Photographs of Yemenite Jews have provided some of the most iconic images of
pre-state Palestine. Monochrome shots of striking-looking people of all ages,
generally with peyot and in traditional dress, can be found in coffee table
books on Eretz Israel. But it seems that no one had managed to put together a
serious display of photos from the earliest days of Yemenite Jewish presence in
these parts. That has been set to rights with the exhibition entitled “A
Yemenite Portrait: Photography and Memory 1881- 1948,” which opened at the Eretz
Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv yesterday.
The show is the brainchild of
curator Guy Raz, who calls himself a researcher of the history of local
photography. Raz started working on the exhibition eight years ago and spent
long hours tracking down sources of archival material, and then trawling tens of
thousands of photographs taken by some of the leading pre-state
These include the likes of Avraham Soskin, known primarily
for his pictures of the earliest years of Tel Aviv, and Ephraim Moshe Lilien,
who were both highly active at the beginning of the 20th century. Later there
were European photographers such as French-born Helmar Lerski, who lived in
Palestine from 1932-48 and later settled in Switzerland, and Hungarian-born
photojournalist Zoltan Kluger.
The show incorporates some 100 pictures
divided into two chronological sections – from 1881 to 1930 and from 1930 to
“The photographers in the first period all came from Russia and
Poland; the second group mostly came from Germany and Austria,” says Raz, adding
that the two sets of documenters approached their craft with highly contrasting
“The works in the show are all by Ashkenazi photographers from
Europe, so there is a sort of encounter between different worlds here. Up to
1930, the photographers who came here were from Russia and Poland, and they had
a romantic and Oriental approach. When the Germans and Austrians came, they
brought a more modernist and artistic angle to photography here, and
specifically the pictures they took of Yemenite Jews,” he explains.
certainly had to put his historian-researcher skills to good use to get the show
up and running.
“The exhibition was mostly put together from the archives
of photographers,” he says. “I couldn’t rely on getting stuff from the
photograph albums of the members of the Yemenite community. They didn’t have
anything from the early years here. Most of the archives started after the
creation of Israel, so if a family didn’t keep their early photographs, they
That meant that Raz had to put in a lot of spadework but, he
says, there is some potential substantial added value in the cards. “People from
the Yemenite community might come to the museum and find pictures of family
members they never knew existed. That will be very exciting and moving if it
happens. That’s the power of photography,” he says.
So what will we learn
from the exhibition that we didn’t know before? “Each photographer had his own
approach, and documented different things and in different ways,” says Raz.
“There were photographers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Hadera, each of whom
used different techniques. And there are studio pictures and photos taken in
There are also social and political issues that come to the fore
in some of the photographs. “The exhibition includes a series of 12 photos, nine
of which are of the Kinneret Yemenites,” he elaborates.
The latter refer
to the infamous episode in the early 1930s when Yemenites who had been living on
the shores of the Kinneret for 20 years were forced to relocate by members of
the Kinneret group of kibbutzim, despite the fact that the Yemenites had arrived
in the area one year before the kibbutzniks. “You can clearly see how poor those
Yemenites were,” adds Raz, “dressed in rags and with shabby houses.”
curator admits to having something of an ulterior motive about the project
besides offering us a glimpse of how Yemenites lived here 100 or so years ago.
“Any artist, including photographers – and I am a photographer myself –
addresses political-social issues in their work. That’s part and parcel of what
we do. So I felt it was the right thing to do, to have a photographic exhibition
that examines those aspects, too.”
In addition to the 100 or so stills, a
couple of short documentary films are screened at the exhibition as well. One
dates from 1913 and shows Bezalel Art School students painting and sculpting a
Yemenite model with the school’s founder, Boris Schatz, in full view. The other,
made by Israeli film industry founding father Natan Axelrod in 1940, documents
the lives of Yemenite Jews in Palestine.
Raz believes there may be many
more priceless visual documents of the Yemenite community out there. “The
history of photography has only really been evolving in the last 10 years, and
photographs were generally used by historians as an illustration for their
I think we might have quite a few more photographic exhibitions of
Yemenite Jews in the years to come as things are unearthed.”
information on “A Yemenite Portrait: Photography and Memory 1881- 1948”
exhibition: www.eretzmuseum.org.il and (03) 641-5244
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