Earlier in April I attended the opening of Valerie Zimmer‘s photo exhibit at Columbia University Harriman Institute, “Just in Case” – На всякий случай”. As a Cojeco Blueprint Fellow, Valerie documented the objects Soviet Jewish immigrants took with them, and their stories. From old childhood toys and candy wrappers (a hot commodity for trading among 10 year-olds), to books, khokhloma plates and the iconic, hard-to-obtain polka-dot cookware, these objects tell the stories of memories, dreams and worries harbored by the immigrants as they embarked on their journeys.
Valerie’s mom, Alla, showed off a tie clip with Creiser Aurora on it, which used to belong to Alla’s father. Her dad, Yuri, contributed some smuggled-in branches of a blackcurrant bush that used to grow near their house. Now the offspring of these branches are thriving in the U.S., providing the family with delicious taste of home. Incidentally this reminds me of my own grandma and grandpa – they smuggled in a tiny shoot of a Christmas cactus from their apartment, and it now grows happily in Brooklyn and delights every winter with bright pink flowers.
As much fun as it was to look at the photos and reminisce, the stories that accompany the photographs were very enjoyable as well. Valerie’s project reminds me of Humans of New York, but through the lens of immigration and comfort objects we choose to keep. Some of the featured books, pots and other ephemera of Soviet existence are all the more recognizable and relatable, as many families owned the same things during the time of limited shopping choices in U.S.S.R.
Just In Case runs through May 18 at Columbia University Harriman Institute.