Staunton, Mar. 7 – In the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan, only a small percentage of the population is Jewish and even fewer speak Yiddish – and some of their number say that there are ethnic Russians in that distant region who speak Yiddish better than some of the Jews do.
Those are just a few of the intriguing details about a community that seldom gets much serious attention but now has attracted to its study the US-based Yiddish Book Center which is seeking to record the history of what is in Birobidzhan and elsewhere already a dying language (sibreal.org/a/govori-na-idish-kak-vyzhivaet-ofitsialnyy-yazyk-evreyskoy-avtonomii/31455403.html).
Created by Stalin as a place for Jews in the European portions of the USSR to be sent and then harshly treated by him at the end of his long reign, Birobidzhan is treated as something exotic and typically dismissed as such. But the Yiddish Book Center reports three facts from there important in their own right and as an indicator of broader trends.
First, the share of people who in fact identify among themselves as Jews is far higher than the number who do so officially for the census. Russian censuses report that only about four percent of the population of the oblast are Jews, but people who live there say the actual percentage is about 20, five times as many.
That is a copying mechanism that many ethnic communities oppressed by Moscow likely also use.
Second, despite frequent bouts of repression and occasional brief periods of support, Yiddish has survived as a language within families and the privacy of their homes. That is a thin reed because when younger members leave or older ones die, the ties are broken. But it is the best that Yiddish speakers and others are able to do.
And third, despite the link between Jewishness and Yiddish, a word that in fact means “the Jewish language,” some Jews in Birobidzhan report that some ethnic Russians there speak Yiddish better than they do, the result of family and business contacts and yet another way in which ethnicity and language knowledge flourish in unexpected ways.
One interlocutor in Birobidzhan reports what he describes as “a funny story.” In the shoemaking shop he worked in, the first people to leave for Israel when that became possible were in fact ethnic Russians who married Jews in order to be able to escape from the Soviet Union.