LONDON — The first Jewish homeland of the modern era was established in the Soviet Union in 1934, close to China’s northern border, some 5,000 miles east of Moscow. Deep in Siberia, the Jewish Autonomous Region was referred to as “Soviet Zion” and had its own capital city, Birobidzhan.
Stalin’s answer to Zionism, the Jewish Autonomous Region was to be an alternative to Palestine. It was a place where Jews, speaking their native language of Yiddish, could come and settle the land with the aim of developing a proletarian Jewish culture.
A new piece of musical theater which premiered in London in late October, “Soviet Zion,” captures this fascinating era of Russo-Jewish history.
Written by British vocalist and lyricist Giles Howe, “Soviet Zion” tells the story of two families — one American, the other Ukrainian — who chose to move to Birobidzhan in 1939 and participate in the creation of this Yiddish utopia.
Jews from all over the former Soviet Union, US, Canada, Argentina and France were attracted to this Siberian territory by the lure of creating an agricultural, Jewish, socialist paradise. Yet for many, achieving the ideal proved to be impossible.
Obstacles to utopia included the region’s geographical isolation, brutal climate and poor land, which led many settlers to leave. And the Jews of Soviet Zion were also not immune from Stalin’s purges; reportedly at least 2000 were murdered.
Images chronicling this period share an uncanny resemblance to Israel’s early halutzim (pioneers). An online exhibition by Swarthmore College, “Stalin’s Forgotten Zion,” displays black-and-white photographs of hardworking, smiling men and women, tilling the land and draining swamps.
However, although there remain some 2,000-4,000 Jews living in Birobidzhan today, the social experiment of establishing this Soviet Jewish homeland ultimately failed. (According to travel writer and journalist Ben G. Frank, to this day signs in Yiddish, as well as Russian, greet visitors to Birobidzhan. Allegedly, the railway terminal there remains the only station in the world with Yiddish signage.)
In “Soviet Zion,” as in history, the reality the immigrants faced is not what they had been led to believe. The musical’s characters’ intertwining lives expose questions of identity, ideology and faith. They discover that personal sacrifices must be made to achieve the freedom they seek.
Howe, a former Taglit-Birthright participant, says he had been inspired to write the story after he returned home from the trip, “eager to counteract how ignorant I realized I was about my cultural heritage.”
For many years Howe and his musical collaborator, Katy Lipson, had wanted to write a piece that would give them the opportunity to explore their Yiddish heritage. By chance he came across an article about the Jewish Autonomous Region, which raised many questions for him, but few answers.
Howe’s curiosity became an idea for a story, which in turn developed into a libretto.
Directed by Bronagh Lagan, “Soviet Zion” is an ambitious project. Despite the subject’s rich potential, the show is short of depth, clarity and polish. At just under three hours, it plods along trying to cover the myriad challenges that life in Birobidzhan present.
Reconciling fierce idealism with harsh reality is Mirele Liberman, whose husband, Iser, is arrested for “cosmopolitanism” — he had erected a sign displaying non-Soviet place names.
Mirele’s daughter, Zofia, the local radio newsreader (ably played by Molly Lynch), must choose between her loyalty to her family and the state and her love for David Levin, a settler from America whose Zionist sympathies become a cause of conflict.
David’s sister, Bayla, is the all-American girl, who longs to return to home to the US, declaring that she is living in a town of “peasants.”
And for Oskar, their Communist father, the concept of Birobidzhan fulfils his utopian dream — until, that is, he is deemed “politically unreliable.”
Exploring the entire spectrum of experience tends to substitute substance for cliché with none of the characters being fully developed.
Although the ensemble vocal arrangements are strong, accompanied by virtuosic live performance by musical director Joseph Finlay and assistant musical director Colm O’Regan, individual vocal and acting talent is patchy.
Crucially, the cast is let down by an amateur choice of staging at London’s Jewish Museum, where a simple raised platform took the place of a formal theatrical space. The role of the narrator (Toni Green) provides useful structure necessitated by the limitations imposed by the set to the extent that she reads out the script’s stage directions.
Howe’s hope is that this initial limited run of a few days in London will open opportunities elsewhere in the UK, as well as abroad, such as America, Europe and Israel.
This is a show with huge latent potential not least because of its fascinating subject matter, but requires much work and finesse: both to deliver some emotional impact or to compete with confidence within with the crowded musical theater market.