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Birobidzhan

Musical drama explores Soviet Jewish paradise

Signs in Cyrillic and Hebrew confront the residents of “Soviet Zion,” based on the Stalin-created town for Jews of the 1930s.
Signs in Cyrillic and Hebrew confront the residents of “Soviet Zion,” based on the Stalin-created town for Jews of the 1930s.

Do you know that Israel isn’t the only Jewish homeland?

Another spot exists that was established as a Jewish society, where the street signs are in Yiddish and Jewish tradition is part of the public school curriculum. Birobidzhan is the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, an idea Stalin cooked up as a home for Soviet Jews in the early 1930s, before he turned against them. Thousands of Jews from all over the world once lived in the town on the Trans-Siberian Railway, close to northern China. There are now approximately 4,000 Jews living there, as well as a Chabad shaliach. A synagogue opened in 2004 and there are plans for a Jewish day school.

Giles Howe
Giles Howe

Giles Howe developed the idea for the musical drama “Soviet Zion” after he returned to England from a Taglit Birthright trip to Israel. “I just found it really fascinating that Birobidzhan still exists today and no one talks about it,” Howe said in a recent interview with the Jewish Standard.

Originally conceived as an opera, the show mutated into a musical when Howe and his co-creators, Katy Lipson and Roberto Trippini, realized how difficult it would be to include all the necessary historical information and political context in an opera. “You can’t sing all that,” Howe acknowledged. Adding dialogue made it possible to flesh out the characters, members of three families, one from America, who come to live in Birobidzhan. The show was performed several times in England, and the full production is available at astagekindly.wix.com/sovietzion.

Howe was drawn to create “Soviet Zion” to answer his own questions about secular Judaism and Zionism. Now in Florida, Howe said that he was struck by how comfortable American Jews are in proclaiming their Jewish pride and their support for Israel. British Jews, on the other hand, try not to be noticed, Howe said. The British have trouble with Zionism, he added, because to many it smacks of colonialism, and they are still struggling with their own colonial history. And, of course, England is home to a huge Arab and Muslim population.

Howe grew up in Hampshire and London, where he went to university for a short time. Though he had taken piano lessons when he was a kid, “My piano teacher was never able to impart how to read music,” he said. “That was something I had to teach myself.” He still cannot sight read.

Leaving university, Howe moved to Sweden, perhaps because of his early obsession with the pop band Abba. “I really like Swedish people,” Howe said, but he found Swedish life quite bleak. Unlike in England, where eccentrics are tolerated, even celebrated, Swedes take great pride in being average, according to Howe. “Society is very limited by norms and values.” And there were few theatrical opportunities.

“Soviet Zion” is a musical drama, in the tradition of “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Mis,” and “Miss Saigon.” Whereas the American musical comedy is meant to amuse, musical drama’s goal is to move the audience emotionally, Howe explained. Such shows are closer to the European operatic tradition. The score of “Soviet Zion” is challenging to sing, Howe said, as is most of the music he writes, and he has continued to orchestrate since the last performance. He is now arranging for strings and horns and vibraphone. “It’s going to make it feel quite enormous.”

Members of the cast raise their voices in the musical drama “Soviet Zion.”
Members of the cast raise their voices in the musical drama “Soviet Zion.”

Howe thinks that the theater-going Jewish community in London is too small to support specifically Jewish plays. Very observant Jews don’t go to the theater, he said, and “other Jews are so removed from their Jewishness that they don’t have any interest.” Accordingly, he and his partners really want to take the show to New York. They are now in discussion with theaters in Israel and in Russia, as well. He also has ambitions to do a sound recording or a film.

“Soviet Zion” has important cultural relevance, the young composer believes, because it explores the concept of a Jewish homeland outside of its contemporary parameters. A fan of Middle Eastern music and other exotic sounds, Howe has a whole world to explore musically.

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