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Jewish Artists in Chicago and the Gift to Birobidzhan

Jewish Artists in Chicago and the Gift to Birobidzhan

Sunday, November 22, 2015 - 2:00 pm

$18 | $10 for Spertus members 
$8 for students and Spertus alumni

Buy tickets online below or by phone at 312.322.1773.

In 1934, a Jewish autonomous region was established in Birobidzhan (sometimes spelled Biro-Bidjan), Siberia. This Jewish region, viewed by many as a Jewish homeland, was put in place as part of a Soviet policy that encouraged ethnic groups to contribute to the building of socialism by settling their own territory (or oblast). Yiddish was the territory’s official language. Although Birobidzhan is not widely known today, at the time, the idea was supported by many Jews around the world. (See sidebar.)

In 1937, twelve Chicago artists — including notable modernists Todros Geller, Mitchell Siporin, A. Raymond Katz, David Bekker, and Morris Topchevsky — contributed to a portfolio of 14 woodcuts designed to raise money for the Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan and to establish a museum there. Their contributions ranged from images of shtetl life to representations of Depression-driven poverty at home in Chicago.

Spertus Institute is fortunate to have a rare, complete copy of the folio in our collection. It will be on display September 13, 2015 though January 3, 2016.

Join Susan Weininger to explore how these images offer a window into Chicago’s Jewish artistic community and its commitment to political and social issues.

Susan WeiningerSusan Weininger is Professor Emerita of Art History at Roosevelt University. She has curated exhibits and written extensively on Chicago artists including Gertrude Abercrombie, Ivan Albright, Romolo Roberti, and Paul Kelpe, as well as modernist Chicago art in general. She serves on a number of boards including the New Deal Center of Roosevelt University and the North Shore Board of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Bronx Express, David Bekker. From the portfolio A Gift to Birobidzhan: Chicago Artists in Support of a Jewish Homeland in Siberia, Published by L.M. Stein, Chicago, 1937, Spertus Institute Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Iker.

About Birobidzhan

An American committee, whose officers included Albert Einstein, raised funds to relocate families to the region, particularly as a haven from Nazism. Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears and founder of the Museum of Science and Industry, contributed more than $2 million to the cause. Zionist leaders, however, opposed the plan, claiming that it detracted from efforts to settle Jews in Palestine. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver argued that there can be no ersatz (replacement) for Palestine because it is not “an emergency place or refuge…It is home!”

Despite initial promise, the region proved inhospitable owing to its harsh, cold climate and remote location in the Soviet Far East. Communist purges further disrupted settlement and caused many of the early settlers to depart. Today, an estimated 4,000 Jews live in Birobidzhan, according to Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner of Chabad Lubavitch. Rabbi Scheiner serves as the area’s chief rabbi and is working to revive Jewish life in the region.

Sponsors and Partners

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JUF News is the media sponsor
of One Book | One Community.

NSS Beth El

North Suburban Synagogue Beth El 
is our One Book | One Community
synagogue partner.

JUF Russian Jewish Division

Related Programs

USSR FlagIn conjunction with the 2015 One Book | One Community initiative, Spertus Institute presents a series of programs about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

Guardians of Rememberance
Thursday, October 29 at AMC Theaters Northbrook Court

Building Zion in Stalin's Russia
Sunday, November 15 at Spertus

Jewish Artists in Chicago and the Gift to Birobidzhan
Sunday, November 22 at Spertus

Author Event #1
Sunday, December 6 at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El

Author Event #2
Sunday, December 6 at Spertus