Very good, but very sad

Once upon a time, Jerusalem was filled with orphanages, Jewish and Muslim, all of them segregated by gender and most by community.

weiss 298.88 (photo credit: Jerusalem Artists House)
weiss 298.88
(photo credit: Jerusalem Artists House)
Once upon a time, Jerusalem was filled with orphanages, Jewish and Muslim, all of them segregated by gender and most by community. Not all the inmates were true orphans; most came from destitute families that could not feed all of their children.

A personal note: in 1912, after my grandmother died in Jerusalem, my grandfather placed my father in the Yiddish-speaking Diskin Orphanage for Boys in the Old City, before leaving for Australia to look for gold. My father never forgave him, and ran away to Zichron Yaakov. A photograph of a group of Diskin boys taken around that time shows them barefoot in galabias, their heads closely shaven. They look very much like concentration camp inmates.

Eventually, with the aid of donations from abroad, conditions improved in all the Jerusalem orphanages and soup kitchens. However, the orphanage children, keenly aware of their status, rarely accepted being separated from their families and never lost the feeling of being different from all other children.

An extremely moving show of photographs now at the Jerusalem Artists House, taken by Jerusalem's first Jewish photographer, Zadok Bassan, reveals part of the story of one of the warmer institutions, the General Israelite Orphans Home for Girls, founded in 1902 by Rabbi David Weingarten and still run today by his octogenarian grandson, Rabbi Fishel Weingarten. Some 3,000 girls have graduated this institution, after getting warm attention, meals, medical care and, last but not least, an education, which was from the outset in Hebrew.

The "General" in the name stemmed from the unusual fact that the girls came from all the different Jerusalem communities, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

THE ORPHANAGE began with less than a dozen girls in Mea She'arim and later expanded in a typical Jerusalem stone building near the Ethiopian Church, where some of these images were made. Eventually it moved to the premises of the Alliance Universelle on Jaffa Road, but moved to Kiryat Moshe when the Alliance building made way for the Clal Center.

In 1956, the year of Bassan's death, the orphanage reopened in a new complex in Kiryat Moshe, designed by the veteran Yishuv architect and town planner Richard Kaufmann, who had a modest office next to mine in the original Palestine Post building; we became good friends. Kaufmann, a charming gentleman "yekke" then in his 80s, had decades earlier designed the famous circular moshav of Nahalal.

Zadok Bassan (1882-1956), grandson of a Safed blacksmith and an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian descent, began work as a photographer over a century ago, gradually acquiring Jewish clients. He photographed all the Jewish charitable institutions, including the Diskin orphanage.

The Weingartens needed photography to help them raise money for their orphanage, and Bassan became the in-house recorder of its history, in prints made between 1902-34. He printed his work himself; some of his original prints, on the small sheets of the period, are on view in this show. Their true quality, however, is discerned in the modern enlargements of selections from Bassan's archive. They are superb, thanks in great part to the fact that in pre-film days, Bassan had to use large glass negatives set one-by-one in a heavy tripod-mounted camera.

The glass (and later celluloid) negatives were stored in dated boxes and though extremely fragile, survived the move to Kiryat Moshe, where they were recently rediscovered by photographer Guy Raz, the curator of this exhibition.

Nearly all the images, indoors and out, were brief time-exposures; here and there, a little girl has moved and her image is blurred.

ALL THE IMAGES are promotional, for the orphanage could not survive without donations from abroad. The girls are seen posed in long lines at the orphanage and at the Western (then Wailing) Wall, some provided with handkerchiefs to dry their obligatory tears; or in front of the Hurva synagogue, later destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948/9. There are also records of outings to the Allenby Bridge and boating on the Jordan river. But most images were made indoors, with over 50 taken of girls next to their beds in the Ethiopian and Alliance buildings.

All the beds in the home were numbered, with the number embroidered on the pillow, so that each girl had her own bed, sheets and eiderdown. Some of Bassan's images show different girls posed next to the same bed. The reason must have been that a particular room offered the best light, and that the tripod, camera, and heavy glass negatives did not have to be shlepped from room to room.

The little girls, clothed in their identical best dresses (sent from America) stand next to the standard iron bedsteads; behind each bed is a donor's plaque topped by a photo of the donor. These prints were doubtless sent to the donors and used as a bait for others. Eventually the sensitive Rabbi Fishel had all these plaques removed from the dorms and placed in a hall.

Around 1950 a promo black and white movie was made to demonstrate that life was good for these orphans of circumstance, aged from five to 16 or 17; a loop of the 24-minute movie is on view at the show. It begins in the squalor of a ma'abara tent camp in winter and depicts a mother bringing a little girl to the orphanage, where she is given new clothes, a clean bed and a new life.

The silent movie, with subtitles in English and Hebrew, shows a day in the life of the girls at the orphanage. It begins with bed-making, tooth brushing and bread and tea, and then the girls are taught addition, Hebrew, English, prayers, music, geography, physics etc. all at a simple level. More attention was given to cooking, sewing, weaving and the use of a sewing machine. The little duty monitors helped serve the meals and clean up. The plates and cutlery were crude, but then everything in Jerusalem was pretty simple in those days, when nearly everyone in the city was hungry.

The wonderful exhibition's catalog-cum-book is replete with information but is a conceptual disaster. The small format and the layout reduces the photographs to the size of contact prints and in some cases, postage stamps.

The catalog also mentions one Odette Orr, born 1951, who was separated from the rest of her struggling family at age seven and stayed in the orphanage until she was 14. This year she produced and appeared in a new film about the orphanage in which she talks about going back to the orphanage as a soldier and being shocked by the sadness that she suddenly perceived, a sadness which hung over all the young inmates like a pall.

This institution saved many lives and gave its girls a new and respectful start in life; but home is where your parents are.

LAMBDA COLOR prints, some on aluminum, by young photographer Lilach Weiss, (b.Israel 1975) are extraordinary in their hyper-realism and intensity of color, even though they are all ostentatiously posed for drama; some mock pioneering. Some are from Sweden where she studied for several years. Well worth a visit.

Also at this venue are portraits made on crushed, handmade paper by Michal Karmon, most conceived in line rather than her occasional use of flat color. The subjects range from familiar images of Kafka, Freud, Anne Frank et al, to film stars; all personalities who have had an influence on the artist. But despite a skillful use of line, most of the over-literal images remain merely trite. (Jerusalem Artists House). All shows till November 13.