Home and homage to Israeli crafts

The expanded gift shop at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv now promotes a wide array of local handiwork.

donkey art 88 (photo credit: )
donkey art 88
(photo credit: )
Turning 21 is a big deal in some cultures. Southern belles have their debutante balls and get their hair done for the big day; in Australia and New Zealand, keys - the symbol of the family home - are given to commemorate the transition to adulthood. Last week, a similar coming-of-age ceremony was held at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv for the museum's shop, which never fully got the fanfare it deserves. The shop manager, Aviva Ben-Sira, decided that after 20 years in business, it was time to host a party to showcase the shop's latest expansion and transformation into a museum shop that focuses on promoting Israeli crafts. "This is considered to be one of the best museum shops in Israel," says Ben-Sira, a Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design school graduate who chooses the pieces and communicates directly with the artists. Sometimes she selects one-of-a-kind pieces and limited edition works, which are represented by the store's large selection of ceramic pieces. "We don't sell museum replicas but original Israeli decorative art," she notes. Because the buyers range from Israelis buying for their homes to tourists looking to bring home Judaica, Ben-Sira has to keep everyone's tastes in mind and stock the shelves accordingly. Israelis, she says, have tastes that veer toward European ones that are clean, simple and highly designed; whereas American tourists go for more colorful and larger pieces with more emphasis on craft. The shop endeavors to offer something for everyone. That definition covers traditional, ethnic and contemporary art. One can find hand-crafted ceramic figurines made locally by Ethiopian artists and hand-forged silver jewelry by Yemenite artists. Some jewelry pieces incorporate archeological finds such as ancient Roman glass shards that form the centerpiece of rings and necklaces; there are do-it-yourself archeology kits, pottery, prints and contemporary items such as stick ponies, leather handbags and olive wood products. Judaica, especially Kiddush cups, menoras, mezuzas, jewelry and prints, are the most popular gifts. The pieces are of heirloom quality, above art-and-crafts fair standard, and items are wrapped with the artist's biography. "I love this. I'm going to buy this for my son," gushed one client. "It's a beautiful concept here," she reflected. Beyond the treasure trove of local arts and crafts, the shop sells catalogues and books of current and past exhibits. It's the place to go shopping if you want to know more about Canaanite pottery, tribal Beduin headdresses or contemporary art exhibitions on the theme of the succa. Ranging in price from NIS 10 to about NIS 100, most of the books are printed with dual English and Hebrew texts. When a new exhibition comes to the museum, the shop carries items to reflect its content. And since the museum hosts the Biennale Ceramics exhibition every two years, highly designed ceramics tend to be a focal point in the shop. The fourth Biennale for Israeli Ceramics opened on November 23 and will close on April 20, 2007. The theme is "Territory and Identity - Between Ceramics and Architecture." Don't expect to find your average coffee cup or ceramic ashtray at this exhibition. Laden with symbolism, the ceramic artists attempt to merge mud and metaphor. The exhibit, wrote architect and curator David Knafo in the exhibit's magazine, "offers a platform for a critical observation of Israel's cultural identity and the process of its formation within conditions of a permanent conflict over its legitimate presence in the region." The biennale, he continued, helps one to understand the Israeli identity. Ceramic works hang from the ceiling and stand on the floor. A popular exhibit is one where people are invited to take off their shoes and walk across fresh bags of white clay. The Eretz Israel Museum was established in 1953. It is both an indoor and outdoor museum, giving way to pavilions that represent ancient and contemporary life and culture from the land of Israel. Each pavilion is dedicated to a subject, such as ceramics, coins, and copper. There is also an onsite planetarium and the Man and His Work section, which features live demonstrations of ancient methods of weaving, jewelry and pottery making, grain grinding and bread baking. Other permanent exhibits feature ethnography, folklore, Judaica, cultural history and local identity, and traditional arts and crafts. In the basement of the postal exhibit is a new exhibition seen advertised on city posters and in caf s: "The Coffee House Exhibit of Tel Aviv 1920 to 1980." This photographic display depicts people from another time, drinking coffee on the roofs and streets of Tel Aviv, looking as though they stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The images brought back memories for Hassia and Dvira, two old friends born in Tel Aviv who were teenagers in the mid 1940s. "Tel Aviv was so young and so were we," laughed Hassia as they scanned the photos. That was a time before the country was officially a country, they explained; a time when one went to a caf , and everyone there knew everyone. "When it came time to choose a prime minister, people complained because we knew it would be hard. Everyone was close," recalled Dvira, whose favorite hangouts were the Rowal, Pinati and Kassit cafes, cultural fulcrums of their era. German immigrants brought the caf s with them, they explained. "At first we didn't understand what the caf owners wanted from us," said Hassia. "Why should we drink coffee in a caf when we could drink it at home?" As the trend caught on, both agreed that the social aspect was second to none. "Tel Aviv," said Hassia, "is best city in the world. Jerusalem is the Holy City, Haifa is beautiful, but Tel Aviv is in my soul." Across from the postal building are other permanent (and quieter) exhibits, such as the ancient glass and pottery pavilions. Somehow, a life-sized apple-green donkey from a past ceramics biennale has snuck inside the ancient pottery pavilion. There one can also find a prototype of the first pottery wheel and shards of pottery left behind by societies that populated this land long before we did. The Eretz Israel Museum is located on an ancient biblical site, Tel Qasile, helping put Israeli art and culture into perspective. The archeological site is more than 3,000 years old and contains remains of a 12th-century port city founded by the Philistines. Times have changed: Looking up into the skyline of the museum, one now sees cellular telephone antennas disguised as palm trees. For a glimpse into Israel's past (and to buy books and handicrafts that reflect it), the Eretz Israel Museum and shop are open seven days a week. Admission is NIS 38 for adults, but entrance to the shop and the new caf - a place to see and be seen - is free. 2 Rehov Haim Levanon, Ramat Aviv Tel: (03) 641-5244