A couple hours shy of Khabarovsk on the trans-Siberian line (if you're heading east), Birobidzhan is actually a more attractive town, with shady streets and a quiet pace. It's interesting mostly for its history, as the big Hebrew letters spelling out the station's name indicate.
Birobidzhan (named for the swampy meeting place of the Bira and Bidzhan Rivers) is capital of the 36, 000-sq-km Jewish Autonomous Region (Yevreyskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast). It was opened to settlement in 1927, when the Soviet authorities conceived the idea of a homeland for Jews. Some 43, 000 Jews, mainly from Belarus and Ukraine but also from the US, Argentina and even Palestine, made the trek. In the 1930s growing anti-Semitism - fuelled by Stalin's paranoia that Jewish doctors were plotting to kill him - led to the ban of Yiddish and synagogues.
Since 1991 diplomatic ties between Russia and Israel have led to an outward flood of Jews. Of the estimated 22, 000 who lived here then, only 4800 remain - about 2.4% of the region's population. Today Hebrew and Yiddish are once again taught in schools, and Khabarovsk's nearby boom has prompted some Jews to return from overseas.
For most visitors, an easy DIY day trip from Khabarovsk is more than enough time.