Remembering the surprising history of Israeliana

The uniqueness of Israeliana seems to be that it is the collection of material items produced by a society that may not have been wealthy, but had a powerful sense of ideology.

A Sabra sports car. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Sabra sports car.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israeliana, like Americana, is the collecting of material items from a particular time and place. In the Israeli case, from the foundation of the Bezalel Academy of Art under Boris Schatz in 1906 to roughly the mid-1980s. As the US was a highly developed nation in the early 20th century, the range of Americana includes such highly well-developed technological objects like jukeboxes, cars and motorcycles. Israel did produce one car brand during these decades – the famous Susita, which also included the Sabra sports car model – but it would be a stretch to say Israel could hold a candle to Detroit in this department.
The uniqueness of Israeliana seems to be that it is the collection of material items produced by a society that may not have been wealthy, but had a powerful sense of ideology. Such items include blue donation boxes for the Jewish National Fund, and postcards and figures that honor Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl or the victory of the IDF in the Six Day War in 1967.
Another aspect is, like in the American case, nostalgia to a time that seems simpler and more innocent. In Israel, those who were born during the early decades of the state also experienced such items in their everyday lives, meaning the attraction is also to one’s childhood and the memories attached to it. From rotary phones and soda siphons to gum wrappers and shaving cream brands that no longer exist.
The academic term for collecting the perishable is ephemera, which is usually reserved for printed materials, such as postcards and posters. Such collections can offer us a much more comprehensive understanding of a culture beyond, or perhaps in a different way, than textbooks. Much like how a recording of a human being sharing their life story, or oral history, can move us in a different way than reading a book.
Oddly, explains chief curator of the Haifa City Museum Inbar Dror-Lax, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Israeli museums showed little official interest in collecting such things until the 1980s. The first four decades of the state were collected by private individuals, each motivated by their own highly personal interest in a specific field. Museums, during those years, were focused on presenting a grand theme, such as the Jewish nation returning to the land, or art, which is focused on one particular unique object.
This means that museums that, for example, tell the story of Jewish immigration to Israel or the formation of the IDF, don’t always require the historical object to tell a story. They can rebuild a model of a ship or a synagogue and present that to tell a story. The focus is not the object, but the narrative.
Another point is that Israeliana is often about the everyday items nobody spends much attention to in real time. Everybody can understand the value of a signed Babe Ruth baseball card, but what is the value of a Mickey Mouse alarm clock from the 1950s? Or, in the Israeli case, what is the value of oil bottles, sardine cans or school lunch boxes? Those things were, after all, made to be consumed and tossed away.
The shift took place in 1989, when curator Batya Doner arranged the exhibition Living with the Dream, which she saw as focused on Israeli material culture from the pre-state period until the 1960s. The exhibition, held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was a massive hit, which caused decision-makers to rethink their position.
“People who were children in the 1940s and 1950s miss these years,” Dror-Lax says, “and the option to touch such items and use them to tell their own children or grandchildren how they lived is very important to them.”
But even after the shift in attitudes, where can such items be found? The answer was – and still is – private collectors like Hedi Or – who collected Mizrahi plaster figures and today has one of the largest collections in the country – and the late Yirmiyahu Rimon.
Rimon – a collector with many interests who also sought items connected to Jewish immigration to the country during the British Mandate, postcards, posters, and items related to the history of Haifa and Tel Aviv – was a rare collector.
“He was unique because he was a collector who was also a scholar,” explains Dror-Lax. “He was very happy to help others and lend his collections for shows.”
The highly intimate nature of collecting means that, on some level, the collection is a personal fetish. Rimon writes in an article how he once witnessed a collection of the first rain to land on the city of Safed each year. The collector presented glass bottles with raindrops inside and labels depicting the year in which each sample was collected. The collection may seem unusual to some, but it meant a lot to the person who collected it.
The act of collecting requires time, there is a financial cost to buying items and a sense of competing with others. “Rimon was very principled so he left notes about items in his collection saying ‘rare’ or ‘very hard to find’ so his family would know,” explains Dror-Lax. “But when we looked into what does that mean it turned out that ‘rare’ means other collectors don’t have it, it’s a relative term.”
From the perspective of museums, the new realm of Israeliana presents many new questions. For starters, are postcards and posters produced by non-Jewish or non-Zionist groups also valid additions to such collections? Or is the focus of that field, or should it be, highly Zionist commercial art? Is there a time limit for Israeliana, or should museums consider buying things now with the thought that, for instance, a Yiddish-language poster warning haredi (ultra-Orthodox) residents against the novel coronavirus today, may be valuable ephemera in the future?
To be fair, an honest collection strives to include all aspects of a society. This is why, for example, the Hedi Or collection includes the figures of a black cook, which used to be common in Israeli households. The figure would carry a small notebook for note-taking. Such figures would be seen as racist today, but at the time nobody thought ill of them.
In other societies, such as Germany and the US, there is always a moral question of what to do with Nazi postcards sent to friends from occupied Europe, or lynching postcards. Should they be presented to the public? If so in what context? Should it be legal to buy them on the market? Pop culture and collecting are not without a dark side.
It is also not without a financial aspect. It is a well-known fact that Harvard University and Yale University, for example, are able to spend more to get more. The late poet Yehuda Amichai decided to sell his archive to Yale before he passed away, as was his right. Israeli institutions are in constant dialogue among themselves on what is worthy of being included and trying to figure out where the money might come from to purchase such items.
While Haifa Museum and the Tel Aviv City Museum were able to purchase some of the collections, partly because Rimon himself wanted his collections to be placed in an educational context, his Jerusalem collection and Jewish immigration collection were sold off in the private market. This is, sadly, the fate of most collections after the person who felt the need to create them is no longer alive. They are either tossed out by living relatives who never shared the interest or sold to the highest bidder. Rimon himself sold a collection of oil paintings his father passed on to him rather than enlarging it.
It’s not sensible to collect something that does not provide joy. Yet, with luck and patience, it is possible that some of the joy can be shared with others. Today, visitors are welcomed to the Haifa City Museum and can examine the rich diverse history of the city, as soon as the outbreak is over.     ל
Haifa City Museum is located at 11 Ben Gurion Avenue, The museum is currently closed until the Health Ministry releases new guidelines concerning COVID-19.