“Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”

By Masha Gessen

Schocken Books, 170 pages, $25

With a new administration that seems to take a warmer view of Vladimir Putin than its predecessors, the United States may well develop a friendlier relationship with Russia in the coming years. This should be of particular concern to the Jewish community, given the history of oppression of Russia’s Jews and dissidents.

Masha Gessen has established herself as a leading chronicler of contemporary Russia’s dark side.  Now, she turns to a little-known corner of Soviet history: the establishment and decline of the state of Birobidzhan. Jews had long suffered at the hands of the czars, and the newly installed Bolshevik government intended Birobidzhan, a new state for Jews, to make up for those injustices. This autonomous region would provide a place for Jewish culture, particularly Yiddish language and literature, to flourish.

In the 1920s and 1930s, internal migrants and returning expatriates flocked to Birobidzhan, some driven by material desperation but others by an idealistic longing to claim a cultural homeland. This desire came to only limited fruition before culminating in devastation and defeat. Gessen uses the life of writer David Bergelson to personify this trajectory.

Born in Ukraine in 1884, Bergelson experimented with writing in Hebrew and Russian before switching to Yiddish, his father’s language. Fleeing from anti-Semitic violence, he settled in Berlin, writing grim fiction and both befriending and feuding with other notable Yiddish language writers. But discontent led him to return to the Soviet Union, whose government demanded he write pro-Birobidzhan propaganda in exchange for reentry.

Bergelson’s sad fate – he was executed for treason against the Soviet Union in 1952 – ties into the larger theme of Gessen’s book: “When should the Jews stay put and when should the Jews run?” Gessen ponders this question through the lens of her own experience, emigrating twice from the Soviet Union, and through the lives of Bergelson and Simon Dubnow, a historian whose ideas “refracted repeatedly … became the idea behind the Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan.”

Therein lies a flaw. “Where the Jews Aren’t,” at under 150 pages of text (plus index and notes), simply isn’t long enough to cover a major historical and moral question, two eventful lives, the author’s personal experiences and a satisfyingly detailed account of Birobidzhan. Though she offers a few telling details and anecdotes, Gessen sticks mostly to generalities when talking about the region’s history and culture, sacrificing narrative richness. Readers attracted solely to the book’s purported subject matter may come away disappointed.

“Where the Jews Aren’t” is available at The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Rd. February’s events at the Ivy include Katie Kitamura discussing her literary thriller “A Separation,” on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. A full list of events is available at theivybookshop.com.

Rebecca Oppenheimer is The Ivy Bookshop’s content manager and lead book buyer.

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