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Avraham Cohen is spoiled for choice when he needs to sweep out his small Tel Aviv shop. Balkan-born Cohen is literally surrounded by hundreds of brushes - all his own handiwork. The third generation of the Cohen family to ply the trade of brush making, he calls himself a professional mivreshan in Hebrew.
However, it appears that he is to be the last mivreshan in the Cohen stock. No one else in his family seems drawn to the craft, which in his case has become an art form.
Packed into the cramped shop on the corner of Jaffa and Nahlat Binyamin in Tel Aviv is a multitude of brushes and brooms varying in sizes, shapes and colors made from a wide range of synthetic materials and animal hair.
The smallest of Cohen's creations are for cleaning tiny vials used in laboratories. At the other extent, some very hairy two-meter long pink, green and blue monstrosities snake their way across the ceiling - props from a theater production. The Habimah and Cameri theater companies are among the impressive list of customers who occasionally approach Cohen with some rather strange requests. Quite obviously, he truly enjoys brushing up his creative talents to meet the challenges.
One's imagination boggles at what some of the objects he has made were created for. One particularly strange-looking bunch of items is actually a selection of weird and wonderful colorful hairy thingies used as backdrops for floral arrangements. A photograph on the wall shows actor-comedian Julian Chagran appearing in a theater production with something similar wrapped around his head.
Cohen was born in Sofia, the great-grandson of renowned Bulgarian Rabbi Israel Cohen. His grandfather and father produced brushes and brooms in the Bulgarian capital, and his father continued to hand-produce brushes after the family's aliya in l948, when Avraham was just two years old.
"At first, my parents settled in Jaffa; then we moved to Tel Aviv. My father opened this shop in l958, and as a boy I spent a lot of time helping out here - as did all the family. Eventually I started working here full time when I was 21," Cohen explains as he carefully winds some fine wire around the wooden handle of a small, bushy brush propped up on his work bench.
A pile of straw brooms is neatly stacked at the entrance to the shop, like the parking lot of a witch's convention. But before I can crack any jokes, a rather short woman enters. She has come to buy one of those very items. Trying one out on the shop floor, she says the handle is too long.
"No problem," says Cohen, as he whips the broom over his bench and saws off a few inches.
The woman is followed by a gentleman who needs a courtyard broom and proceeds to test a few specimens like a golfer trying out a new club. He finds one the right weight and size - another satisfied customer.
Then a middle-aged couple enters the shop. They are from Petah Tikva and have come especially to buy a few shaving brushes because the ones they had purchased 10 years ago are getting a bit worn, the man explains. His wife spots some innovative hobby horses with brightly colored manes created by Cohen, and promptly buys two for the grandchildren, adding that they could double for getting rid of annoying spider webs from high corners.
There are other creations to discover in this marvelous Pandora's box of brushes: brushes to clean teeth, nails or musical instruments as small as a tin whistle; brushes for grooming wigs; and an extremely plump brush for cleaning out tubas. There are those for polishing shoes, grooming pets or cleaning the car. You name it, Cohen has it - and if you have a specific cannot-get-in-to-clean problem, he will devise a bristled dust-buster to meet your needs. And to whom else would you turn to rehair a worn silver-backed brush of yestercentury?
Hanging from ceiling hooks and arranged on shelves around the shop are brushes made of ostrich feathers, goat and horse hair, raffia, straw and flax, various synthetic materials and even copper-bristled brushes for cleaning heavy machinery. One special extra-softie is for brushing down delicate porcelain or mosaics. Cohen says that goat's hair is the most suitable fiber for many of his creations.
Scrutinizing the brushes of different shapes and sizes, I ask what one particular brush is for. "Oh, that's for cleaning etrogs while they are still on the tree," he explains rather seriously, as if everyone should know what a goat-haired still-on-the-tree etrog cleaning brush looks like.
He reaches for a colorful hardcover book sitting among a pile of brushes on the shelf behind him. The title of the intriguing book is no surprise: Brush by French design consultant Daniel Rozensztroch and Israeli collector Shiri Slavim. But the attractiveness of its contents certainly is surprising.
During the summer, explains Cohen, there was an exhibition with some 3,000 brushes at Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum. Cohen was one of the exhibitors, and some of the brushes photographed in the book are his handiwork.
Rozensztroch and Slavim's love of brushes, design, folk art and photography are apparent from the more than 200 photographs of variations of an everyday tool we give little thought to - like the craftsmen such as Avraham Cohen who create them.
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