Marvelous music-making machines

After a quick wind-up, the first recorded version of the Israeli national anthem comes forth from the wide-brimmed round amplifier.

music box 88 (photo credit: )
music box 88
(photo credit: )
Follow the signs down the winding pathways of Ein Hod, the artists' village on the Carmel, to the Nisco museum of antique mechanical music boxes and toys, probably one of the only music centers in Israel that can function through a power cut. US-born former documentary film maker Nisan Cohen began his captivating collection of small and large music boxes, hurdy gurdies, hand-operated automatic pianos, gramophones and a host of other antique musical instruments about 40 years ago. Cohen traveled the world during a filmmaking career that began in the 1950s. "The first music box that got me hooked on the habit was in a Long Island antique shop I visited during a break when on location there with NBC," recalls the larger-than-life, charismatic cinematographer. The music box was made in America in 1895 by the Regina manufacturing company. There were just two music box manufacturers in the States, he explains: the Regina and Otto companies, until Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph - the first device to record and reproduce sound - stormed the home entertainment market in the early 1900s, closing the lid on the mechanical music box industry. "The Regina company closed after Edison came on the scene but the Otto company switched to making vacuum cleaners and is still in business to this day," recounts Cohen, whose collection of antique mechanical music boxes now numbers over 150 items. One of those items is seven feet tall and six feet wide: The Aeolian Orchestrelle organ was manufactured in England and Cohen had it shipped to the US some 15 years ago. A few years later the beautiful sounding organ was on its way to Israel, together with a coin-operated German manufactured machine that Cohen says was the first jukebox to stand in a railway station. It would seem that each item in the Nisco Museum has a story or two behind its melodic bars. "My music boxes and toys are all mechanical, they need to be wound up and therefore we are physically involved in giving them life - I just do not like pressing buttons," says Cohen with a grin. The toys sit on shelves and tables in a small, marvelously cluttered shop entrance to the large hall. The brigade of versatile, mostly tin wind-me-up-and-see-me-strut-my-stuff toys are amazing both for what they can do, and their ability to open long-closed doors down memory lane to toys we cherished in the 'good old days.' Cohen actually ran a number of mechanical toy stores in the US at one stage, and obviously found it difficult to part with his accumulated stock, so all made aliya - lock, stock and music barrel - together. "My dream was to share my collection with the people of Israel and so I started looking around for a suitable venue," he explains. When the Ein Hod locality was approached with the idea of giving a home to Cohen and his mechanical company, the dream became reality. What was originally a community center, later used as a dance school and lodgings for budding artists, became the Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music. He has also established an archive of old Yiddish gramophone records recorded from the early l900s to the beginning of the Second World War. Cohen - whose wicked Jewish-American sense of humor, marvelous range of facial expressions and equally expressive hands might well have developed into a successful career on the other end of a camera lens had that been his calling - has a deep love and respect for the Yiddish language and culture. His Yiddish archive is unique in Israel. "Yiddish was the language of the Jewish people for many centuries all over Europe until Hitler destroyed it. The records reflect in the Yiddish language the joys, humor, sorrows and dreams of a people annihilated - in fact they reflect the soul of a nation destroyed," says Cohen, who made the first non-documentary dramatic feature film on the Holocaust entitled "The Song and The Silence.' "My hope is that the archive will facilitate the echoes of a lost people and their Yiddish language will forever be heard on the very instruments they were intended to be played on," adds Cohen, the son and grandson of rabbis with roots in Poland and Russia. One grandfather hailed from Odessa and was one of the first Biluim to arrive in Palestine. Nisan's father, Rabbi Jeremiah Cohen of Philadelphia, was born in Poland and arrived in the US in 1910, and his mother was born in Jerusalem. "My grandmother died in childbirth and there was already another young daughter. My grandfather left them in a Jerusalem orphanage and went to America before the First World War to look for work, and only years later sent for his daughters. My mother saw her father for the first time when she was already 16 years old," he relates, with sadness in his voice. Cohen holds fascinating concerts most weekends at Nisco, where rare Yiddish musical arrangements and other blasts from the past can be heard. The museum is open daily and Cohen delights in showing groups and individual visitors around his mechanical world of music and play. A family of four are about to start a tour. The parents are in their late 30s, the boy around 12 and his sister a few years younger. Tearing the kids away from the toys is no easy feat, but once they enter the hall of music and Cohen begins his explanations and hands-on tour, the children become transfixed trying to figure out how many needles protrude from the cylinder that plays tunes, and how the cards feed into the hand-cranked French 1950s hurdy gurdy with a toy monkey perched on top. A small pile of punched cards for the hurdy gurdy are in a basket underneath the instrument. On top of the pile sits the French version of 'It's A Long Way To Tipperary.' As the rich sounds sprouts forth from the hurdy gurdy, Cohen jokingly begins to propel the stringed instrument toward the door. "Just practicing for a few years down the line when I might have to push this down Sheinkin to make a living," he jokes, his eyes twinkling under a black flat cap set jauntily and slightly off-center on his head. Reaching a mechanical His Masters Voice gramophone, Cohen takes out a record, places it on the turntable and after a quick wind-up, the first recorded version of the Israeli national anthem comes forth from the wide-brimmed round amplifier. Everybody is standing except the young boy, who has found a seat next to the gramophone. As Hatikva begins to play, he automatically jumps up and stands to attention - but is obviously trying hard to figure out how this particular contraption works. The Nisco Museum is open Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission including guided tours: Adults NIS 25, Children NIS 10. Telephone: 052-4755313.