Birobidzhan—perhaps you’ve heard of it? The administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Siberia, Russia. Official language: Yiddish. The Siberian Zion, the Soviet government’s gift to the homeless and persecuted Jews of Russia (and the rest of the world?). The Promised Land at the confluence of the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, a stone’s throw from China and a day or so from the Pacific Ocean? Not ringing a bell? Well, it’s a real place, I promise—kitschy, bizarre, sort of Jewish, sort of not, a little sad and kind of pretty, but very real.
But let me back up a bit.
I am three weeks into my Big Train Trip Across bigger-than-big Russia, and I’ve acquired roughly seven words of the language. Four of them I use to order different kinds of dumplings. The other three are please, thank you, and smetana, sour cream. I am, at this point, scarcely more than a doughy American nesting doll of pelmeni inside varenyky inside manti inside deep-fried pirozhki. At the center of it all are a few small slivers of borschty cabbage and a white hot core of garlic from which the mother of all acid reflux radiates. (This is probably my fault: Admittedly, I’m an unadventurous eater with a tendency to lock on to one item and not let go.) And don’t get me wrong: I love these flavor-rich little packets of meat. But I think they are killing me.
Somewhere between frozen Lake Baikal and the Amur River, I appeal to the God of my (largely Russian-Jewish) ancestors—who, it should be noted, went West when they could have just as easily gone Far East. Please, I pray, let there be something on the other side of this three-day boneshaker that is not a morsel of minced meat encased in a soft skin of dough. Guide me to wherever it is that Russian people hide their crisp, bright salads, their brilliant green cucumbers, their fresh tomatoes. Show me how they eat their produce before they boil the life out of it. Deliver me to an orange. A banana. Anything.
Established in the 1930s as the first modern official Jewish homeland for as many Jews as would settle there, Birobidzhan lies 5,000 miles and six days (by train) from Moscow, very close to the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway and, subsequently, the world. The idea, which you really have to admire, was to create a Jewish agricultural colony along the border with China. For the Jewish people, yes, but also as a strategic Russian buffer against Chinese and Japanese expansion. And perhaps as a way of exiling Jews to the hinterland by calling it something else. (It’s like that old saying: Keep your friends close and your Jews, with their unreliable loyalties, way the fuck out in Siberia.)
People came from far and wide to participate in this Jewish farmer’s utopia in Siberia. And finding the terrain pretty inhospitable and the weather terrible, many of them turned around and left within a year or two. Still, after the war, with Europe’s Jewish communities in tatters, the population swelled. At its peak in the late 1940s, the region boasted 30,000 settlers, mostly Russian Jews, but some from Eastern and Western Europe, South America, and the United States as well. To a certain extent, the town flourished: It became a center for Yiddish culture, there was a Jewish school, a newspaper, writers all the way in New York sang its praises. Yiddish was widely spoken. Best of all, you could be Jewish here, worry-free. That is, until you couldn’t: With a spate of state-sponsored anti-Semitism came the shuttering of Jewish institutions, the smothering of the language, the executions of intellectuals, etc.
Squeezed once again, the Jewish population of Birobidzhan dwindled. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the bottom essentially dropped out when Jews started leaving Russia for Israel in droves. Now, around 2,000 of the city’s 70,000 residents are Jewish. Nevertheless, the city clings to its roots. Indeed, in an absurd, theme-park kind of way, it celebrates them—a Potemkin village only it’s unclear who is supposed to be impressed.
Step off the Vladivostok-bound train and see, for example, above the station, the name of the city spelled out left to right in blocky Russian and right to left in wobbly Yiddish. Walk through the station to a pretty square and you’ll find, towering above a fountain, a large menorah—one of many spread haphazardly around the town. Go straight and then left on Sholem Aleichem, one of two main avenues, to a lively pedestrian area with a few shops and a large market, another menorah, and a statue of the Fiddler creator himself. Or go right, as I do, down Lenin (the other main street), toward the synagogue, the Jewish center, and the yet-to-be-completed kosher restaurant. Here you will find, just as I do, Café Simkha—the city’s premiere (and only) Jewish (well, Jewish-themed) restaurant. Simcha, it should be noted, is the Hebrew word for a joyous event.
I’ve read about Café Simkha on the internet and I’m hopeful. Hopeful I’ll find something familiarly Jewish to eat, something (relatively) light, a bagel and cream cheese, maybe. Something that might remind me of home, or at the very least of Brooklyn. Inside, I set my eyes upon a dining room bedecked in disparate Jewish motifs: There’s a mural of a menorah (of course), and some Stars of David. The typography is Yiddish—think 2nd Ave Deli—even if the language isn’t. On the counter sits a small statue of a bald Jewish tailor, smiling away, presumably at how thoroughly Jewish his world is. All in all, it looks a little like the bedroom of a gentile child who is really into Hanukkah.
Once seated, I’m presented with two different menus: one European and one Jewish. Both are in Russian, which I can’t read. Dutifully, I begin to rearrange the Cyrillic letters in my head, flipping some right to left, some upside down, substituting S’s for C’s, I’s for backwards N’s. I decode “falafel,” a “Tel Aviv salad,” a lot of meat. I google-translate to the waitress that I’d like something Jewish, but something that is not a dumpling. She recommends the Birobidzhaner schnitzel and a salad of lettuce, pine nuts, and veal slices.
There is a mix-up in the kitchen and my schnitzel, when it comes out, is not schnitzel at all but seven or eight rolled slices of eggplant filled with diced tomato and placed atop of discs of warm zucchini. It’s mystifying—to say the least—to think what exactly the mix-up was, but I don’t fight it. I eat the eggplant. I eat the salad with its veal slices. I am happy to do so. The server is apologetic, but the nondumpling food is not bad at all. It’s also not particularly Jewish, which is, again, probably my fault.
Early the next evening, I head for the synagogue to meet Eli Riss, the 27-year-old Chabad rabbi and star of Birobidzhan’s Jewish scene, thinking maybe he can point me in the right direction, Jewish foodwise. And because I’ve been travelling by train in elongated stretches of nontime, I don’t realize it’s Friday night until it’s too late and I’ve bumbled into a Shabbat service. A handful of serious-looking Russian men look up from their prayer books, size me up for the befuddled tourist that I am, and go back to praying. Someone hands me a kippah and motions for me to sit. I take a seat in the back (which is where I used to sit in Hebrew school) and stare at the floor (which is what I used to stare at), the muscle memory kicking in pretty quickly.
I should say a word here about this kind of prayer. I’ve never liked it—physically, it makes my skin crawl. Always has. Every day, for years at the Jewish day school I went to—about which, for the most part I have only good things to say—I sat bored out of my mind and truly annoyed at having to chant along in a language I didn’t speak or understand to a God that even back then seemed absurd: capricious, superstitious, prone to epic furies followed by bouts of profound love, like some kind of all-powerful and powerfully unhinged high-maintenance grandfather. I could barely bring myself to mouth along with the words, let alone say them aloud, which would have been humiliating even if no one else had heard me. The whole thing stood in stark and silly contrast to the utterly nonreligious life I had outside of school and I could never get the two things to square properly. To be honest, I still can’t.
So, how to explain the feeling that comes over me for the next few minutes, the one that catches me off guard and cracks a very slight smile across my face? It is definitely not spiritual; I am as unmoved by prayer as I’ve ever been. It’s something else, something like déjà vu mixed with nostalgia and a kind of supercharged clarity. A memory I can climb into and walk around. It lasts and lasts and lasts. I think, I’ve been here before. A thousand times. Every day for 13 years. The Hebrew I can probably still recite in some approximation of the sounds everyone else is making. The prayer books I never looked at. The old Jews shuckling with their eyes closed. The rabbi’s voice bouncing dramatically in volume at odd intervals. The choreographed standing and sitting and standing and sitting and bowing and sitting. I try to remember the last time I was at a Friday night service and can’t—10 maybe 15 years ago?
When it’s over, I follow everyone into another room, empty except for a few long tables with seats attached to them, like something you’d find in an elementary-school lunchroom. I really want to speak to the rabbi, so I mosey around trying not to look needy or lost, which only makes me look needier and more lost. A few of the men introduce themselves. The rabbi—who, having spent a year at a yeshiva in Brooklyn, speaks the wildly inflected Yiddishy-English of Crown Heights—asks if I’m Jewish. He wants to know where I’m from and when I tell him, he says, “Kansas City? I thought they only had Jews in New York, L.A., and Florida.” I don’t have the heart to say that for each one of Birobidzhan’s thousand-odd Jews, my hometown, also in the middle of nowhere, has 20. Instead, I say the synagogue is beautiful, which it is.
“Eh,” he shrugs. “There are problems. The roof leaks. It needs repairs. What can you do?”
Jews! I think.
“You will eat with us.” he says. It isn’t a question.
We wash our hands—the way I was made to when I was in third grade. We take our seats in silence. We bless the challah. A feast is unveiled in a slow tease—tinfoil covers peeled back from large bowls, Tupperware containers unlidded, dish after dish pulled from bottomless grocery sacks. When it’s all set up, the spread is so recognizably Jewish, so wonderfully unadorned, that it’s almost thrilling. I’m in Siberia, but I could be in a synagogue basement in New Jersey, or a dingy Jewish community center in Oklahoma. It would look almost exactly the same. And because kosher meat has to be imported from Moscow, the food is—slava bogu—almost entirely vegetarian, a buffet of freshly made, shimmering salads. Not a dumpling in sight.
From plastic bowls, with plastic silverware, I heap spoonful after spoonful of salad onto my little plastic plate. From tiny plastic cups, I sip apple juice. And from even tinier ones, vodka. The man next to me breaks it down as follows: “This is eggs, corn, and mayonnaise. This one is cabbage, peas, and carrots. That one is carrots, cucumber, and I don’t know in English. This is cucumber and tomato. This is tomato and salmon.”
“Far East salmon!” the rabbi clarifies. “From the Amur.” The way he pronounces it sounds like amour.
“This is potato. And this is vodka. L’chaim, to life. And this is Russian vodka. L’chaim. And this is vodka with a taste. L’chaim. And this is Armenian vodka, peach. L’chaim. And this is Armenian vodka, like some kind of berry. L’chaim.”
Each bite of food is a resounding no to the question: Is there such a thing as too much dill?
“And this,” the man next to me says as he refills my cup, “is samagon, housemade vodka.”
There is a particular pleasure in finding the familiar in a profoundly unfamiliar place. I don’t mean a McDonald’s in Beijing or a Shake Shack in Moscow, though these things, too, can be comforting. I mean the bone-deep familiarity of a half-forgotten tradition—such as this one, but like many others as well—which has withstood not only the test of time, but the far more difficult tests of distance and dislocation. I mean the generosity of the men—and I should point out that it was only men—around the table as the edges are softened by vodka and they ask me questions about my family, my country, and my journey. And the openness with which they answer when I ask them about theirs. I mean the simple, astonishing fact that they show up here week after week to eat platefuls of salad and to drink preposterous amounts of vodka, together.
These are sappy observations, I know, and I cringe a little now thinking about them, unable to find any other way to put all of this. But I’ll say this: For a short moment at that table, with the salads in my stomach, the apple juice in my cup, and the vodka draining and replenishing around me, I’m touched in a deep—let’s say almost religious—sentimental way. And I promise myself that if I write about Birobidzhan, corny as it is, this moment stays. Because, truth be told, if my Judaism lives anywhere, it’s in this distinctly sentimental and blubbering human space. L’chaim. L’Birobidzhan. Spacibo. Samagon.
At some point in the night, the rabbi tells me to come by the synagogue once more before I leave. He has something he wants to give me, he says. I sleep through Saturday morning services like the good Jew I am, but manage to drag myself down Lenin one more time before my train comes.
“Where are you going from here?” the rabbi asks me.
“To Vladivostok and then Japan.”
“Do they have matzo in Japan?”
I laugh. I’d completely forgotten that Passover was a few days away. I have no idea, I tell him. Probably. Though, really, probably not.
He shakes his head at me. “Here, take this with you.” He hands me a large package of matzo. “You must have a Pesach wherever you are.” I have no idea how I’m going to fit it in my backpack, but I take it anyway.
I thank him for the matzo, and for everything else. He waves me off as if to say, It’s nothing. And for him, it probably is nothing (he has a lot of matzo, he tells me, hundreds of pounds of it). But one man’s nothing, to repurpose the cliché, can, of course, be another man’s something.
In Japan a week or two later—having again forgotten about Passover and with memories of Russia and its trains and its garlicky meat and smetana fading quickly—I will take a seat in a place thick with dashi steam and thin on elbow room. There, I’ll bite down on a gyoza on to which I’ve set a large gob of spicy karashi mustard, a yellow, wasabi-like condiment common in Japan. With the burn blooming behind my eyes, my mind will jump first—briefly—to the children’s table in the multipurpose room in the synagogue in Siberia, and then, for a long, lingering moment, to the seder table of my childhood back in Kansas City where my grandfather—another rabbi, it should be noted—leads the family in the ritual smearing of beet-stained horseradish on matzo. He delivers the weighty annual injunction to remember how bitter the bitter times were—implicit in this is a reminder of how sweet the sweet times are (the real implication here being that at any moment, things could once again get really shitty really fast). I will muddle in my head the nasal scorch of the mustard, the soft Russian voices of the Birobidzhaner Jews, and the sound of my grandfather in full rabbi mode and I will be reminded of the simple fact that each place to which we travel is less a ticked box than a line drawn between two (or three or four or 50) points. Now, I can only smile watery-eyed at the fact that, having traveled halfway around the world I’ve merely managed to come full circle.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.