Q&A: One Lost Stone Director Thomas Kampe

In the run up to One Lost Stone, launching Sunday 5th July online, we will be posting Q&As with the team behind Discovering and Documenting England’s Lost Jews sharing their highlights, discoveries, personal journeys and more.

What is your role in The Lost Jews?
I am directing the arts project One Lost Stone, launching online Sunday 5th July. This was going to be an immersive, promenade performance tour around the Novo Cemetery. Now, in light of COVID-19, it will become an interactive, digital response to the cemetery and Sephardi heritage in England.

What excites you about this project?
Working with a team of educators and artists on this project and bringing a more or less hidden and marginal history to life. With the online version, I’m excited to learn to engage with new ways of working and communicating. This is rather uplifting, and a lot of our historical information and resources are available online anyway, meaning we are able to adapt. The other things that excite me are the personal stories, the links with new narratives of Sephardi lives in England now. Also, I have made some new friends.

What has surprised you in this project?
Engaging with Sephardi history was and still is an eye-opener for me – it is not the Jewish imaginary and cultural heritage that was familiar to me. I am German, so obviously the Holocaust and Ashkenazi stories have been colouring my understanding of Jewish history. I have also worked extensively with people from Ashkenazi backgrounds for many years, but engaging with Sephardi heritage, persecution, expulsion, exile and diaspora has been more than fascinating.

Of course, beginning to understand the links between Sephardi heritage and England was a complete surprise to me. I see the 1492 expulsion from Spain now as one of the key events that has shaped modernity; it has shaped the colonial histories of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, and of course England.

Research suggests that Columbus was a converted Jew, a ‘New Christian’ crypto-Jew and that Sephardi Jewish merchants, traders, financiers (and spies and pirates) were at the heart of building the British Empire and have assimilated into the UK elite. Perhaps this history of conversion and assimilation is part of the reason that this history is little known.

The economic and political world as it is today has been shaped by a complex web of cultural interaction where Sephardi Jews were often welcomed by governing powers and equally persecuted by the religious establishment, particularly the Catholic Church, who ran a deadly terror of Inquisition against Jews over several centuries, constructing anti-semite myths such as blood libel around the Western World in order to protect their power base. This is not a peaceful history, but a history of survival and defence.

What has been your highlight so far?
I loved many aspects of discovery of the Spanish Golden Age Jewish poetry and philosophy; the Ben Ezras, Maimonides, as well as more recent discoveries of pottery and other artefacts. I loved discovering more of Spinoza’s philosophy – and I do loved discovering Jewish pirates. Swashbucklers.

This is an important imaginary to explore, beyond the imaginary of the spiritual male Jew or the Jew as a victim. There is the modern muscle Jew adventurer, which we meet in England as Mendoza the Boxer, who invented the first modern boxing technique. Again, all of these are suppressed histories, because they do not sit easily with the religious establishment’s authorised versions of Jewish History, they jar with the candles in the synagogue. Yet, we uncover them in no time by looking at the gravestones of the Novo Cemetery. These histories sit side by side.

What are you looking forward to the most in One Lost Stone?
ONE LOST STONE is an experiment of bringing history and heritage to life through artistic means – right now we are creating soundtracks, videos, photo collages, webpages and selecting textual material for readings by actors. I am looking forward to the magic of bringing all of these together into a website of images, information and stories.

Find out more about One Lost Stone here, launching on Sunday 5th July online.