Giles Howe has a story to tell about two Jewish homelands.
The first is Israel, which he first encountered, like many Millennial Jews, on a Taglit Birthright trip. On his return — realizing he “knew very little about a lot” — he decided to explore his heritage to find where he belonged. He soon discovered that Israel was not the only Jewish Promised Land of the last century.
“I was reading an article and I saw a footnote that mentioned Birobidzhan,” Howe, a 36-year-old musical theater writer from Hampshire, England, now living in Daytona, Florida, said on a Zoom call. “I was fascinated that this place existed and there was an entirely parallel national narrative.”
Birobidzhan is a Siberian town founded in 1931 as the center of the Soviet Union’s Jewish autonomous region. It was a secular society on the China-Russia border, where Yiddish was the official language and Soviet authorities promised a culture of idyllic socialism. The reality was starker: a tough and isolated existence menaced by rule changes and an erasure of Jewish culture. For the thousands of Jews who moved there, the experiment was an alternative to British Mandate Palestine, a practical answer to what they viewed as the pipe dream of Zionism. But as Herzl said, if you will it, it is no dream. Meanwhile the notion of Birobidzhan as a haven was quickly exchanged for a nightmare of Stalinist purges and suppression.
While nominally the world’s only other Jewish state, the Jewish autonomous region is now around 1 percent Jewish. Its Yiddish institutions were purged decades ago and its hope for revival is pinned to the slogan “make Birobidzhan Jewish again”
In 2009 Howe began writing the book, music and lyrics for a project about Birobidzhan’s turbulent existence. Inspired by the mega musical sounds of “Les Miserables” and “Chess,” “Soviet Zion” is a chronicle of Jewish grit, following the Levin family from Malibu, California, and the Liebermans of Russia, whose lives overlap in the bleak frontier town from the late 1930s through to the postwar period. The two clans grapple with love, betrayal and diverging views on the future of world Jewry. All the while a question lingers: Do they belong in the Soviet Union, the warmer climes of the Levant, or somewhere else entirely?
I spoke with Howe about the musical’s new life as a fully-produced concept album — recorded in his native England during a national lockdown — and how the show shaped his own Jewish journey. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
PJ Grisar: So you had a location, how did you decide on this story of two families — one Russian, one American?
Giles Howe: Katy Lipson, who contributed additional musical material, and I wanted to create a piece with Jewish themes. I wanted to see how these different archetypes would interact. There’s the Old World and the New World, and so it made sense, ultimately, that Bayla (Levin, played by Michaela Stern) was based on the Jewish American Princess stereotype. And that’s in stark contrast with the characters that came from a much less colorful upbringing.
Pivotally they also have different ideas surrounding Zionism.
Coming back from Taglit I had all these questions about how do I belong somehow to or in the Middle East, and how do I relate that to my own experience of where I grew up and my connection to Europe, and to the UK, and my European ancestry and my Yiddishkeit. How do I piece all those pieces together? I wanted to explore my own questions of Jewish national identity. I wanted to write a piece that would celebrate the music that I love and that would help me discover more about my own connection to that continuum of Jewish history.
The arrangements sound pretty robust — is it mostly tracks?
We wrote it just on the piano. Then I actually online — and I still have yet to meet him in person — met an arranger and orchestrator [Brian Freedland] who does film scores and video games using this incredible technology that he has invested in. We were able to create an orchestral sound. Of course, it would be lovely to do it with a small klezmer ensemble. But this is a piece that is big. We have duduks, and a gong the size of the side of a house and literally hundreds of tubas and sub contrabass clarinet and hurdy-gurdy. This ensemble is enormous.
You recorded this in the UK during the pandemic. How did that come together?
With literally 24 hours to spare before rehearsals began, the government announced a national lockdown. And so we found out, with 24 hours before rehearsals, that the recording studio has pulled the plug on us. Fortunately we were rehearsing in a school. Schools didn’t have to close. And so we were able to hire the whole floor of the school — turn it, with 24 hours, into a recording studio, soundproof the building, create booths, bring in all this equipment, trail wires. We had to wear masks for the whole time, we had to do a socially distanced thing which gave no one any room to walk. Everybody’s like in this tiny little bubble with a mask on the face, and the visor, windows open because you want the air in, and of course there’s a kindergarten play school right next door, so every 15 minutes, the children, screaming and shouting and banging pots and pans. Oh gosh. We had electricians just walk into the recording studio and start changing light bulbs, we had fire drills, there was a drug bust next door in the middle of recording! I mean it’s everything that could possibly happen could happen.
Wow, that’s a lot added on to the inevitable cast drama.
We made it through and what was so exciting because when you have a mask on, you can’t hear great. So, I had no idea how this show would sound until it was being mixed and mastered when suddenly, everyone’s coming together. I didn’t know whether it would come together in the way I conceived, or whether it would be an absolute disaster, and I’m really pleased, especially with the odds stacked against that. Not only did we record the whole show, there’s a whole album of bonus material in Yiddish and Hebrew.
How did the Yiddish version come about?
I was fortunate to meet the young lady here in Daytona, who grew up in Williamsburg speaking Yiddish [Gittel Schwartz]. We just met at a Shabbos dinner and she’s a poet. I said, “Would you be interested to take a look at this?” Honestly I thought it’s something we could do in like a week or two. (Laughs) My Yiddish has improved substantially through doing it. Obviously it’s Williamsburg Yiddish, which is not the same Yiddish the people would have spoken in Birobidzhan. They had their own dialect that was created essentially in Birobidzhan. I don’t speak it or have access to anybody who does. I’m very happy to defend that it is written in a rather curious dialect — it’s probably as if you cast Henry the VIII speaking like a Texan. For me it’s a dream come true. I didn’t grow up religious, I wasn’t brought up very much involved in the community so the more I learned the Yiddish language is such an integral part of understanding the history, the culture, the more I wanted to honor that.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.