International Changemakers Bursary: Under the Same Stars by Jennifer Verson

 

Under the Same Stars is a digital audio project by Coventry-based artist, researcher, theologian and peacebuilder Dr Jennifer Verson, supported through our International Changemakers Bursary programme.

Inspired by Jennifer’s own family’s history of migration, Under the Same Stars shares stories and music from the Jewish diaspora, connecting with international artists and academics. It takes its name from the idea that navigation by the stars connects migrations east and west with the history of Coventry’s Jewish community, which grew from craftspeople and refugees coming to the city to learn the watchmaking trade.

A British Council project in partnership with Coventry City of Culture Trust, the International Changemakers Bursary was set up to foster creative exchange between artists and changemakers in Coventry and around the world. Jennifer is one of eleven recipients of the bursary, who you can find out more about here.

In the first episode, Jennifer speaks to Manashe Khaimov, Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at  Queens College, City University of New York, specialising in Mizrahi, Sephardic and Bukharian Jewish history. Manashe has chosen five musical tracks to tell his story of migration from Samarkand in Uzbekistan. 



Read on to find out more about the background and inspiration for the project in Jennifer's blog.

In 2015 Spain extended citizenship rights to the descendents of Sephardic Jews who in 1492 had been expelled with the Alahambra Decree.[1] The stipulation of this offer of citizenship was providing proof that one was Sephardic, or descended from Sephardic Jews. The easy way of course is to be part of one of the cohesive communities that settled in the Ottoman Empire spanning North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and parts of the Balkans. This simple rule, however, erases the reality of 500 years of migrating Jewish people. Jewish people and culture that was shared from Turkey and North Africa through pilgrimages, and sacred texts, through study and marriage, through commerce and mutual aid.

Like most school childen in the United States, when I was nine years old, our teacher gave the class an assingment to create a family tree. We were told to talk to our family and older relatives and make a map of who we are descended from.

Russian Jews being examined by a doctor before emigration from Liverpool to the United States. Wood engraving after C.J. Staniland, 1891. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

Russian Jews being examined by a doctor before emigration from Liverpool to the United States. Wood engraving after C.J. Staniland, 1891. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

My father’s parents were part of a late 19th Century ‘swarm’ [2] of Jewish migrants leaving the organised violence in Russia. Between 1880 and 1920 2.5 million Jewish migrants left the Baltic States passed through England on the way to the United States. 

The first time I heard the word pogrom was from my grandmother, Lillian Zeitlin. I was nine, she was in her seventies.

Now, I can see that this educational ritual creates a situation where parents are required to adapt the brutal histories of migration, genocide, and slavery over and over again, to sanitise them for their children. No parent in that moment wants to make their child or grandchild cry, so we somehow make these stories palatable and work to suppress the trauma, we replace them with nicer stories or stories that have been crafted by the media.

Canning, V. (2017). Migrant artists mutual aid: Strategies for survival, recipes for resistance.

Canning, V. (2017). Migrant artists mutual aid: Strategies for survival, recipes for resistance.

The family tree is lost I'm the packings and unpackings of migrations but I remember faint traces of what my grandmother said:

your great grandfather was a captain in the Czar’s Army

Pogrom

Poltava

I try to find this Captain from Poltava and have no luck.

It was a myth of my childhood that migrants arriving at Ellis Island, the mass migrant processing centre outside of New York City, were given new more American names by immigration officials who weren’t able to write down many syllabled foreign names. It was a story told to children to hide the choice many made to leave behind names that sounded too Jewish.

I look for the Captain in databases; Ellis Island, the United States Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem and have no luck.

In Hebrew the bet and the vet are the same letter except for a dot in the middle. I try these on my tongue: Verson…..Berson

I am offered the option of a D-M Soundex search.[3]

A mythic family begins to emerges from the fog of pogroms and databases. A family  left behind by the great grandfather who was a Jewish Captain in the Czar’s army and erased from history.

I find them in the smaller towns close to the metropolis of Poltava. Evacuated to Tashkent as they fled advancing armies between 1941 and 1943.

See the database of Jewish evacuees in Tashkent https://www.ushmm.org/media/dc/Digitally-Acquired/RG-75.002M/B/RG-75.002M.B.136.jpg

See the database of Jewish evacuees in Tashkent https://www.ushmm.org/media/dc/Digitally-Acquired/RG-75.002M/B/RG-75.002M.B.136.jpg

This is the beginning of a different story; Tashkent. Tashkent loomed large in the imagination of a generation. 1923 Aleksander Neverov tells the story of two young orphan boys who travel eastward escaping famine.Tashkent In2021 Nadexdha Dukhovny tells the story of Tashkent as the Star of the Orient and the Messenger of Peace [4] that welcomed the refugees of war.

In the 1880s Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms travelled west, heading for the United States, many stayed in Britain for love, or lack of funds to travel further. Young Jewish refugeess came to Coventry to work and to train as watchmakers. Historically migration and exploration was only possible navigating by the stars. Celestrial navigation relies on accurate watches. Under the same stars is a digital reflection on this web of connections: personal, global and local.

The story of my family who migrated in the other direction, who fled Nazi armies and found sanctuary in the Muslim countries of Central Asia is the inspiration for this International Changemakers Project, the first chapter of begins the story of migration from Uzbekistan and a digital encounter with Manashe Khaimov who was born in Samarkand.

 

[1] In 2015 David Cameron was criticised for referring to migrants as swarms https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33716501 and UKIP for using imagery that mirrored Nazi Propaganda https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2016/06/nigel-farage-s-anti-eu-poster-depicting-migrants-resembles-nazi-propaganda

[2] McDonald, C. (2021). Rancor: Sephardi Jews, Spanish Citizenship, and the Politics of Sentiment. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 63(3), 722-751. doi:10.1017/S0010417521000190

[3] Daitch–Mokotoff Soundex (D–M Soundex) is a phonetic algorithm invented in 1985 by Jewish genealogists designed to allow greater accuracy in matching of Slavic and Yiddish surnames with similar pronunciation but differences in spelling. See https://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/soundex.html

[4] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tashkent-the-breadbasket-of-the-country/