Where the jews aren’t-the sad and absurd story of Birobidzhan,Russias jewish autonomous region by Masha Gessen is just the kind of obscure book that I stumble across at the library and just have to read. Some things capture my imagination, immediately. But I’ve read Gessen before; notably her book about the Tsarevna brothers and thought that a well-written piece of reporting (though I wasn’t sure it was the whole story).
Birobidzhan meant nothing to me as I’m horrible with name but “Russia’s jewish autonomous region” rang a bell; I had read about it in passing in either Anya Von Bremen’s Mastering the art of Soviet cooking(or in one of her pieces about the cookbook she wrote about the food in Russia’s different autonomous regions, or in the actual cookbook) or in The possessed by Elif Batuman. If you have never heard about it that’s no surprise. It’s a story worth telling and Gessen does it well. A bit heavy on the details at times but as the books is around 150 pages it’s not an issue.
I had been to dozens of these small regional museums in the former Soviet Union, and I fancy myself something of a specialist in their many was of misapprehending history. All local museums begin with rocks. They are the ideal museum exhibit; rocks do not need to be rearranged in case of a regime shift. (p. 131)
Unlike the state of Birodidzhan that was rearranged many times. It started as a project, one of many, in the family of Soviet states, later became an enemy within according to Stalin, was so forgotten that they sent nazi-collaborateurs there from the Ukraine to punish them(with the awful climate; The Soviet union had then decided it was no longer a region full of jews, or didn’t care) but now there is a synagogue again, paid for my American Jews. Oy vei!
But its not about the actual place, it’s about the people who dreamed of it, worked to make it happen and ultimately were punished for their ideals. As were many people in the Soviet union I suppose. The point was to have a communist version of Israels, and one that didn’t invent a new identity and revive a dead language but let them be proud of who they already were and elevated yiddish to a national language. But what if there had been no Israel?
My interest in autonomous jewish regions isn’t new. One of my, let’s say 20, favorite books is The yiddish policemen’s union by Michael Chabon. It’s the story of a murder, a detective who has enough with his own problems, a partner that is opposite in almost everything, and a state in fervor as the contract is about to expire. As the negotiations for the creation of Israel have been basically put in a box, a large population are living in Sitka,Alaska but only until a certain date. As a crime story it has everything you didn’t know you wanted; an imagined version of what yiddish slang would sound like, some of the most unexpected heroes and villains and supposed sightings of the Messiah in the northern lights. Chabon likes Raymond Chandler and that’s the kind of thing we have here, it’s very much hommage to The big sleep. As Chabon point out in a interview, a detective is a great device in a story as they have the reason and authority to visit all layers of society and tie in the different perspectives.
The yiddish policemen’s union, also called The frozen chosen, is a book a warmly recommend, and it’s readily available. If you are going to read a book by Gessen, I suggest you don’t start with this unless you have a special interest.
A few things mentioned in this post;
The Tsarevna brothers by Masha Gesshen
The yiddish policemen’s union by Michael Chabon
Mastering the art of Soviet cooking