Snapping at History (Extract)

A nonagenarian photo studio owner and her grandson fight to preserve a piece of Tel Aviv's past

17jenna224 (photo credit: Esterban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esterban Alterman)
Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Sixty-eight years after she and her husband established the Tzalmania, Miriam Weisenstein still opens her photo studio in the heart of Tel Aviv every morning at eight. Weisenstein is sharp and witty, still exuding the warmth and hospitality that have helped relax people who came to the Tzalmania to be photographed over the years. Dressed in black pants and a black shirt, with freshly applied red lipstick and neatly done hair, Weisenstein sits in a chair facing the door, her cane resting against her knee, greeting each customer. "How old do you think I am?" she asks a visitor. "About 70," the woman answers. "70!" Weisenstein laughs. "Ha! See that picture?" she points to an enlarged black and white photograph of a young woman jumping high in the air, with a devilish smile on her face and the very young Tel Aviv skyline of 1940 devoid of today's skyscrapers in the background. "That's me. I was a crazy girl, always up to something. And today, I'm 95 and I am still that same crazy girl." The studio - today a shop where old photographs are sold - sits right on the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda, once the very hub of Tel Aviv life, in a rather rundown 3-storey Bauhaus building, a five minute walk from the beachfront and its luxury high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. Old black and white photos of famous politicians and entertainers hang in the storefront window. Inside, scenes from the British Mandate period and the state's early years cover the walls. With the neon lights of storefront signs and the headlamps of passing cars outside blinking onto the historical photos and the old furniture inside, the Tzalmania is like a time machine frozen in two different eras. After her husband Rudi died in 1992, Miriam ran the studio on her own for 12 years. Now their grandson, Ben, 31, is helping her. But while Miriam seems to have finally fulfilled Rudi's dream of having someone from the family take over after them, a threat to the Tzalmania's very existence hovers over Miriam and Ben in the form of an eviction notice and plans for an upscale apartment building, with the private developer backed by the municipal authorities. "They want to build a six-story building here with fancy apartments," Miriam explains sadly. "The city thinks it is a matter of money, but I don't want money. I want to pass this place on. I want to give my grandchildren these photos." The eviction notice was served about two years ago, but now the pressure to move out is mounting. A campaign has sprung up among preservationists and lovers of Old Tel Aviv to try to save the Tzalmania. A song has been written about the shop, a petition is being circulated, and Ben and Miriam are fighting to save what they and their allies see as a historical relic. "I was born in what is now the Czech Republic," says Weisenstein, nibbling a cracker behind her desk. "In 1921, when I was 8 years old my family made aliya. We were the first Czech family in all of Palestine," she claims. As a young girl growing up in Tel Aviv, Weisenstein excelled in sports and, in her first job, she worked as a gym teacher. In 1936 Rudi came to Palestine from Czechoslovakia. The day after they met, she says, they set off to begin photographing the country and they were married soon after. In 1940, they opened the Tzalmania. By now World War II had broken out and tens of thousands of soldiers, mostly from Britain and the British Empire, were stationed in Palestine, and Tel Aviv was where they came for fun. The studio's first customers were mainly these soldiers, who came to be photographed so that they could send pictures home to their families. With Miriam running the shop and Rudi taking the pictures, the Tzalmania quickly established a reputation and the leaders of the pre-state Jewish community, the Yishuv, would come there to have their portraits made. "Studio portraits were a big thing here. On this bench, sat all the people who came here to be photographed," says Ben, pointing to a small bench in the back, the studio section of the shop. "Ben-Gurion, Golda, Rabin, Peres, everyone you see here," he says, indicating the many portraits on one of the shop's walls. "They used to say that if you got your photograph taken at the Tzalmania, it would give you good luck in the elections. My grandparents used to put the portrait photographs in the shop's window, and politicians used to say that if your photograph was displayed in the window of the Tzalmania before elections, you would win the elections." "One of my jobs was to put make-up on those who came to be photographed, to help them if they were too shiny, or looked tired or messy," says Miriam. "Golda was always very neat and put together, but she was always smoking. She would hold her cigarette low so that it wouldn't be in the picture. We really liked Ben-Gurion too, he had a great personality. His hair was wild, but he wouldn't let me fix it, he liked to comb it himself." At the same time, Rudi became known as one of Palestine's pre-eminent photographers. "Rudi and his Tzalmania became a Tel Aviv institution," says renowned Israeli photographer and winner of the 2000 Israel Prize for photography, Micha Bar-Am. "His work is absolutely worthy of preservation." When he wasn't snapping portraits in the studio, Rudi photographed many important events. He was also the official photographer for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years as well as the photographer for the United Nations in Israel. One of the climaxes came on May 14, 1948. "My grandfather received a secret invitation to come to 16 Rothschild [the Tel Aviv Museum] at 4:00 on Friday afternoon in festive clothes in order to photograph an important event," Ben relates." When he got there, he realized he was about to photograph the Declaration of Independence." "He was the only photographer there, and was very excited and emotional himself," relays Miriam. "He took a whole bunch of pictures during the ceremony, and the next day showed us how they had turned out. Someone asked him where the picture was of everyone standing and singing Hatikva after the declaration. He replied, 'At that moment I was not a photographer, it was the most emotional moment of my life. I stood and sang Hatikva with everyone else and cried.'" The third major branch of Rudi's photography was scenery: Tel Aviv throughout the years, as well as urban and natural landscapes from all over the country and even from around the world. "For 11 months we would work here, and for one month every year, we would travel," relays Miriam. "We used to take trips in the Negev, and he would take thousands of pictures. Wherever there was a plant or a flower, I would shout, 'flower, flower' and he would stop the car and take pictures of flowers that could grow without water." Rudi organized all his negatives into an enormous archive of over a million items. Today, many people come in to look for pictures of specific events or places in Israeli and especially Tel Aviv history, or simply to take a glimpse into the past. "I sit visitors at this chair so they don't get tired," says Miriam pointing to a table and chair where visitors can sit and flip through Rudi's contacts, all organized and labeled by topic and date. "Last year, a group came from a kibbutz near Eilat, looking for early pictures of their area, and they found about 40 pictures," says Ben. "That kind of thing happens all the time. My grandfather really documented the country's development, and in those formative years so much happened in the country." Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.