Stalin’s Jewish State


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

Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.

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

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

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

So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”

Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.

The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 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.