Yiddish was once the primary language of Ashkenazi Jews, spoken by millions in Europe; then it scattered elsewhere around the world as anti-Semitism exiled many native speakers to far away lands. Now only about 1,500,000 people in the world speak the language. A few words have taken root in everyday speech: “chutzpah” and “nosh,” for example, but unless you’ve a discerning ear and a familiarity with the language you’d be hard-pressed to have ever heard Yiddish spoken fluently.
In Russia’s Far East, however, sits the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area created by Stalin as a Jewish homeland, where schoolchildren still learn the language and citizens converse in a tongue that is mostly alien to the rest of the world.
Marek Halter, a respected French-Jewish novelist, has made a film about the region,“Birobidzhan, Birobidzhan!”, named for the region’s capital, that explores the peculiar situation. Russia Beyond The Headlines translated an interview he did in Russian with Ogoniok magazine.
Halter was asked why, considering that the Jewish population of the area hovers around five percent, anyone in the region would want to learn the language: “They’ll talk to each other. I was in one school in Birobidzhan where many of the pupils are Chinese and Korean, and I talked to a Chinese mother waiting for her son by the school gate. I asked her why she thought her son needed to learn Yiddish. Her answer was simple: ‘You can never tell what will come in useful later in life.'”
Birobidzhan’s culture has been artificially perpetuated by the Russian state, so much so that even its history is that of false beginnings: “In Europe people generally build a church first, and then a town or a city. Along with Manaus in Brazil, Birobidzhan in Russia is one of just two cities in the world that were built up around theaters.”
Halter harbors little ill-will towards the Russian state whose anti-Semitic policies made life difficult for so many in the 20th Century. He doesn’t see this as a political film, but rather one of a curiosity captured and shared: “I never set out to make a political film. I just wanted to share some of my memories. When I was born, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. And then I come to Siberia, where signs on the houses are all written in two languages and children are taught Yiddish at school. I saw Jews, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in 50 years. The very same. With the same accent. With the same songs.”
Below is a film Russia Beyond The Headlines made of the capital city:
A clip from the film (in French):