writing—and in the memory of a man who had been the one young editor at the Birobidzhan newspaper back when I, a preteen in Moscow, was staring at the printed words in Yiddish. The man, it seems, was the sole young person in Birobidzhan who wanted to find out what dream it was he was supposed to be living. The only son of a war widow, he had taught himself Yiddish at the age of seventeen, becoming one of the youngest people in his part of the world to speak the dying language.

The man lives in Jerusalem now; he left Russia in 1990, chased by the ghost of his ancestors’ dreams. My childhood best friend left Russia around the same time; he currently divides his time between New York and Tokyo. Not even the Hebrew teacher whom my parents suspected of being a KGB agent provocateur lives in Moscow now: he was granted his exit visa around the same time as my family, and he moved to Boston—as did we. I myself spent time in Israel but never stayed; I lived in the United States until I was in my mid-twenties, then returned to Moscow—first as an American reporter, an outsider, but gradually turning native again. When I wrote the first draft of this book, in 2010, I was raising two children in Russia, a country whose Jewish culture had been virtually erased, and on occasion I wondered if I was making a mistake. The virulent anti-Semitism I remembered from my childhood was gone, but occasionally a relatively benign expression of it would make me wonder just how far below the surface the danger had gone, and I felt the fear creeping up in me. The questions of the generations of Jews before me, including my parents, came back to haunt me. When should the Jews stay put and when should the 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?

At twelve, I longed desperately to know where my true home might be. Thirty years later, I was apparently free to choose my own destination, and far better versed in the physical ways of the world. Yet I remained suspended in mistrust, hedging my geographical bets like so many generations of Jews before me. In part in an attempt to understand or at least describe this state, I set out to write a book about Birobidzhan.

In December 2013, I found myself sitting on the floor in the study of my Moscow apartment. The room was nearly empty, the bookshelves were barren, and the last of the guests at our going-away party were still drinking in the kitchen, even after my partner and two of our three kids had gone to sleep on the one remaining mattress on the floor in our bedroom. Our plane to New York would leave in a few hours. Just months earlier, we had decided that it was time to run; waiting any longer would put our family in danger. This time, the choice did not have to do with being Jewish: the Kremlin had unleashed a campaign against gays, and my partner and I happened to be that, too. The parliament was discussing ways to remove children from LGBT families. The threat seemed alternately far-fetched and immediate, but the risk, we decided, was unacceptable in either case.

I sat on the floor, hoping that my absence from the living room would compel the stragglers to leave. I looked down at the molding, where the wall met the floor—it was painted light blue, and the radiator was dark blue, and this had been done in accordance with my sketches. The tears came then, and this was the first time in my life’s many moves—from the Soviet Union to the United States, then back to Russia, now back to America—that I cried for what had been my home.

A few months later, in New York, I returned to working on this book, which is about Birobidzhan, the concept of home, and knowing when to leave.

—Masha Gessen

Excerpted from Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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