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Jewish Journal

Stalin’s Jewish State

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Jewish schoolchildren in the Jewish Autonomous Region, founded by Stalin in 1928, as featured in "L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin."

Jewish schoolchildren in the Jewish Autonomous Region, founded by Stalin in 1928, as featured in "L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin."

When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional, socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father's tales of a Jewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.

Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewish geography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, "L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin!" about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.

Papa Joe's motivations weren't altruistic; he hoped to populate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. But at least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddish mecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, until Stalin's purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off to Gulags from 1948 to 1953.

Musician-filmmaker Strom -- whose documentaries about vanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement -- retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made the week-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world's only railroad station with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt proved elusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visited the local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol's main thoroughfare, still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.

He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations with his suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandson of the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.

So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, the documentary asks. Strom and his wife, "L'Chaim" writer-producer Elizabeth Schwartz, think it's both: "It's historically significant as a Jewish state founded on Yiddish secularism," Schwartz said. "But it's also a bit like the fake TV suburb in the film, 'Pleasantville,' where everything seems perfect, but realities start to bleed through."

Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination with what he calls "the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E." "These were pioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world," he said.

The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will also perform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen's Circle March 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom's "The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore" (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.

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