It may be hard to believe – a case of truth being stranger than fiction – but under Stalin, the Soviets created a homeland for Jews in eastern Siberia, on the border with China.
Still officially called the Jewish Autonomous Region, the area began attracting Jewish settlers from around the world from 1934 onward. It offered a Soviet counter-ideology to Zionism. With broad international support, the region – also known as Birobidzhan – was presented as a viable alternative to Israel. It was, however, an abysmal failure. Most of the Jews left the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Musical theatre artist Giles Howe was intrigued with the story of Birobidzhan, which was settled by tens of thousands of Jews, and has used it as the basis for the show “Soviet Zion” and a concept album he’s working on.
Howe, a U.K. native, began writing the show’s book and its songs with his creative partner, Katy Lipson, in 2007, on his return from a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. Eager to fill in the gaps of his knowledge of Zionist and Jewish history, Howe came upon a reference to Birobidzhan.
He found it intriguing that a nation could be birthed and almost forgotten about, while Israel is in the news so often. “I found it remarkable in comparison how little discussion there was about Birobidzhan,” Howe said on the telephone from Daytona Beach, Fla.
“Very few people that I asked about it could answer my questions or even knew that it existed, so that it felt it was an important story to tell because, given that it happened within living memory and the place still exists today, it offers an interesting parallel to the Jewish national narrative in Israel,” he added.
While he was researching the region, characters formed in his head and it began to turn into an idea for a piece of theatre, he added.
“Soviet Zion” is centred around an American family and a European family who move to Siberia to join the movement to create a Yiddish-speaking and socialist utopia.
“Soviet Zion” was workshopped at a concert performance at the London Jewish Museum in 2014. A reviewer in the British Theatre Guide described the show’s songs as “more art music than Tin Pan Alley.”
A concept album of the show, whose book has since been rewritten by Roberto Trippini, is currently in production. Several successful musicals, including Evita, Chess and Les Miserables began life as concept albums, Howe said.
He’s been working with composer Brian Freeland, who has given him access to the latest digital music technology, to create a soundtrack for the album that Howe said is worthy of a film. The technology gives him the option of including unusual instruments in the orchestration, and in one section, he’s produced the sound of 66 tubas playing. “The sound we’re going for is very hectic,” Howe said, chuckling.
Accompanying the album will be Russian and Yiddish translations of the show’s libretto, to be available online. The album’s Yiddish translator is Gittel Schwartz, a poet who grew up speaking the language in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Schwartz met Howe at a Shabbat dinner in Daytona Beach.
Schwartz said the Yiddish spoken by the Satmar community is different than dialects of Yiddish spoken elsewhere. Working on the Yiddish translation of the “Soviet Zion” libretto, she found she knew no Yiddish equivalents for words like “romance,” “flirting” and “passionate.”
“We’ve hit upon a part in the story talking about love and romance. That kind of thing did not exist in our Yiddish where I grew up,” Schwartz said.
“We grew up with Yiddish being considered the language of our ancestors and it was considered more of a holy thing,” she said. “We did not grow up using it to write books or plays. It was just a language to communicate with.”
Howe has a dream of touring a live concert version of the concept album to communities in North America. “Hopefully the concept album will generate interest in the project and people would like to see it performed live,” he said.
To preorder the album, visit www.sovietzion.com.