Not just fun and games

As two Israel Museum exhibitions show, toys and maps in the early years of the state served a dual purpose.

map israel museum exhibit (photo credit: Courtesy)
map israel museum exhibit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum there are two little exhibitions that are small in size but long on history. Toy Story and On the Map chronicle the early years of the state when a concerted effort was made to find creative ways - outside the classroom - to teach Israeli children about the nascent nation. Located on the main floor of the Youth Wing, the Toy Story exhibition comprises a collection of dolls, toys, games, puzzles, books and magazines that were designed to amuse as well as educate. Spanning the decade between 1948 and 1958, it is divided into five subject areas: Aliya; Statehood, the Army & National Defense; General Knowledge; Toys & Dolls; and Children's Collections. Many of the toy manufacturers at the time had come from Europe in the 1930s, explains Hagit Allon, exhibition curator of the Youth Wing. In the first years of the state, they wanted to educate children to be better Israelis, so they invented games that focused on subjects connected to Israel. With the same objective in mind, publishers developed board games to accompany their children's books. What's more, they also wanted the children to have a broader knowledge of current events and world history and geography, so they developed games that featured national flags and geographic locations or popular figures such as sportsmen and movie stars, as well as great scientists, musicians, authors, politicians and ancient heroes. For example, there are decks of playing cards with pictures of biblical prophets or famous intellectuals, while a colorful jigsaw puzzle, once completed, forms the aleph bet on a background of the map of Israel. There are some dolls dressed in the familiar Sabra khaki shorts and shirt or uniforms of the youth movements, and others that portray the facial features and national garb of new immigrants, such as Moroccans and Yemenites. In another vein, a board game with a map of the world challenges children to locate the places of origin of the new olim. And some snack food carried an informative element as well. On display is a wide array of gum wrappers that bear pictures of famous soccer players and Jewish intellectuals, which the children collected and traded. "Even when you were chewing gum, you got an education," says Allon. "You couldn't escape it." Similarly, a box of chocolates is imprinted with a representation of the legendary ship Exodus and the words "kibbutz galuyot" (ingathering of the exiles). In that regard, children were encouraged to extend themselves to fellow Jewish schoolchildren in the Diaspora to connect them with the Land of Israel. In the 1950s, JNF-KKL initiated a project in which Israeli children collected local flowers, dried them and sent them to Jewish schools around the world. While Toy Story is an education in itself, what makes the exhibit even more intriguing is the fact that much of the artwork in the books and games was done by Israeli artists who are now world renowned, such as Nahum Gutman, David Schneur and Nahum Gilboa, as well as dolls made by Edith Samuel. The items in the exhibit were culled from the museum's own collection and from local collectors, particularly Ari Reichman who, according to Allon, is the largest collector in the country. "People who collect toys are very unique. They're so nice," says Allon. "Most of the contributors to the exhibit were born with the country and have maintained a connection to their childhood," she notes. "All the collectors responded very well to me, and it was a pleasure to work with them and with these items." ON THE same floor, in the children's library, the On the Map exhibit fits in comfortably amid the shelves of books and colorful décor. One large map, for example, affixed on a wall at kids' eye level, allows children to take a close look at the illustrated icons and identify Israel's major cities and regions. From biblical maps to present-day designations, maps of Israel abound in this exhibit, which highlights the importance of imprinting the physical contour of the country on young minds. To reinforce this concept, the map has been printed on a plethora of practical and decorative items. A display of children's accoutrements and souvenirs from the early years of the state includes pens, penknives, pencil cases, ashtrays, wall plaques, scarves, mugs, thermometers, plates, trays, address books, T-shirts, even crib bumpers, each bearing the image of or formed in the shape of the map of Israel. Also featured in this category are textbook covers; the familiar blue and white JNF box; and a commemorative souvenir dish from 1948 with the map in the center. A unique item in the display is a large silver plate with the map etched on its outer rim. What makes it so special is that a young girl found it while she was digging in her garden, explains librarian Dafnit Moskovich. Another special item is a map painted by Nahum Gutman. Commissioned by JNF-KKL, it is the only map of Israel the renowned artist ever made, says Moskovich. Needless to say, a wide variety of games has been designed over the years to help children learn about the country. These include quizzes, board games and jigsaw puzzles. For example, a board game called "The Map Game for Youth" has its players set out on a trip across the country. Keeping up with the times, a Hebrew computer game designed by JNF-KKL challenges its players to identify specific parts of Israel. A small shape appears on the screen, and the player is required to place it correctly on a blank outline of the country. The objective is to fill in the entire map. An error message appears each time a piece is not placed in the right position. The player is allowed two attempts to get it right, after which the piece is automatically placed in position and the player tries his hand at the next chunk. As each piece is entered, printed information about the place is presented on the screen. Visitors of all ages are welcome to try the game themselves and see how they fare. Be it via toys and games or maps on mugs, there has been an ongoing effort to encourage Israeli children - as well as Jews around the world - to be knowledgeable about their native homeland. On the Map will be on display at the Israel Museum until March 22. Toy Story will be on exhibit until mid-April.