NIKOLAI KOLYE BORODULIN, Ed. Dir. of the Workmen’s Circle, is a native of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region Assistant Director of the Center for Cultural Jewish Life of The Workmen’s Circle. He is on the editorial board of Jewish Currents.
The incident will be in my memory forever, and I recollect it as if it happened yesterday. On a warm, sunny September day in 1989, I was strolling along Sholem Aleichem Street, the major thoroughfare of Birobidzhan, capital city of the Jewish Autonomous Regionin the Far East of Russia, and I met an acquaintance who wished me a happy holiday.
I looked at him as if he were daydreaming and naively asked, “What holiday are you talking about? It’s a while until October Revolution Day”, celebrated by all Soviet people on November 7th. He looked at me as if I were from another planet. “Don’t you know that today is a Jewish holiday.
At the time, I was 28. 1 knew that I was Jewish, yes the stamp on my passport, “Yevrey” (Jew), didn’t grant me the chance to forget. I was weirdly proud to be Jewish because Karl Marx, Yakov Sverdlov (the first president of Soviet Russia) and many world chess champions were Jewish. I was also an educated person: I knew Russian, English and German, worked as an assistant principal of a high school, and had begun to study and teach Yiddish. Still, I didn’t know
about most common traditions of Jewish life. Living in Birobidzhan described by the local writer Boris Miller as “a factory to assimilate Jews” I had not heard of “Rosh Hashone.”
I had not heard of “Purim,” “Sukes,” or “bar mitsve,” either. The only Jewish holiday I was somewhat familiar with was Peysekh, for which my bobe used to bake matse. She never said why and I never asked. Like others of my generation, I was a product of the national policy of the Communist Party, whose goal was to force all people of the Soviet Union to believe in the new and only God, the Communist Party and its chief deputy, Khaver (Comrade) Lenin. (In my time, Stalin was not spoken of any more). The brainwashing worked, and how! If you asked me when and where V.I. Lenin was born, I, and most of my generation, could answer without thinking, April 22, 1870, in Simbirsk.
Throughout my early childhood, I would listen and then read to myself amazing stories about young Volodya Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name), how honest and brave he was. In the first grade, almost every student became an Oktyabryonok, a member of an all Soviet school children’s organization, and received a pin with the image of Lenin as a child. In the third and fourth grades, we became Young Pioneers and wore the red tie and a pin with the portrait of 10 year old Lenin. At 14, we joined the Young Communist League and proudly wore a pin with the portrait of a teen¬age Volodya Ulyanov.
I mention Lenin’s birthday because on that date in 1989 I met the late Prof. Bernard Choseed, who became my mentor, taught me how to be a good teacher and a mentsh. He was a professor of Russian Language and Literature at Georgetown University, a passionate lover of Yiddish language and an expert on Soviet Yiddish literature. He had wanted to visit Birobidzhan since Stalin’s death, but had always been refused a visa.
In the 1970s, he even took a train from Moscow to Vladivostok, with a twenty minute stop in the city he had read so much about. The chance to visit Birohidzhan came with perestroika—Gorbachev’s policy of,”restructuring,” which began in 1985 but reached the Soviet Zion in the late 1980s.
Prof. Choseed was fascinated by what he saw in Birobidzhan. Most of the Jewish/Yiddish enthusiasts (including non Jews) were beginning the process of Jewish revival. He was elated to see this renaissance: to hear Yiddish songs and cultural programs on the radio; to buy gefilte fish: to see little kids studying Yiddish in kindergartens, and students at Teachers College (most of whom were not Jews) studying to become Yiddish teachers.
Professor Choseed became a major promoter of Birobidzhan abroad. In Japan he taught English, about Birohidzhan, and Yiddish. He invented a new Russian proverb, “Gromche Idish, dal’she budesh”— “The louder the Yiddish, the farther you’ll get” which is an adaptation of a famous Russian proverb, “Tishe yedesh’ dal’she budesh ” —”The quieter you go, the farther you’ll get.’ (It is a play of sounds here: yedesh, go, and idish, Yiddish.)
Even before perestroika, Yiddish had been present in remnants in Birobidzhan. The local newspaper, Birobidzhaner Shtern (Star), founded in 1930, was the only Yiddish daily left in the Soviet Union; there were daily radio news and cultural broadcasts in Yiddish; the signs on most official buildings were in Yiddish and Russian; the inhabitants of Birobidzhan even spoke with a certain Jewish intonation, similar to that of Odessa residents. Little of this interested me, however.
I actually found it slightly embarrassing to see old Jews sitting on benches and speaking this strange sounding Yiddish. If anybody had suggested that not only would I some day speak the language but actually become a professional in the field of Yiddish culture, I would have laughed. What caused my transformation from an almost perfect Soviet person with an appropriate set of values into an ardent Yiddishist? As they say in Yiddish: s’iz a lange mayse (it’s a long story).
My interest in Yiddish arose when Anatolii Surnin, a dean at the newly established Teachers College in Birobidzhan, asked me at the start of 1988 to become their Yiddish instructor. “You’re Jewish, and you know English and German,” he said. “Why don’t you take a textbook and teach yourself Yiddish?”
So I did in part because I had very little else to do in the nearby village of Lazarevo, where I taught English and was the only Jew among several thousand inhabitants. Becoming a language instructor at Teachers College meant a true advancement of my professional career, and I took it quite seriously. On a deeper level, my Rosh Hashone episode had been more painful for me than a physical blow and had really awakened my desire to understand Jewish identity.
In late June, 1989, 1 went to Moscow for my first serious encounter with the Yiddish language, at a seminar of Yiddish teachers organized by the Ministry of Education and the Yiddish magazine, Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland). There I was privileged to study with, and shep enormous nakhes
from, Shimen Sandler, a legendary Yiddish teacher who taught Yiddish on the pages of Sovetish Heymland. Seminar participants soon learned about another Yiddish seminar in Moscow run by former refuseniks and taught by Israeli Yiddish professors. We had to tants oyf tsvey khasenes (dance at two weddings),
studying officially from 9 to 1 with Sandler and Chaim Beider, and semiofficially from 2 to 6 with Gershon Weiner; Dov Noy, and Rivka Reich. By the third day of this immersion, I felt as if all the people surrounding me on the Moscow Metro were speaking Yiddish.
When I returned from Moscow, the editor of the Birobidzhaner Shtern gave Anatolii Surnin a letter from Miriam Dorn, chairperson of the early childhood education department at the City College of New York, expressing her desire to visit Birobidzhan. Her father had been the editor of a Yiddish newspaper in Canada and she wanted to see Birobidzhan with her own eyes. I called her without considering the fifteen hour time difference between New York and Birobidzhan—to suggest an exchange of visits between our Teachers College and City College. It was 3:00 am, in New York when her husband Herold picked up the receiver, passed it to Miriam, and I explained the matter in my tsebrokhenim (broken) Yiddish. She told me to call again in a couple of weeks.
When I did, the exchange had been arranged: I and my colleague, Larissa Tsilman, an English teacher to whom I had tried to teach Yiddish, would go to New York to study Yiddish, and then professors from City College would come to Birobidzhan to see how they could help us. Larissa and I were the first official mini delegation from Birobidzhan, which was honorable and thrilling, but not easy. In order to get two airline tickets to New York, Surnin and I had to fly some 7,000 miles to Moscow and climb the bureaucratic ladder all the way up to the deputy minister of aviation of the USSR!