Gessen relates their story efficiently, if somewhat sketchily: The village-like clusters making up Jewish Birobidzhan are only passingly described, the geopolitical motivations for the region’s creation are never fleshed out ... Still, Gessen tells a poignant tale in Where the Jews Aren’t. The book’s most memorable sections are Gessen’s ruminations on homelessness as experienced by her own generation of Russian Jews.
Birobidzhan’s claim on the imagination is more for what it eminently is not than for what it is. Gessen, however, concentrates more on the sadness than the absurdity. What stands out in Where the Jews Aren’t are Gessen’s qualities as a storyteller, one able to weave together political history, biography and personal experience into a singularly poignant tale.
To a large extent, Gessen focuses her account of Birobidzhan on the Yiddish writer David Bergelson ... It is not quite clear why Gessen has chosen Bergelson as the protagonist of her narrative unless perhaps to show, in the case of a single writer, the ups and downs of Soviet treatment of the Jewish population ... Gessen’s book is otherwise something of a rambling account, partly drawn from historic documents, partly from personal experience, of one of the Communist regime’s many failures.
I wish Gessen had told the reader more about what it was like to live in the Jewish Autonomous Homeland. Unfortunately, she has found few sources about daily life there. In any case, her real interest is less the homeland than the writers, like Bergelson, who can never feel at home — those who must always wonder when it’s time to leave, who must decide when to run, when to stick it out ... Her sad and absurd tale is less about a failed social experiment and more about the contradictions of writing without roots while longing for home.