Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Birobidzhan: "Shulem, Friends!

Elul 20th, 5767 corresponds to the generally accepted calendar date of September 3rd, 2007. The Eastern Orthodox Churches started the new liturgical (cycle of prayers) year and thus they are, in the West on September 3rd, 7516 (of the creation) that will be celebrated on September 14th, 7516 in the Church of Jerusalem, Russia and other Julian Eastern Orthodox calendars. There is a significant difference between the Jewish traditional year of the creation of the universe and the Christian Orthodox year of the foundation of the worlds. Calendars are definitively PG / parental guidance and not U / universal and we do behave as naughty kids towards Our Father Who is in heaven / Avinu shebashamayim.

Canada celebrates Labour Day on September 3rd. A sort of prior-to-Thanksgiving Day that starts on October 8th, 2007 in Canada while the United States will have their Thanksgiving on November 22nd, 2007. This is due to the period of harvesting in the different regions. But Labour Day in Canada on 09/03 has been instituted on the first Monday in September since the 1880s. Something that unexpectedly matches with the first Aliyah to Eretz Israel or with the overwhelming violence of the pogroms organized against the proletarian shtetl-Jewish village in the czarist Russian Empire.

The proletarians were mostly needy people as were the Ukrainians who fled to Canada by the same time and settled in the Western Provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. Nothing to do with the 09/03 institution of a Labour Day. Interestingly, the 1880s were years of fighting for civil rights almost everywhere in the Western civilization.

By that time, Toronto appeared to be very advanced in this struggle to get more social and economic justice in the laws governing the general respect of the workers and condition of work. Merely a dream if compared to some wealthy States and moguls. But, the Toronto printers got to their 54-hour work per week and the day was adopted in Canada in 1894 although the socialists (our Bundists to some extent) chose May 1st as the official international Labour Day. Still, the Anglos had to do that their way and the point is that in North America, this corresponds to the time when leaves fall from trees; harvest collects the late crops... The falling of leaves = Fall or Autumn” and Yiddish sings the hit: "'s fal'n di bleter - Leaves are falling", the French best "Les Feuilles mortes" written by the poet Jacques Prevert. There is a touch of French nostalgia, Slavic spleen, Germanic Sehnsucht and Yiddish “miltz un benkshaft”. It is sweet, cute, kind; Hebrew: “dikayon or dichduch” (spleen) or "gagu'im" that are slightly weirder and whirling.

Autumn! We shall soon have the Autumnal Feasts of Rosh HaShanah and Yamim Nora'im, the Day of awe. Nu-u-u, what? I suddenly got aware that the Jewish workers celebrate these days the 70th anniversary of the former Jewish Autonomous Region (in Siberia), namely the seventieth year of the full official recognition of what is today the “Republic” of Birobidzhan, the ever-Jewish autonomous region by the rivers of Amur on the Chinese border. Is it a birthday or a yohrtsayt (anniversary of departed)? Or the departure for a far-reaching envisioned prospect of acting Israeli development in Asia amidst a mixer of blended Russian, Ukrainian, Mongolian, Chinese, Manchu, Jewish descents flavored with some Yiddish if not rebirth of Yiddishkayt / Jewishness.

“Ich habe einen Traum = chalom chalamti (Berachot 55b) = I have a dream”, said the Viennese birth-giving founder Benyamin Zvi Theodor Herzl born in Budapest at the sight of the Dreyfus affair and condemnation. From Basle to Zichron Yaakov, the Ashkenazi Jews erred throughout Her Majesty’s Empire and Commonwealth before the Jewish Congress got the Balfour Declaration allowing the return of the Jews to Zion and Jerusalem.

We were about to toil in Uganda, down the Darfur at that time. On that same year, the Bolshevik Revolution, broke out and remodeled the czarist Russian Empire into a sort on union of comrades. Byelorussia (Belarus) became a haven of creation for the future kibbutzim in Palestine. Some elements of the large Jewish settlements and intelligentsia actively participated in the godless deployment of a fraternal and messianic brave new world of friendship.

Thus, Stalin had his own dream about the Jews and he is the only State builder who donated a piece of land to the Jewish comrades as full members of the communist collectivity. We hardly can say that he presented – hmm? - conferred, or even conceded Birobidzhan to the Jewish “nation”. At this point, it should be noted that both Israel and Birobidzhan (ca. 36,000 sq km) miss exact total surfaces. Stalin, as most leaders of the world from Pharaoh till now, could find the Jews useful at times. Frankly, he would not confess any love toward them. So he created, in 1928, the “Jewish Autonomous Region/Oblast – Yid. Di Yiddishe Avtonome Geg’nt” by the Siberian rivers of the Amur (actually not “love” but “Black River” in Mongolian) along its two tributaries “Bira and Bidzhan”. It is so strange that the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon…) made us weep along two rivers in the Siberian Far East! Maybe some remembrance of Biro Sava = Beer Sheva, where Abraham’s story started?... The official languages are Yiddish and Russian, or vice versa. Some legal status updates happened in 1934 and then it became “full-autonomous” in 1937, i.e. seventy years ago. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, it recently redeployed its activities.

This “inspired if not inspiriting” project sought to gather in all the workers of the Jewish nation inside the Soviet Union. Jewish hard-working labor force and toiling cosmopolitan manpower were encouraged to settle in this remote non-cleared virgin and wild area in order to thaw out the land and somehow get frozen there…A taste of Hirsh Glick’s “Zog nit kaynmol = Never say you are going on your last way”, the song of the Partisan. Yiddish was reformatted with Hebrew letters that removed any trace of traditional TaNaKh and Talmud spelling. It was really a dream that lined with the traditional “von ot siuda – get away from us, you Jews” to flicker with the flame of the Jewish toiling workers’ bravery and international chevurah / fraternity that had been launched in 1925 in Belarus.

Still, please do note that this assignment of the Jews corresponded, in the fundamentals of the Soviet spirit, to the laws governing the Union. Each nation had the right to enjoy some land allotment, a homeland. Stalin is the only politician who, with the Soviet communist regime, decided to apportion a tiny and apparently ridiculous part of the “empire” to the Jews and thus founded some kind of Jewish “country, home if not State”. Irrationality met with extravagant right. In comparison, the Mormons were chased, hounded down till they settled in Utah. No Canadian province, United States, European, African or Asian authority has ever proposed the creation of a “Free republic and haven for the Jews”.

There is a spiritual curiosity: in czarist Russia as under the communist Soviets, each inhabitant of the immense territory belonged to a “nation” and, subsequently, was a citizen of the former USSR. We have the same in Israel. There are firstly the “Jewish (national” and then the “Nations”. The Eastern Orthodox Church seemingly reflects identities according to “ethnicities”.

We can say that, though it sounds a bit bizarre, Israel was created as the State of the Jews according to the paradox of a divine concession memorized and kept living in the Scriptures. When our “nuke-oriented” Persian neighbor suggests that each European country should be ready to give asylum to Israeli refugees, he quietly can make such a statement because no European or other nation ever thought of giving some alms of land ownership to a Jewish autonomous or self-governed region. On the other hand, Eastern Europe and Oriental Christianity are undisputedly linked by their faith that, in principle, unites the faithful beyond their ethnicity which constitutes an important and positive element.

The Soviet communist system also dreamed of uniting all the hard-working proletarians. Of course, the Jews did not get the cream of the crops: I met quite a lot of strong-minded former communist and international Labor activists who settled there and sometimes showed up unexpectedly in Europe and Israel. Along the Bira lived some sorts of “fayne biryes = nice, well-educated creatures (Yid.)”, i.e. either real spiritual characters or stiff-necked lost people, as the Polish Jews say. From the 2nd to the 15th of September – with the exception of 09/03! – Birobidzhan celebrates its 70th anniversary with many events scheduled at Sholom-Aleichem Street (City Palace of Culture). It begins with a memorial of the end of World War II and then different meetings: a chess tournament, a festival of Jewish and Yiddish movies (“I love you, Birobidzhan”), dances, with the participation of different ethnics: Ukrainians from Kharkiv and Chinese, Mongolian living in the neighboring areas.

Since 1991, there are astounding development of the Yiddish language and cultural life although the major part of the country had always been non-Jewish – quite an extraordinary situation of paradoxes. There is a rebirth of Judaism, synagogues and an Israeli rabbi lives in the country with his big family. This takes place not so far from this remote “end of Europe”, eh yes, Birobidzhan is part of the Russian Federation and thus reaches out to the border of Europe that falls down the harbor of Vladivostok. I met in Jerusalem a Christian God-seeker who had traveled from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok with two priests – one Orthodox, the other was Catholic - showing the relics of a renowned saint. They also trekked along Birobidzhan, and they were so surprised to see the slow growth of this Jewish Region.

It is also very intriguing to follow up how the Jews will meet the opportunity to support a region located in the heart of Asia, not far from Harbin where so many Jews had lived till the end of World War II. The area seemingly extends Europe to the core of Asia. But the location is unique. Siberia attracts Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Manchu and Mongolians. It is linked to Japan and Philippines… We do have all these people as guest workers in Israel.

Beyond the tragic events that affected the Jews who, for a great part, arrived from Eastern countries in Israel, this miniature autonomous region of Birobidzhan retains something of the socialist communist atheist system that tried to rule the world and in between delivered Auschwitz. Is it foolish / meshigene mazeh or understandable / mistume (min-hastam) that Yiddish, born on the Rhine a thousand years ago was about to disappear many times. Still, it became the truncated national language of a ghostly Jewish Autonomous Region that today tries to use it more wisely. Miracles substantiate the words of the Prophet: “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Zay gezint, Birobidzhan!

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