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by Jordan Hiller



Directed by Yale Strom  

Part 1 of 2

Somewhere, floating way out on the periphery of young Jewish minds there exists a memory that recognizes the significance of the language affectionately known as Yiddish.  There, the legend of the Yiddish language rests, cradled by our Jewish pride, and there it will comfortably and securely slumber for all time without a second thought. Of course we fully realize what Yiddish technically is - whether you consider it the language that the old-time Jews from Europe spoke in the shtetl, or the speech Chasidim stubbornly continue to speak, or maybe we are even aware of the two kids who took Yiddish as a foreign language at Queens College for a nostalgic kick (then they told you half the class wasn’t Jewish). A nostalgic value – perhaps this will be the entire Yiddish legacy being carried into the new millennium. Yiddish remains currently a curious, yet endearing relic of a bygone era. A language born of hardship and isolation, community and otherness. My grandmother, who was born in New York but who’s parents came over from Russia, still maintains that we young people should learn Jewish (as she calls it) so we can communicate with all Jews around the world. But we know that Yiddish is a dying language and is being unarguably replaced by Hebrew as the official common speech of the Jewish people. We humor her and say we know “a bissel” Yiddish and rattle off the five or six words accumulated being that they have become phrases, not only in the American Jewish lexicon, but American culture proper. Words like schlep and chutzpah (even my spellchecker is letting these words go by unquestioned).

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin is a new documentary that can correctly be described as a film conducting a history lesson regarding the Jewish Autonomous Region (J.A.R.) of Siberia created by Stalin before World War II, but I would rather view it as a film about what Yiddish truly represents and the power it may still possess.

To actually learn the fascinating history of the J.A.R., you can’t do better than catching a screening of Yale Strom’s little movie, so I resist the urge to give even an abridged version of the story. But to inform those of you who do not know this gem of Jewish history (as I admit I didn’t): In 1928, Joseph Stalin, for all sorts of politically self-serving reasons, encouraged the Jews in Russia to settle an outpost in the Far Eastern region of Siberia (bordering China). The land was officially designated for Jews with its capital called Birobidzhan and as a result of this apparent miracle, the call went out to Jews around the world: “We have our (frozen swamp of a) homeland!”

The film shows, through modern-day interviews, grainy stock footage, and a peculiar Jewish propaganda film from the time, that the attitude surrounding this venture was ripe with the classic Jew-in-exile perspective - extreme skepticism and extreme hope. Jews naturally were skeptical when receiving free gifts with no strings attached from their beloved government and yet they believed with true hearts that the J.A.R. had great potential. Their gentile neighbors were sure that Jews would never last in an agrarian society. A common joke at the time involved a Jew being mystified by a shovel, not knowing its purpose.

In the year 2003, after a little oasis called Israel proved to the world that Jews know a thing or two about shovels – and irrigation and agriculture and more or less can grow crops out of sand, the stereotype about the helpless Jew in the wild is (or should be) dead and buried.

What is even more astounding, yet hardly unbelievable considering our self-knowledge, is the gathering (kibbutz goliyot if you will) that followed the birth of the first Jewish state established since the destruction of the temple in 70 B.C.E. An American woman tells the story of how her family picked up from Akron, Ohio and traveled to Brooklyn – where they then sailed to Germany and then to Helsinki – took a train to Leningrad and finally a train to Birobidzhan. Another family departed by boat from San Francisco and made their way to Siberia by way of Japan. However, you are not really surprised by these tales of madness and insanity. Why? Because you have seen many times despite the constant hardships in Israel, the devotion and idealism that motivates families to continuously make Aliyah (the settling of Israel by Jews from other countries). And because you know Jews are crazy. Case in point is one interviewee who claims that the reason her family made the trek from America to Siberia was because her father said he “wanted to help” (idealistic) and so they packed up, among other things, their tennis rackets and net so the Jews already living in the J.A.R. could play tennis (crazy). The same woman describes her shock after arriving in Russia and herring was served for dinner. Herring was something you ate sparingly at a kiddush – it was certainly not a main course. These charming anecdotes told by the individuals who lived them makes the film exceptionally poignant and real.

Cinematically, however, I believe the film could have been better. The cuts and the usage of a subliminally flashed phrase (The Jewish Question) are both amateurish and inartistic. These areas (technique) don’t appear to be Yale Strom’s issue and therefore he neglects art and style, but prefers content, which he delivers impeccably. I also have issue with his interviewing style, specifically when he interviews Gentiles like his Russian guide. He comes off as arrogant and patronizing in the sense that he practically is laughing at the disfavor with which Jews are viewed in Russia. I felt like I was watching a smart-ass High School kid interview the Latin janitor for the Purim Chagiga video – back when some believed that janitors were props, not people. It seems as though he immaturely supposes that he promotes his worth as a human being and a Jew by looking down on the poor uneducated peasants who truly don’t know any better.

Once we manage to digest the fact that this isn’t a Jamie Kennedy Experiment and that this bizarre Jewish state actually existed (exists!) – and it takes a while – we can begin to focus in on the inhabitants of the J.A.R., the society they chose, and the culture they perpetuated.

The Jews who settled the J.A.R. quickly learned that, despite the terrible conditions including no shelter and mounds of snow, the promise of a Jewish state was legitimate. For the first time in two thousand years Jews were free to define themselves and create, build, and grow in a uniquely Jewish way. So of course they stopped keeping Halachah (Jewish religious law). One ancient gentleman interviewed describes the interesting phenomenon that took place where the Jews, under Russian persecution, kept kosher and Shabbos, yet once they were free in a Jewish homeland to do as they pleased, animals were no longer ritually slaughtered and work was done seven days a week. Judaism in the J.A.R. did not consist of a Halachic praxis; rather the culture was quintessentially Jewish in that it was, in a word, Yiddish.

The first public building to be erected in Birobidzhan was the Yiddish theatre, followed by the school which taught the Yiddish language. On the stage of the theatre, bearded and payissed Tevyes and Mottels pranced around with tzi-tzis trailing behind them as they pondered the meaning of a pious Jew’s life, but the audience was filled with young, modern, agrarian men of destiny who viewed the performances as a comical throwback to a simpler and less diligent time. A time where things like marrying a Jew mattered. The link that these self-aware Jews attached to their heritage became strictly that of Yiddish culture and whatever Yiddish culture consisted of. A language and a dramatic art form - but perhaps, as we later see, more than that. Yiddish embodied an uncompromising Jewish feeling for the people attempting to kindle a dim Zionistic light an eternity away from the mainland. The language was not only spoken, but it was cherished and revered. Yiddish, as we might recognize using that memory stored at the Siberias of our brains, appears to have a grand spirit. It has a sustaining quality that managed to sometimes single-handedly save the spark of Judaism inside thousands of Jews who would have otherwise been lost. However, the question remains: Where do we go from here? Can a Yiddish state survive?  



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