A Romance with Yiddish: From Birobidzhan to New York

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Story posted on March 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Nikolai Borodulin

Nikolai Borodulin is Assistant Director of the Center for Cultural Jewish Life at The Workmen’s Circle and distinguished master Yiddish teacher. He was born and raised in Birobidzhan and came to the U.S. in 1992. He worked for eight years as a librarian and cataloguer at YIVO. He is teaching Yiddish to children and adults internationally.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Currents.

The incident will be in my memory forever, and I recollect it as if it happened yesterday. On a warm, sunny September day in 1989, I was strolling along Sholem Aleichem street, the major thoroughfare of Birobidzhan, capital city of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East of Russia, and I met an acquaintance who wished me a happy holiday. I looked at him as if he were daydreaming and naively asked, "What holiday are you talking about? We have a long way to go before October Revolution Day" (celebrated by all Soviet people on November 7th).

He looked at me as if I were from another planet, "Don’t you know that today is a Jewish holiday?" 
"What Jewish holiday?"
"Don’t you know that today is Rosh Hashone?"
My next question astonished him: "What’s Rosh Hashone?"

At the time, I was 28. I knew that I wasJewish — the stamp on my passport, "Yevrey" (Jew), didn’t grant me the chance to forget. I was even proud to be Jewish, with a kind of weird pride, because Karl Marx, Yakov Sverdlov (the first president of Soviet Russia) and many world chess champions were Jewish. I was also a decently educated person: I knew Russian, English and German, worked as an assistant principal of a high school, and had begun to study and simultaneously teach Yiddish to adults and children. Still, I didn’t know about the simplest, most common traditions of Jewish life. Living in Birobidzhan — described by the local writer Boris Miller as "a factory to assimilate Jews" — I had never heard the words, "Rosh Hashone."

I had never heard of "Purim," "Sukes," or "bar mitsve," either. The only Jewish holiday I was somewhat familiar with was Peysekh, for which my bobe used to bake matse. She never said why and I never asked even one question, forget about fir kashes (Four Questions).

Like almost every person of my generation, I was a product of the national policy of the Communist Party, whose ultimate goal was to force all people of the Soviet Union to believe in the new and only God — the Communist Party and its chief deputy, Khaver (Comrade) Lenin. (In my time, Stalin was not spoken of any more). The brainwashing really worked, and how! No matter what time of day or night, if you woke me and asked when and where V.I. Lenin was born, I, along with most of my generation, could answer without thinking: April 22nd, 1870, in Simbirsk. Throughout my early childhood, I would listen and then read to myself amazing stories about young Volodya Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name), how honest and brave he was. In the first grade, almost every student became an Oktyabryonok, a member of an all-Soviet school children’s organization, and received a pin with the image of Lenin as a child of 6 or 7. In the third and fourth grades, we became Young Pioneers and wore the red tie along with a pin with the portrait of 10-year-old Lenin. At 14, we joined the Young Communist League and proudly wore a pin with the portrait of a teenage Volodya Ulyanov.

How many songs about Lenin we sang! How many poems about Lenin we recited!

I mention Lenin’s birthday intentionally, because on that date in 1989 I met in Birobidzhan a person who became my mentor, taught me how to be a good teacher and a mentsh, and whom I thank sincerely every occasion I can, although he is already twelve years oyf yener velt (in another world). The late Bernard Choseed, a professor of Russian Language and literature at Georgetown University, a passionate lover of Yiddish language and an expert of Soviet Yiddish literature, had wanted to visit Birobidzhan since Stalin’s death. He had always been refused a visa, but didn’t give up. In the 1970s, he even took a train from Moscow to Vladivostok, with a twenty-minute stop in the city he had read so much about. But the real opportunity to spend time in Birobidzhan arrived with perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of "restructuring,"which began in 1985 but eventually reached the Soviet Zion in the late 1980s.

Professor Choseed was fascinated by what he saw in Birobidzhan. Most of the Jewish/Yiddish enthusiasts (including non-Jews) were just beginning the process of Jewish revival, and he was as happy as a child to see this renaissance: to hear Yiddish songs and cultural programs on the radio; to buy gefilte fish in delis; to see little kids studying Yiddish in kindergartens, and students at Teachers College (most of whom, like the kindergarteners, were not Jews) studying to become Yiddish-language instructors. I was truly impressed by Choseed’s methodology of teaching language through culture. He used contemporary, innovatie approaches, which he demonstrated for many language instructors and students at the Teachers Training Institute and Teacher’s College in Birobidzhan, and also in Khabarovsk Teachers’ College.Professor Choseed became a major promoter of Birobidzhan abroad. In Japan, where he taught English, he would also teach about Birobidzhan and Yiddish. It was he who invented a new Russian proverb, "Gromche Idish, dal’she budesh" — "The louder the Yiddish, the farther you’ll get" — which is an adaptation of a famous Russian proverb, "Tishe yedesh’ dal’she budesh’" — "The quieter you go the farther you’ll get." (There is a play of sounds here: yedesh, go, and idish, Yiddish.)

Even before perestroika, Yiddish had beenpresent in remnants in Birobidzhan. The local newspaper, Biro-bidzhaner Shtern (Star), founded in 1930, wasthe only Yiddish daily left in the Soviet Union; there were daily radio news and cultural broadcasts inYiddish; the signs on most official buildings were in Yiddish and Russian; the inhabitants of Birobidzhan even spoke with a certain Jewish intonation, similar to that of Odessa residents.

Little of this interested me, however. I actually found it slightly embarrassing to see old Jews sitting on benches and speaking this strange-sounding Yiddish. If anybody had suggested that not only would I some day speak the language but actually become a professional in the field of Yiddish culture, I would have laughed. What caused my transformation from almost-perfect Soviet person with appropriate set of values into an ardent Yiddishist? As they say in Yiddish: s’iz a lange mayse (it’s a long story).

My interest in Yiddish arose when Anatolii Surnin, a dean at the newly established Teachers College, asked me at the start of 1988 to become their Yiddish instructor. "You’re Jewish, and you know English and German," he said. "Why don’t you take a textbook and teach yourself Yiddish?" So I did — in part because I had very little else to do in the village of Lazarevo, where I taught English and was the only Jew among several thousand inhabitants. Becoming a language instructor at Teachers College meant a true advancement of my professional career, and I took it quite seriously. On a deeper level, my Rosh Hashone episode had been more painful for me than a physical blow — and had really awakened my desire to understand Jewish identity.

In late June, 1989, I went to Moscow for my first serious encounter with the Yiddish language, at a seminar of Yiddish teachers organized by the Ministry of Education and the Yiddish magazine, Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland). There I was privileged to study with, and shep enormous nakhes from, Shimen Sandler, a legendary Yiddish teacher who taught Yiddish on the pages of Sovetish Heymland.Seminar participants soon learned about another Yiddish seminar in Moscow run by former refuseniks and taught by Israeli Yiddish professors. We had to tants oyf tsvey khasenes (dance at two weddings), studying officially from 9 to 1 with Sandler and Chaim Beider, and semi-officially from 2 to 6 with Gershon Weiner, Dov Noy, and Rivka Reich. By the third day of this immersion, I felt as if all the people surrounding me on the Moscow Metro were speaking Yiddish . . .

When I returned from Moscow, theeditor of the Birobidzhaner Shtern gave Anatolii Surnin a letter from Miriam Dorn, chairperson of early childhood education department at the City College of New York, expressing her desire to visit Birobidzhan. Her father had been the editor of a Yiddish newspaper and she wanted to see Birobidzhan with her own eyes. I called her — without considering the fifteen-hour time difference between New York and Birobidzhan — to suggest an exchange of visits between our Teachers College and City College. It was 3:00 a.m. in New York when her husband picked up the receiver, passed it to Miriam, and I explained the matter in my tsebrokhenem (broken) Yiddish. She told me to call again in a couple of weeks.

When I did, the exchange had been arranged: I and my colleague, Larissa Tsilman, an English teacher to whom I had tried to teach Yiddish, would go to New York to study Yiddish, and then professors from City College would come to Birobidzhan to see how they could help us. Larissa and I were the first official mini-delegation from Birobidzhan, which was honorable and thrilling — but not easy. In order to get two airline tickets to New York, Surnin and I had to fly some 7,000 miles to Moscow and climb the bureaucratic ladder all the way up to the deputy minister of aviation of the USSR!

We arrived in New York on February 12th, 1990, spent a month and a half studying Yiddish with Mordkhe Shaechter and Hershl Glasser, and met the legends of Yiddish pedagogy, Yosl Mlotek and Itche Goldberg, Workmen’s Circle educators Chava Lapin, Mikhl Baran and Pesah Fiszman, and National Yiddish Book Center president Aaron Lansky. At the end of our visit there was a reception in honor of two humble "professors" from Birobidzhan. Only there did we have the chance to meet our sponsor, the late Joseph Murphy, chancellor of City University, who greeted us in Yiddish and shared with the audience his boyhood memory of being sent by his yidishe mame to collect money for Birobidzhan with a pushke on the streets. Had she not enlisted him in this enterprise, my colleague and I might never have come to New York!

In 1992, I returned to New York toearnmyMaster’s degree in Columbia University’s Yiddish program. I was still a greenhorn in my knowledge of Yiddish language and culture. True, I had been extremely busy in Birobidzhan developing a Yiddish language curriculum for the students at Teachers College, writing for Biro-bidzhaner Shtern, teaching Yiddish to adults and children, organizing a mameloshn club, bringing students to Moscow in 1991 and 1992 to study Yiddish at International Judaic conferences, studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan University’s summer program in Israel (which is a mayse far zikh — a story in itself), and more. However, I hadn’t had much time to study serious Yiddish literature.

My immersion in Yiddish at Columbia and, later, at YIVO, where I had the privilege to work from 1994 to 2001, not only tremendously enriched my Yiddish but also allowed me to find out my own family roots and discover fascinating, often disturbing facts, and amazing artifacts about the place I had lived for thirty years. In America, I learned so much about Birobidzhan that it became the major theme of my research.

It is still hard for me to comprehend why this enclave in the Far East of Soviet Russia attracted the attention of Jews all over the world. Why did so many support this project, collecting money, establishing friendship societies, publishing books, periodicals and posters, creating operas and ballets, organizing fairs, bazaars, conferences, and concerts in order to help Jews to build their Soviet homeland?

The major publication about Birobidzhan, outside the Soviet Union, was Naylebn, the organ of the pro-Soviet ICOR (acronym of idishe kolonizatsye organizatsye). When the Soviet government initiated the Birobidzhan project, ICOR, which already had a hundred branches with over 10,000 dues-paying members in the United States and Canada, turned its efforts towards promoting the settlement of Jews in the Soviet Far East. The magazine portrayed a Jewish ganeydn (paradise) in Birobidzhan, with joyful images enhanced by editorials, poems, short stories and polemical articles, including sharp attacks against Birobidzhan’s enemies and skeptics — especially against the Forverts for its lampoons of Jewish life in Birobidzhan. Not an ambivalent thought appeared in Naylebn, not even when the first governor of Jewish Autonomous Region, the well-known and much-loved Yiddish scholar Iosif Liberberg, was arrested as a Trotskyite and a Japanese spy and executed in 1936. Naylebn simply congratulated the newly elected governor without a word about poor Liberberg.

In a similar instance, Naylebn reported on ICOR’s enthusiastic organizing of the "Exhibition of American Artists for Birobidzhan," involving 119 artists, Jews and non-Jews. Their works were exhibited in 1935 in New York and Boston, in 1936 in Moscow — and then disappeared at approximately the same time that Liberberg was killed. Naylebn didn’t mention the exhibition again.

American Jews nevertheless supported Birobidzhan financially and went there to build the Jewish homeland with their own hands. The majority came back in short order, as they had been little prepared for the hardships of life there. The colonization of Birobidzhan, according to Victor Fink, an American who traveled there in 1929, "was stated and implemented without preparation, study and planning." Many who stayed met a sad or miserable end.

Last May, in Vilna, Lithuania. I met Judita Rozina, whose father, Chaim Rozin, had gone to Birobidzhan in 1932. In ICOR Magazine (the predecessor to Naylebn) of July, 1932, he is shown in a group picture of Americans (there were twenty-seven in all) sailing for Birobidzhan on The Majestic on July 20th. Born in Poland, Chaim had lived in Brazil and New York, knew eleven languages and became, in Birobidzhan, a teacher of English, French and German at Teachers College. His earnings were meager so he worked additionally as an accountant at Jewish Autonomous Region’s Department of Education. Judita, born in 1937, lost her father in July, 1938, when NKVD people arrested and accused him of being a spy for Polish intelligence. She and her mother didn’t find out what had happened to Chaim until 1958, when they received a certificate of his posthumous rehabilitation with a date of his death — November 20th, 1942.

They didn’t believe the document, however, and continued to press for information. In 1989, Judita received an unusually polite letter from the KGB informing her that her father had been shot in Khabarovsk, the nearby industrial city, on September 20th, 1938. Judita showed me some family pictures from those terrible times and I immediately recognized one from my issues of Naylebn — a photo [at right] of a happy family with the caption: "M. [sic] Rosen, a New Yorker came to Birobidzhan in 1932, his wife came from Lithuania. The child was born in Birobidzhan." Above the photo, another caption reads: "Happy parents and their little boy [sic]." The date of the magazine, July, 1938, was the month and year of Chaim Rozin’s arrest!

I rediscovered this photo in Naylebn by coincidence, as I was looking for a letter written by my cousin’s husband’s grandfather, Hershl Korenfeld, inviting Jews to come and build the blossoming Jewish Autonomous Republic. It so happened that the letter and the Rozin photograph were published in the same issue. Moreover, in Naylebn’s April, 1939 issue, I came across an article written by my great-uncle, Iosif Chernyak, about his sister, my grandmother, and the Yiddish folksongs she used to sing. I learned a lot about my bobe, about her hard, unhappy childhood, her struggle against injustice, her activities in Crimea, and the songs she used to sing.

I had known very little about my father’s family. I knew that my father’s aunt, Lyubov Chernyak, was a literary figure, and that Iosif was a Yiddish linguist who was persecuted during Stalin’s repressions in the late 1940s. In New York I got to know them more intimately, thanks to the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature, where there are entries on them both. When I wrote my Master’s thesis, Ideology and Language of Soviet Yiddish Dailies, 1920s-1940s, I often used articles by Iosif Chernyak as references.

In fact, I have crossed paths with these relatives on more than one occasion, and they always helped me without knowing it. In 1997, for example, Dina Abramowitz, the late YIVO librarian who helped nearly every living being interested in Yiddish culture, asked me what the expression, "dos tsente vort" (the tenth word), could mean. I had no idea. She asked all the Yiddish mumkhes (experts) without getting a satisfying answer. But she stubbornly continued her research until she found her answer and showed me her source:an article from Yidishe Shprakh with almost 600 Yiddish sayings — collected by Iosif Chernyak! Among the people who had provided him with proverbs were my great-grandmother, my grandmother, her husband and two of her sisters! (By the way, "dos tsente vort" means to speak indistinctly, so that only one word out of ten can be understood.)

Again, in the year 2000, I was preparing a course on women in Yiddish poetry. My major source was Ezra Korman’s Yidishe Dikhterins (Yiddish poetesses), published in Chicago in 1928. Represented in this encyclopedic volume was my great-aunt Lyuba Chernyak, who was a frequent contributor to Sovetish heymland.

Nu, I discovered my yikhes (ancestry), which makes my work more meaningful, exciting, and full of surprises, especially regarding the place I was born.

Interestingly enough, Birobidzhan has become an important Jewish cultural center in the Far East of Russia, although only a few thousand Jews remain there. A really nice synagogue opened in 2004, and there is a sizable Jewish community center as well as diverse Jewish societies. A unique institution is its state-supported Jewish day school, where over a thousand students from the first to eleventh grades study Yiddish and Hebrew, Jewish history and literature, Jewish dance and Jewish cuisine -— yet more than 80 percent of them are non-Jews. If you ask why, the answer is: Why not? Many non-Jewish parents say that since they live in the Jewish Autonomous Region, they want their children to know about Jewish history, language and culture. Halevay, that such schools would be all over the globe!

Recently, I learned from the Internet that old Jewish religious artifacts have been discovered in Birobidzhan, including an old prayerbook lectern bearing the name of Boruch Maizler — a member of the Jewish community during 1950s — and prayerbooks containing a rare prayer to the Russian tsar. These objects vividly show that the Birobidzhan experiment, undertaken to create a specifically Soviet Jewish culture that would exclude the religious tradition, failed to do so. It’s truly remarkable how much yidishkayt — in all of its variety — can endure.