Off the Rails in Birobidzhan

editor Wednesday 1 August 2018 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share by email Printer friendly

By Jonathan Arlan.. Anything for a vegetable in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Siberia. 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. [Picture top right: Part of the old synagogue of Birobidzhan | Photo credit: Jonathan Arlan].  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 pelmeniinside 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. Read the full story.



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