Monday, August 21, 2006

There are some things you don't expect.

Thanks to this blogger, I happ'd upon something I knew nothing about. Of course, there's plenty I know nothing about, but when I come across Jewish history bits that I don't know about, it's especially exciting. Sort of like the time I came across General Grant's expulsion of the Jews or when I discovered some fellow was literally buying Jews to save them from persecution. So what is it this time, you ask? Well, it's the Jewish Autonomous (Oblast) Region in Russia.

Yes, we have a homeland in Russia (with Siberian weather) most of us neither knew or know about. The capital is Birobidzhan and the oblast has about 200,000 people living in about 13,800 square miles. It's in far east Russia in the Khabarovsk Territory. It was formed in 1928 to give Soviet Jews a "home territory" and to increase settlement along vulneratble borders of the Soviet Far East. Additionally, it was an "ideological alternative" to the Zionist's idea for a Jewish state in the historic "homeland." The area became autonomous in 1934. The Jewish population peaked in 1948 at about 30,000, or 1/4 of the total population. If you want to read about the history, please click here. There's also a movie about the area and its history, called "L'Chayim, Comrad Stalin." And a evidently a Washington Post reporter ventured to Russia and blogged about it late last year.

But a little summary for you: Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, 41,000 Soviet Jews relocated here. Some were fleeing persecution and famine in western Russia and Ukraine, and others were drawn by promises of free rail travel and 600 rubles per "settler" (sounds like the great land movement in the U.S., no?). But many of them left almost as soon as they got there -- by 1938, 28,000 had fled the region’s harsh conditions. In the late 1930s the "program" of the oblast was ceased, and Jewish leaders were thrown into jail and executed. Yiddish schools were closed and it was general death of the culture. At the end of the war, though, many of the programs were restarted and the Jewish population existed as such.

There is an official Web site for the autonomous region found here. Part of me wonders how the Orthodox community would feel about the flag of the JAR. It is, as you can see, a beautiful flag of many colors. It almost looks like, well, a PRIDE flag. Today, the JAR is an independent subject, with its own governing body, etc. Despite some still-alive Yiddish influences (including a Yiddish newspaper), Jewish cultural activity is pretty much nil (since Stalin's anticosmopolitanism campaigns and the mass liberalizatoin of Jewish emigration in the 1970s). Jews now make up less than 2 percent of the region's population. But check out their gorgeous shul (with an Israeli rabbi, even) and there is a Jewish school there with 600 students. According to the Washington Post reporter, there's been an upswing in Jewish participation in recent years.

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that Jews are literally in EVERY corner of the world. Argentina, the U.S., Siberian landscapes of Russia, Japan ... what about Iceland? I wonder if there are Jews in Iceland. Where have we not touched with our prayers and morning rising?

I love discovering these tiny bits of history. Small places we've been hidden or have hidden ourselves. It gives me pride and comfort.

Am Yisrael Chai!