Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924-1951

Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924-1951

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Henry Felix Srebrnik

Series: Jewish Identities in Post-Modern Society
ISBN: 9781936235117 (hardcover), 9781618118172 (paperback)
Pages: 312 pp.
Publication Date: August 2010

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The American Jewish Communist movement played a major role in the politics of Jewish communities in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as in many other centers, between the 1920s and the 1950s. Making extensive use of Yiddish-language books, newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and other materials, Dreams of Nationhood traces the ideological and material support provided to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, located in the far east of the Soviet Union, by two American Jewish Communist-led organizations, the ICOR and the American Birobidzhan Committee. By providing a detailed historical examination of the political work of these two groups, the book makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century Jewish life in the United States.

Henry Felix Srebrnik (PhD University of Birmingham, England) is Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. His most recent books include Jerusalem on the Amur: Birobidzhan and the Canadian Jewish Communist Movement, 1924-1951 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008) and London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945 (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1995) He also served on the editorial team for De Facto States: The Quest For Sovereignty (London: Routledge, 2004) with Tozun Bahcheli and Barry Bartmann.

Henry Srebrnik began his research of the place of Birobidzhan in the ideological space of American Jews over a decade ago. I believe I have read the majority of his publications on this fascinating and little-known topic, and this new book, Dreams of Nationhood, is the best among them.
— Gennady Estraikh, New York University, author of In Harness: Yiddish Writers' Romance with Communism
Dreaming of a better world during the Depression and World War II, American Jews and some non-Jewish activists supported the building of a Jewish refuge in the Soviet Union called Birobidzhan. Henry Srebrnik’s well-researched book, Dreams of Nationhood, shows readers that although short-lived, the American campaign for Birobidzhan was more widespread and important than anyone today might believe. Its most important supporters were leftist, Communist activists in such groups as ICOR and Ambidjan. However, Srebrnik painstakingly shows that in the 1930s and 1940s, Birobidzhan was discussed in polite company as a real alternative to Palestine. The book features Communist activists like Moishe Olgin and B.Z. Goldberg, as well as some unusual suspects including senators, pastors, well-known rabbis, and Albert Einstein. Srebrnik forces the reader to ask whether this is a story of willful ignorance on the part of the Americans, who did not understand the violence of Stalin’s Soviet Union, or whether the idea of utopia simply captivated a group of people far away from the turmoil of 1930s and 1940s Europe?
— David Shneer, University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture
Henry Srebrnik’s book, Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924-1951, is a richly detailed study of a fascinating, often neglected chapter in the history of the Jewish communist movement in the United States. In this meticulously researched book, Srebrnik thoroughly chronicles the world of the Jewish communist and pro-Soviet subculture that was established in the United States in 1920s until its demise in the early 1950s, drawing from an array of primary and archival sources in order to provide the reader with a sense of the ‘lived experience’ of the adherents and participants of the Jewish communist movement. Srebrnik’s in-depth account conveys a sense of the utopian ideals that drove many Jews, communist and non-communist, as well as many non-Jewish supporters, to look to the Siberian province of Birobidzhan as a territorial solution to the Jewish national problem. His main accomplishment, perhaps, is the extent to which he shows just how active and persistent this movement was in its support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Birobidzhan. Srebrnik’s scholarship sheds new light on our understanding of the Jewish communist movement in North America and the larger network of supporters of the Soviet Union in the years before the Cold War.
— Matthew Hoffman, Associate Professor, Judaic Studies & History, Franklin & Marshall College

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. “All of you to Tel Aviv on Purim”: A Local-National Festival
Chapter 2. “Travelling to Esther”: A Civil-Religious and Pilgrimage Event
Chapter 3. “A Little Bit of Tradition” 
Chapter 4. The Civilized-Carnivalesque Body
Chapter 5. “Mordechai is Riding a Horse”: Political Performance
Chapter 6. “Our Only Romantic Festival”: Hebrew Queen Esther
Chapter 7. Another New Jew: Urban Zionist Ideology