Zionism in black and white

the "Through the Glass" photo exhibit will run through until the end of December, and possibly into 2021.

FISHING IN the Degania Bet pond in 1945.  (photo credit: KKL-JNF ARCHIVE)
FISHING IN the Degania Bet pond in 1945.
(photo credit: KKL-JNF ARCHIVE)
They say nostalgia ain’t exactly what it used to be. So in this so-called “post-Zionist” era of ours, what do Israelis make of the endeavor of the early pioneers who were around before modern-day Israel was created, or when it was in its infancy as the nascent Jewish state started to find its feet? And how can that period of time, with all the trials, tribulations, toil and dreams that went into turning the Zionist dream into a reality, be conveyed in an unfussy and palatable manner?
Presenting the ordinary man, woman and kid on the Jerusalem street with outsized prints of yesteryear’s images, depicting visual vignettes of some of what went into making this country a corporeal reality, is certainly one effective route to take.
Currently, there are 10 large monochrome pictures on display at the Black Box street-gallery space in front of the Clal Building on Yafo Street documenting some early Zionist derring-do from around the country, from the early 1920s through to 1945. All the works that comprise the Through the Glass exhibition come from the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund archives, which came into being 100 years ago, around 20 years after the organization was founded.
KKL-JNF curator Efrat Sinai, along with Black Box founders and curators Asaf Cohen and Izek Mizrahi, certainly had their work cut out for them.
“We had to go through around 3,000 photographs,” Sinai explains. It was something of an emotional roller-coaster for her and her cohorts. “There were so many things I wanted to have in the exhibition, but I had to be ruthless,” she says. “I put so many pictures to one side. It really broke my heart to leave them out, but we had limited space to work with. We’ve got so much material for so many more exhibitions,” she laughs.
What Through the Glass lacks on a quantitative level it certainly compensates for in terms of size and subject matter. You can’t help but smile when you see, for example, a couple of pioneering gents lovingly planting saplings almost a century ago, when the now sprawling Ben Shemen Forest was barely more than a twinkle in the early Zionists’ eyes.
One print that really catches the eye and tugs on the old heartstrings, shows half a dozen brawny fine specimens of masculine, intrepid, idealistic zeal tucking into their pita breads, coffee and other well-earned vittles. The archive caption of the picture, captured by Joseph Schweig, reads, “Laborers take a break from draining the swamps. Haifa Bay, 1929.” All except one of the photos are posed. The odd one out is a compelling action shot, taken by Avraham Malavsky, of a bunch of hardy folk erecting the watchtower as Moshav Beit Yosef came into being, near Beit She’an in 1937, as some suited, clearly impractically attired officials look on.

Joseph Schweig, KKL-JNF Photo ArchiveJoseph Schweig, KKL-JNF Photo Archive

The “fake” – to coin a now much-employed epithet – composition of the other nine detracts not a jot from their allure and, indeed, their authenticity. Such scenes were, after all, commonplace in pre-state Israel and in the early days of the emerging independent country. The works were also a highly potent weapon in the KKL-JNF’s fundraising arsenal.
“It was important to show Jews abroad what was going on here,” Sinai notes. “There was no Internet then, and not that many people traveled here in those days. So it was very helpful to be able to show donors and potential donors what was being done, and could be done, with their money.” Interestingly, three of the prints feature women at a time when, Soviet-fueled social ideology notwithstanding, the established social pecking order was very much male-oriented. Somehow, sadly, that still sounds relevant.
“Yes, they showed women doing all sorts of things,” Sinai laughs, somewhat wryly, “but that was really just for promotional purposes. The vast majority of women back then still did the traditional tasks, like in kitchens and in the laundry.” SO, IS Through the Glass – so named because all the prints were taken from glass plate negatives – just a merry trip down Memory Lane, or is there some tangible reward to be gained from dipping into the past and reminding contemporary Israelis what it was once all about and just how we got to where we are today, if one can set the pandemic to one side for a moment?
Sinai thinks it is a matter of national hankering for a less complicated life, reimagine or actual.
“From what I hear from visitors, the exhibition does arouse longing for a world where everything seemed to be so simple, and before this era when everything is just so fast.”
The location of the show may also prompt some oxymoronic sense of displacement.
“Here we are in the center of town, and just look at these pictures,” she exclaims. “There’s no urban development there. You see everything at such a primal stage.”
The selection process was pretty arduous, and the curator says there was nothing intentional about closing off the exhibition timeline before the creation of the state.
“We went for these years because we decided to take images printed from glass negatives,” she notes. Mind you the curatorial factor also came into play.
“Actually, glass-plate negatives were in use up to the early or mid-1950s, but we just ended up with images that end in 1945. These were the ones we felt were the most appropriate.”

A TU BISHVAT ceremony in Talpiot, Jerusalem, in 1923, attended by KKL-JNF head Menachem Ussishkin (front center left) and educatorpolitician David Yellin (front center right, with walking stick). A TU BISHVAT ceremony in Talpiot, Jerusalem, in 1923, attended by KKL-JNF head Menachem Ussishkin (front center left) and educatorpolitician David Yellin (front center right, with walking stick).

The prints certainly make for entertaining and evocative viewing. The most recent shot shows three fishermen trawling the Kibbutz Deganya Bet fish pond. The Malavsky picture from 1945 is clearly well thought out, and the composition is perfectly weighted. Each of the three male figures is holding a wooden pole or oars, they all don flat caps, and the texture of the shallow water is delightfully alluring.
“We wanted to have some water in the layout too,” Sinai explains. “And look at the background with the arid hill. It’s a lovely mix.”
It is indeed, and there is plenty more to feast our eyes on. Malavsky’s clearly crafted portrait of a bunch of female “laborers” setting off to put in a good day’s work in the field, eyes all a-gleaming, with forks, pickaxes, shovels and hoes at the ready, just makes you smile. Some of the women look more natural than others and, as Sinai pointed out, there weren’t too many female agricultural workers back then. But the point is taken and, no doubt, left potential supporters of the state-in-waiting with a positive impression and, it was hoped, reaching for their checkbook.
And Schweig’s shot of a “pioneer [woman] harnessing a horse to the plow in Nahalat Yehuda Training farm for women” taken in 1926 is a joy to behold. The female character in question looks tough enough to have plowed the field even without the help of her four-footed pal.
Sinai says that, although it took the KKL-JNF almost two decades to get its documentary act in gear, once up and running, the organization hired some top-notch photographers to get the desired visual effect, and invested a lot of time and effort in the venture.
“These are very special pictures, because they used a very special technique. They used really big glass plates. They had to carry all their equipment out into the field – cameras with a cloth the photographers pulled over their head, and with a tripod and other gear. It wasn’t easy.”
MORE FEMALE pioneering endeavors took place in the 1920s, at the Nahalat Yehuda training farm for women. MORE FEMALE pioneering endeavors took place in the 1920s, at the Nahalat Yehuda training farm for women.
THE CURATORIAL job was no piece of cake either.
“KKL has been around for 120 years, 120 years of history. How could I possibly have a KKL exhibition without some tree planting?”
As a kid I remember some of my precious pocket money going to purchasing a sapling in the Holy Land, and getting a really fancily designed certificate in return. So I knew just what Sinai was on about. Back then, for me growing up in Britain, that was what the KKL-JNF was basically about: creating forests.
The hardy rustic ambiance runs through the entire exhibition, as one might expect. Some of the works tend to the romantic side. Schweig’s 1934 snap of a shepherd with his flock at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the Upper Galilee is a prime example. The wooly creatures munching away at the luxuriant bushes, and the rolling escarpment on the horizon, together with the somewhat grandly attired shepherd, tell a story-and-a-half. The pictorial structure is the epitome of pristine classic design.
Sinai points out that, considering the logistics involved in getting image to glass negative, and then paper, there was little choice other than to adopt an art director mind-set.
“You’ve got to lug, say, 10 glass plates into the field and all the rest.”
For anyone under 20 who has no memory of pre-digital photography technology, not to mention cellphone cameras, will find it difficult to envisage the lengths one had to go to in order to get the perfect shot. And there was no way the camera operator could know what they caught until they got into the darkroom and set about developing and printing the fruits of their labors.
“They took a bunch of pictures in the hope they had got something usable,” Sinai adds. They had to reduce the risk factor to a minimum, and hope for the best. “Everything had to be thought out and be set out perfectly. There is no spontaneity in what you see here.” That is, other than the Beit Yosef founding-day photo, which also serves to commemorate the establishment of Tower and Stockade communities in 1937. That also makes the print that much more attractive, and exceptional. The fact that one of the men in the picture is staring straight into the camera, and is also a bit blurred because he was moving quite quickly, provides a delightful “live” counterpoint to the other more statuesque works. On-the-fly circumstances notwithstanding, Malavsky got himself a well-structured frame.
THE EXHIBITION’S only unstaged work documents the 1937 erection of the watchtower at Beit Yosef, one of the ‘Tower and Stockade’ communities. (Avraham Malavsky, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)THE EXHIBITION’S only unstaged work documents the 1937 erection of the watchtower at Beit Yosef, one of the ‘Tower and Stockade’ communities. (Avraham Malavsky, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
Sinai highly recommends venturing over to Clal Building after nightfall, too.
“The exhibition really comes to life at night. The lighting shows all the faces really clearly.” The nocturnal viewing experience was worked into the curatorial process. “The pictures were printed a little dark so that when you see them lit up at night they don’t come out too bright. It’s a different experience at night.” At the end of the day – pun unintentional – Through the Glass is about the frontier spirit of the Zionists of old, and also about KKL’s contribution to the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel.
“I think each picture represents something in the KKL’s history, and Zionism,” Sinai says. “Look at this man planting a tree. You can see he is putting his whole heart into it.”
And if the subject matter and manner of presentation aren’t sufficient to get the public on board, Sinai has incorporated an audience-participation element in the project. If you happen to identify any of the anonymous characters in the pictures, the curator cordially invites you to drop her a line at efrats@kkl.org.il.
Through the Glass is due to run through until the end of December, and possibly into 2021.