Days of Innocence

Israel Museum displays 20 years of beloved children’s books, and finally reveals their illustrator’s identity.

Shlomo Aluf 370 (photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Shlomo Aluf 370
(photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Ask any Israeli child about Hannaleh’s Shabbat dress and chances are he or she will instantly recall the angelic blonde in her simple white dress. The Ofer Library’s classic story of Hannaleh’s Shabbat Dress, published in 1957, is still found in many Israeli homes and schools today, and is one of dozens of beloved Ofer books from the 1950s-1970s on display at The Israel Museum’s nostalgic “Days of Innocence” exhibition, displayed in the youth wing library through September.
Shlomo Aluf, 77, the founder and director of the Ofer Library book collection, says that in 1957 when he started the publishing company, Israeli children were mainly reading European stories, and did not yet have their own, original books. He wanted to create Israeli literature for the masses of children pouring into the country and teach them the values that would build a strong next generation.
“[I wanted] to give children a sense of responsibility because they are our future,” he says during an interview in his charming bookshop in Petah Tikva.
Though the story of Hannaleh, a girl whose white dress gets dirtied but is cleaned magically by the light of the moon, has made Ofer iconic, Aluf says it does not reflect the true message of the collection.
“It’s not educational,” says Aluf, of the second book he published. “It’s just a story... it’s positive.”
Books like Nili Helps her Mother, his first book, about a five-year-old girl who bathes and dresses her little brother, sets the table and does grocery shopping, illustrate Aluf’s belief that children should help their parents.
“This is higher,” says Ofer earnestly.
“This leads... children to value what is work.”
Aluf made aliya with his family at 15 and a half from Baghdad – escaping via rooftops, he says – with the help of the Jewish Agency, and learned the meaning of responsibility early on in his life.
As a teenager and the oldest son, Aluf worked in an orchard near their home in Or Yehuda to help support his parents and four brothers. His father, who had worked as a math teacher in Iraq, was 50 when they made aliya, and could not work.
“As a boy I grew up believing that I had everything,” he says. Suddenly, his father who had taken care of them, was sidelined.
“Our luck was that we had good neighbors,” says Aluf, who brought fruits and vegetables to his family from the orchards as well.
After his army service, Aluf continued to help provide for his family. While he worked during the day, he studied in the evenings toward an engineering degree in Tel Aviv.
Aluf would buy books for his brothers to read, though the family didn’t even have electricity.
“I was a responsible boy,” he says. “I didn’t want to abandon [my parents].”
But he decided engineering wasn’t for him, and he shifted gears to publishing.
Aluf partnered with illustrator Eva Itzkowitz from 1957 until 1975 on such iconic stories as Hannaleh, Children from Around the World, I Work Like My Dad, Hurrah! I’m All Grownup and A Visit to Jerusalem.
“There’s no kid that’s grown up without seeing these books,” says curator and Youth Wing Librarian Orna Granot in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “You feel like a child when you open her books.
It’s so deep. It’s so initial. For me it’s very emotional to read her books.”
Granot notes the clarity and simple beauty of the illustrations, which allow very young children to follow along in the story. It is the drawings that have become etched on the Israeli cultural landscape, burned in the memories of every youngster who has fallen in love with the comforting and colorful world Itzkowitz fashioned.
Itzkowitz, born in Saxony, Germany in 1922, fled the country in 1939 during the rise of Nazism. She eventually arrived in Greece, after the British stopped her and her family from entering Palestine. When the Nazis reached Greece, her father was taken to a camp where he was killed, but Itzkowitz and her mother hid for five years and survived. She studied portraiture at the Academy of Athens where she lived until the end of WWII. She made aliya in 1945 and soon afterward began working with Aluf, and the writers Uriel Ofek, David Pe’er, Yemima Sharon and others to create the sweet drawings of typical childhood scenes and teach basic lessons like how to tell time and count, and more complicated ones such as what it means to be a pal (I’m a Good Friend), how life will change with the new baby brother or sister at home and coping with being afraid.
Aluf saw a kindred spirit in Itzkowitz.
“I was a refugee, she was a refugee, and we met each other,” he says.
According to Aluf, Itzkowitz illustrated children’s books and games for various publishers, but was not appreciated by them or even paid on time. It was after being mistreated that she teamed up with Aluf and found a home with Ofer for the next 18 years.
The Israel Museum’s exhibit closes an unsolved mystery about whose hand was behind the enchanting drawings, which critics at the time largely dismissed as unsophisticated and only for children.
The exhibit redeems her as a talented artist who pays attention to detail. Until now, Itzkowitz kept her identity as the illustrator a secret.
Different theories exist as to why she wished to remain anonymous, but the private artist was not available for an interview, the publishing company said.
“I think it’s because of modesty,” says Granot. “Everybody wants to be famous [today]. Once it was the opposite.”
Aluf agrees, that her modesty, experience as a refugee and of not being treated well by her previous employers, made her not want to publish her name.
Ilana Aluf, who is married to Shlomo Aluf and works with him at the company, says it was Itzkowitz’s choice not to attach her name publicly to the books.
“It was enough for her,” says Ilana Aluf.
Itzkowitz, who lives in Ramat Gan, loved her work, but never thought she would become famous or be asked about her drawings.
Today she is proud of the books, Ilana Aluf says, and even attended the exhibit’s opening in late January.
The Ofer books gained fame in the 1960s and 1970s when the Education Ministry purchased the books for kindergartens, the Jewish Agency dispersed them among Diaspora communities and the Hebrew University for immigrant camps. Each book has a seal in its back for parents and teachers from the Hebrew University signifying its educational content.
While the Education Ministry still distributes the books and Aluf is still publishing new stories, cookbooks and other literature, including translating some of his stories into Arabic for Israeli Arabs and readers in Jordan, he says they are unfortunately not widely read in the Diaspora.
The books, albeit dated, teach children about societal roles and gender expectations of those decades, Zionism in the first generation of the state and the world outside of Israel. The picture books illustrate the ideal family to children who are not yet part of the world outside of their homes, and illustrate how fathers and mothers behave.