At his age you don't ask

The daughter-in-law of the late Teddy Kollek marks what would have been his 100th birthday with a photo exhibition based on his private moments.

Teddy Kollek photo exhibition 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Teddy Kollek photo exhibition 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It must mean something if a person who holds a lofty public position is always known by his given name. “He was always ‘Teddy’ and never ‘Mr.
Kollek,” says photographer Osnat Shalev-Kollek. “He had no time for all that formality.”
Shalev-Kollek should know. As the second part of her surname suggests, she is the daughter-in-law of the late iconic mayor of Jerusalem, who died just over four years ago at the age of 95. He would have been 100 years old on May 27 and Shalev-Kollek, who is married to Teddy’s film director son Amos, has marked that milestone with a photographic exhibition, based on her late father-in-law’s more private moments.
Currently on display in the lobby of the Jerusalem Theater, the exhibition is called “At My Age You Don’t Ask.” The title refers to Kollek’s habitual response when, already in his nineties, he was asked how he felt. That also sheds some light on some of the self-imposed parameters within which Shalev- Kollek worked while chronicling some intimate moments of Kollek’s final years.
“The earliest pictures in the exhibition are from 1995, although I started photographing him before that,” she says. “I thought I would commemorate a decade of Teddy’s life but, in the end, it worked out at around 12 years.”
As any professional photographer will tell you, it’s generally a good idea to get to know your subject before you start clicking away. So presumably, it can’t be a bad thing to be married to your subject’s son. “Of course, I was part of the family and I spent a lot of time with Teddy,” says Shalev-Kollek.
On the other hand, one can imagine that having someone constantly recording events within the intimacy of the family circle could become quite tiresome for the ones being snapped. “I tried not to be too intrusive, but everyone was very accommodating and natural, especially Teddy. But there was an element of sensing if it was inappropriate to take a photo at a particular moment,” she explains.
“I felt that it [taking pictures] was the right thing to do. When people get to a certain age, you become aware that it is time to document them and the things around them.”
Shalev-Kollek says that her father-in-law was, naturally, not overjoyed with his gradual physical decline but that not being a blood relative helped her maintain some emotional distance from her subject while being where the action was. “I was able, to a degree, to look in from the outside. It allowed me to be a sort of peeping Tom while observing and discerning where all the characters in the family were coming from. But I could also sit on the living-room floor and wait for someone to come into view. And everyone was fine with that. I really appreciate the fact that they allowed this to happen. No one bothered me if they thought I’d, maybe, taken an unflattering picture of them. I had carte blanche.”
However, that didn’t mean that she was intent on revealing all of Kollek and the rest of his family to the world, warts and all. “There were red lines that I was very aware of. Teddy grew old, but he did it gracefully. I wasn’t looking to show things that Teddy would have been uncomfortable with. I think that I instinctively refrained from documenting difficult or embarrassing moments.
Anyway, we are all advancing towards old age, when we will be more fragile and more incapacitated.”
BESIDES THE obvious sensitivity with which Shalev- Kollek approached the subject matter, one of the main added values offered by the photo exhibition lies in the glimpse we are afforded of the private world of a man who was known here and around the globe as “Mr. Jerusalem.” Kollek ran things in the capital for 28 years, including the critical period following the Six Day War, when his constituency grew appreciably almost overnight. It is also only fitting that the exhibition should be housed at the Jerusalem Theater, which is one of many cultural and other institutions over whose construction and growth Kollek presided.
But the Kollek of the exhibition is not the man who assuredly steered Jerusalem through a multitude of political, religious, social and financial minefields for so long. This is the ex-mayor in the twilight of his life, no longer the powerhouse figure of more than half a century of pivotal public roles, which included bargaining with Adolf Eichmann to secure the release of 3,000 Jews to England and acting as David Ben-Gurion’s right-hand man. This is principally Kollek the family man, spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren for whom he had had little time during his hectic working life.
“This is a different Teddy who gladly immersed himself in the family domain. Tamar [his wife] helped with that. She was always the one who kept things together at home while he devoted himself to his work. I really enjoyed documenting that side of him and showing it to the public. It was a very sensual and colorful experience taking photographs at their home.
Tamar and Teddy were a very giving couple; and when Teddy touched someone, he was always very warm and very direct. He could get very heated, and then the storm would blow over and he’d be all sweetness and light again. He’d offer you a chocolate or take out a cigar. It was all very visual.
He was a very generous man and didn’t make a fuss about himself. Teddy and Tamar were a very special couple, and I felt blessed to have time with them,” says Shalev-Kollek.
The scenes in the exhibition include carefree and emotional moments between Teddy and his grandchildren and a heart-warming snapshot of him and Amos at Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern shores of the Kinneret, which Kollek helped to establish in 1937.
Kollek occupied a rare position in the Israeli current affairs landscape in that he was a largely apolitical creature, and his dealings with his counterparts, and even opponents, in his day job were often more of a chummy, rather than confrontational, nature. That non-aligned element comes through in a picture taken at Kollek’s funeral, which shows a glum-faced Shimon Peres in the forefront and one of Kollek’s granddaughters looking on from behind. Peres is clearly not posing for the camera, and his facial expression suggests true sadness at the passing of a longtime friend rather than political posturing.
Shalev-Kollek says that Kollek’s exuberant character was something of a photographer’s delight. “He was so photogenic and expressive. There are a lot of very important politicians and other figures who are so bland. Teddy was mischievous and always ready to play act for the camera. He did not stand on ceremony.”
The Jerusalem Theater or, for that matter, any public venue was not uppermost in Shalev-Kollek’s mind when she started clicking away in the Kollek household. “It was really only in February that I thought, ‘Here’s Teddy’s centenary; I should do something to mark that with the photographs.’ Naturally, I called the Jerusalem Theater and offered them the pictures.”
IN FACT, there are two Shalev-Kollek exhibitions at the theater right now. The other one, entitled “Women in Amos Kollek’s Movies,” features actresses with whom her husband has worked.
As with the “At My Age You Don’t Ask” collection, Shalev-Kollek had to take up a position on the fringes in order to get what she wanted, although she admits that her artistic efforts can sometimes compromise her own personal enjoyment.
“We were at the Cannes Film Festival [when her husband’s movie Fast Food, Fast Women was being screened] and I wanted to be on the red carpet with Amos. But I also wanted to record him and [Fast Food, Fast Women star] Anna Thomson there. It was a shame I couldn’t be with Amos on the red carpet and take his picture, too.”
Ever the consummate professional, Shalev-Kollek opted to document the occasion rather than participate in it.
She hopes that visitors to the “At My Age You Don’t Ask” exhibition will come away with a greater appreciation of Teddy Kollek the man rather than the symbol of this city. “There were enough official pictures taken of Teddy by the municipality or someone from the government. That side of him, or any leader, doesn’t interest me. There’s a great photograph of Teddy with [photographer] David Rubinger sitting in the kitchen eating breakfast. That’s what I always look for.”
“At My Age You Don’t Ask” and “Women in Amos Kollek’s Movies” are on display at the Jerusalem Theater until May 21.