When the director of the Berkeley’s Magnes Museum asked me to greet a group of visitors from the Russian Far East, I didn’t realize that it would lead to a multi-year project. It was soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the tiny, remote museum in Birobidzhan was opening its collection to the world for the first time.
I quickly became the project’s producer and photo researcher — leading to a book published by the University of California Press and a national traveling exhibition. To make it happen, I wrote a successful 100-plus page proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities and hired Dr. Robert Weinberg, professor of history at Swarthmore College, to write the history.
We drew upon documents, artifacts, and photographs never before seen outside of Birobidzhan — as well as posters, magazines, art, and film from archives in New York and Moscow.
In 1934, the Soviet government established the Jewish Autonomous Region in a sparsely populated area some five-thousand miles east of Moscow. Located along the Sino-Soviet border, the Jewish Autonomous Region, popularly known as Birobidzhan, was designated as the national homeland of Soviet Jewry.
The creation of Birobidzhan was part of the Kremlin’s effort to establish an enclave where secular Jewish culture rooted in the Yiddish language and socialist beliefs could serve as an alternative to Palestine and resolve a variety of perceived problems besetting Soviet Jews. Birobidzhan still exists today, but despite its continued official status Jews represent only a small minority of the inhabitants of the region.