Chaim and Chaya were strangers in a strange land when they first set foot on Canadian soil 110 years ago, just two more Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms and hatred
Now, their great-granddaughter and a star of Canadian folk music have turned their story into Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a musical play questioning what it means to truly be Canadian.
Written by noted Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, with music by Hamilton-born folk singer Ben Caplan, the play just finished a seven-week off-Broadway run and embarks on a tour of Canada and Europe.
In an interview from New York, Moscovitch said the show’s title was inspired by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2015 remark about the role of “old stock” Canadians in the affairs of the nation.
“We were genuinely interested in what he meant by that,” she said. “We really went on a trip wondering who he was talking about.
“Jews are fully integrated into society today so nobody would think of us as anything other than old stock, but 100 years ago it was different.”
The refugee love story being told in the play is that of Chaim Moscovitch and Chaya Yankovitch who arrived separately in Halifax in 1908, fleeing pogroms that had been blazing periodically in their native Romania for centuries.
In Canada they found each other, a home in Montreal and a life of safety.
“What we’re doing with this is trying to humanize masses of refugees, and to try to understand the political landscape,” Moscovitch said.
Old Stock got its start as a collaboration between Caplan and Moscovitch’s husband, director Christian Barry.
Caplan explained they had started trying to write a play around a set of songs he had written earlier. They were struggling until Moscovitch, a longtime fan of Caplan’s music, brought them the story of her great-grandparents.
“We were looking for the kernel of a story, for a way into a story,” he said. “We started seeing more and more pictures of the crisis in Syria and realized that the refugee story was one that needed to be told. The story that eventually emerged was about Hannah’s ancestors.
“We were amazed an award-winning playwright wanted to work with us so we grabbed the chance and after five or six writing sessions it came together,” he said. “It just really took off from there.
“The three of us were able to bring our own skill sets to bear of this and we created something new,” he added.
Old Stock had its world premiere in 2017 in Halifax, followed by runs in Ottawa and for a month at the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it caught the eye of an off-Broadway producer.
“We were very fortunate that someone from an off-Broadway theatre saw the show and was enamoured of it,” Caplan said. “We asked us to let him stage it as quickly as possible in his next season.
“We always thought that something with a Jewish theme like this would have a place in New York, but we never dreamed it would happen in the first year of the play,” he said.
Caplan is also taking his show to Poland and the Czech Republic. Taking the show to venues where anti-Semitism and far-right politics are gaining attention is risky but, for Caplan, something that has to be done.
“We saw in the last leadership debates here that there are politicians out there, and certainly in the United States, that are willing to use divisive language to separate us,” he said. “Our effort here is not just to tell Jewish stories, but to tell universal stories. It’s an effort to humanize masses of people.”
Caplan and his band will perform concerts in southern Ontario May 1-6 while Canadian stagings of the play will start May 9 in Edmonton. More information about the upcoming tour is available at bencaplan.ca.