As surprising as it is to learn that a Jewish homeland was established on the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union in 1928, 20 years before the founding of the Israel, it's even more amazing that this Zion was created by none other than Joseph Stalin. The land, known as the Jewish Autonomous Region (J.A.R.), was seen as a solution to Papa Joe's "Jewish Question." During the first half of the 20th century, the world's largest Jewish population lived within the Russian empire, and Stalin was determined to forge for them a new agrarian Soviet-Yiddish identity. The plan: to move as many Jews as possible to a parcel of rich, entirely undeveloped land on the easternmost borders of Siberia where, freed from the bourgeois trades of the shtetl, they would form collective farms and transform themselves into a strapping class of Soviet peasantry. Their presence in the east would help safeguard against a Chinese or Japanese invasion; their absence from the west would also help ease the rampant anti-Semitism. Immigration wasn't mandatory, but thousands of Soviet Jews saw an opportunity to escape poverty and anti-Semitic violence and become part a longstanding dream: a Jewish homeland. And the journeys eastward weren't limited to Soviet Jews: IKOR, an organization created by pro-Soviet American Jews, encouraged some 1500 families from North and South America to relocate to the J.A.R., along with Jews from France, Poland and other European countries. The immigrants braved harsh conditions and persevered, building schools, theaters and a rich cultural life. In 1934, the J.A.R., popularly known as Birobidzhan after its capital, was officially established; in 1948, the Jewish population in the region peaked at 45,000. Yale Strom's enlightening documentary (he also directed 1995's acclaimed THE LAST KLEZMER) is divided into two parts. In the first, Strom uses priceless first-person accounts, family photographs and clips from such obscure sources as 1936 propaganda film SEEKERS OF HAPPINESS to chronicle the creation of J.A.R. In the second, Strom visits modern-day Birobidzhan to explore how much of this little-known experiment survived Stalin's brutal post-WWII attempt to suppress Jewish cultural life. Throughout, Strom intercuts footage of his own journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the company of Slava Andreyovich, his interpreter and the grandson of Mikahil Kalenin, an original planner of the J.A.R. and the U.S.S.R.'s first chairman. Andreyovich's cheerful and unabashed anti-Semitism another dimension of meaning to the Briobidzhan project, and a layer of urgency to Strom's fascinating film.
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- Released: 2003
- Rating: NR
- Review: As surprising as it is to learn that a Jewish homeland was established on the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union in 1928, 20 years before the founding of the Israel, it's even more amazing that this Zion was created by none other than Joseph Stalin. T… (more)