Yemenite history in black and white

A new photography exhibition chronicles the life of the Jews of Yemen in pre-state Israel.

The Yemenite young Mizrach sports team 311  (photo credit: Lavon Institute)
The Yemenite young Mizrach sports team 311
(photo credit: Lavon Institute)
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 photographers.
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 1948.
“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 mindsets.
“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.
Raz 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 were lost.”
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 situ.”
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.”
The 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 text.
I think we might have quite a few more photographic exhibitions of Yemenite Jews in the years to come as things are unearthed.”
For more information on “A Yemenite Portrait: Photography and Memory 1881- 1948” exhibition: and (03) 641-5244