CHICAGO — A 1931 Russian lithograph poster shows a man wearing a hat pointing his finger in a manner reminiscent of the Uncle Sam “We want you!” genre. But in this case he implores the reader to spend 50 kopecks on a lottery ticket “to build a socialist Birobidzhan, the future Jewish Autonomous Region.” Another lithograph poster from 1930, which was also hawking lottery tickets to benefit Birobidzhan, appeals, “Let us give millions to settle poor Jews on the land and to attract them to industry.”
Founded in 1928 along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Birobidzhan (also spelled Birobidžan) was designated as a “Jewish Autonomous Region” (J.A.R.) in 1930. Subsequently, international ad campaigns soliciting both domestic and foreign funding went into full force.
In 1928, about 525 Jews moved to Birobidzhan, and six years later, the number of immigrants who arrived reached 5,250, according to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. But, the encyclopedia adds, 60 percent of the 1934 immigrants left that same year, and Jews continued to flock away from the would-be agricultural Jewish utopia, including a recent emigration in 1989-1991.
Today, Birobidzhan has a population of about 76,000 people, 2,000 of them Jews, according to Eli Riss, a Chabad rabbi who leads Birobidzhan’s Jewish community. In an email, Riss said he believes the Jewish community actually numbers a good deal more than the official statistic of 2,000: between 4,000 and 5,000 people.
Beyond trying to attract constituents via lottery posters in the 1920s and 1930s, the J.A.R. administration published smiling photos of Birobidzhan Jews holding Yiddish newspapers, carrying sacks on their shoulders — with bulging muscles, of course — and playing mandolins, accordions, and guitars. The experiment also fascinated some Jewish immigrants, who came to the J.A.R. from Lithuania, Argentina, and the United States.
“Like many early Zionist pioneers in Palestine, the foreign Jews who settled in the J.A.R. were attracted by the mystique of tilling the land and engaging in physical labor,” writes Robert Weinberg in “Stalin’s Forgotten Zion.”
“And yet they chose not to go to Palestine and responded to the propaganda campaigns of pro-Soviet organizations by moving to the J.A.R., even if not always permanently,” he says.
Among the cheerleaders from afar were a group of 14 Jewish Chicago artists, who created a series of woodcuts titled the “Birobidjan Folio,” which they sent to the J.A.R. And, in 1944, Marc Chagall illustrated a wedding scene in Birobidjan, which he based on a poem by ltzik Feffer. The works of the former group is part of the current exhibit “The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940” on view through June 22, 2014, at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill.
In addition to the 14 Jewish artists of the Birobidjan Folio — Alex Topchevsky, William Jacobs, Aaron Bohrod, David Bekker, Louis Weiner, Mitchell Siporin, Edward Millman, Fritzi Brod, Bernece Berkman, Moris Topchevsky, Abraham Weiner, Raymond Katz, Todros Geller, Ceil Rosenberg — there’s more than another minyan of Jewish artists in the Northwestern exhibit (and a companion show). The latter include: Seymour Rosofsky, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Isaac Friedlander, Hyman Katz, Hugo Gellert, Boris Gorelick, William Gropper, Louis Lozowick, Harry Gottlieb, Riva Helfond, Harry Sternberg, Raphael Soyer, and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, daughter of Ben Shahn.
The title page of the Birobidjan Folio — a red/orange and white woodcut — which some attribute to Geller, states in Yiddish and Hebrew, “A Gift to Biro-Bijan.” In the rest of the folio, some of the works touch on Jewish themes.
Alex Topchevsky’s “Exodus from Germany” depicts a mass of Jews carrying bundles and pitchforks fleeing (stage left) from a swastika in the top right corner of the woodcut. The orientation of the work, coupled with the little bits of the exodus’ atmospheric setting that Topchevsky renders, vaguely suggests the Exodus from Egyptian persecution and the splitting of the Red Sea.
A wandering Jew may appear (shouldering a heavy sack and wearing a cap) in Aaron Bohrod’s “West Side,” and Abraham Weiner’s “Milk and Honey,” which is a reimagination of Grant Wood’s well-known painting “American Gothic,” references the biblical description of Israel as being a land flowing with milk and honey.
An essay in the exhibition handout by Sarah Sherman focuses on the image’s “reclamation of Wood’s original intent on the part of the woman figure,” who is endowed “with a power beyond that of the gray-haired male figure,” but Sherman’s reading of the Weiner’s image featuring a woman whose “breasts are proudly emphasized” seems to be making mountains out of molehills; there is, after all, a neckline on the woman’s top.
Two other works in the portfolio — Raymond Katz’s “Moses and the Burning Bush” and Geller’s “Raisins and Almonds” — also address Jewish themes. The latter, as Nathan Harpaz, manager and curator of Oakton Community College’s Koehnline Museum of Art, features a goat — which, in Eastern Europe, was “an important staple of Jewish life, believed to be endowed with mystical qualities” — and the work’s title references a 1980 Yiddish poem by Abraham Goldfaden, which was part of his play “Shulamith.” The poem reads:
Under Baby’s cradle in the night
Stands a goat so soft and snowy white
The Goat will go to the market
To bring you wonderful treats
He’ll bring you raisins and almonds
Sleep, my little one, sleep.
Sending visual depictions of raisins and almonds, milk and honey to the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan was part of a larger emphasis on real-time politics from the two groups explored in the Northwestern exhibit: the John Reed Club and the American Artists’ Congress.
“The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing social and economic fallout created a white-hot social crucible, forging a new generation of artists committed to revolutionary politics,” writes John Murphy in the accompanying brochure. “JRC and AAC members aimed to redefine what it meant to be an American artist. They rejected the ‘bourgeois’ definition of an artist as a genius aloof from his or her historical moment. Instead artists collectively participated in the controversial events of the day, calling themselves ‘culture workers’ and ‘workers with a brush.’”
‘The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing social and economic fallout created a white-hot social crucible’
In so doing, the Jewish artists who created the gift for Birobidzhan neglected another Jewish homeland that was being imagined in the Middle East.
“Despite an ideological conflict with the Zionist movement, which advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, American Jews founded two organizations to support the Jewish autonomy in the Soviet Union,” writes Harpaz, of Oakton Community College. One of those organizations, the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union was founded in 1926.
Nearly a century later, the Jewish homeland in Palestine undoubtedly enjoys more widespread Jewish support — ideological, financial, and otherwise — but Birobidzhan remains an important Jewish region that thrives both in real life, and in history books and exhibitions.