There’s no place like school

One of the more fascinating remnants of the Herzl Street building greets visitors to the exhibition as they arrive in the hall.

monochrome prints (photo credit: Courtesy)
monochrome prints
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Gymnasia Herzliya school to the evolution of education in pre-state Palestine, and later in the incipient State of Israel.
“It really is the bedrock of culture and education in this country,” declares Guy Raz.
Raz should know. For the past six months, he has spent much of his waking hours trawling the basement of the current Gymnasia Herzliya premises in search of evocative and aesthetic material for the “Gymnasia Days” exhibition, which opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv on December 2.
The show primarily comprises photographs from various stages of the school’s first half-century, specifically from its founding in 1905 until it relocated from its long berth on Herzl Street to its present address on Jabotinsky Street in Tel Aviv in 1959. Naturally, all the monochrome prints are evocative of days of yore, including some from over a century ago.
There is a lovely shot of a gathering of the school’s founders in Jerusalem, including Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design founder Boris Schatz, who was entrusted with the job of designing the imposing façade of Gymnasia Herzliya’s impressive home on Herzl Street. Haim Bograshov was also on the setup team. He subsequently became school principal, and much later served as a Knesset member.
The school’s first benefactor was a British Jew by the name of Yaakov Mozer.
“He donated 80,000 francs for the construction work,” says Raz. “That was an enormous sum of money in those days.”
And there was more to be had where that came from. “Altogether Mozer gave 250,000 to the school, you know for maintenance, for operating costs and that sort of thing.”
The British philanthropist also gave the school its famous moniker, as a tribute to Theodor Herzl, and the Hebrew High School became Gymnasia Herzliya.
The roster of school alumni reads like a “Who’s Who” of this country’s political and cultural pantheon. Poets Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky; Israel’s second prime minister Moshe Sharett; painter, sculptor and author Nahum Gutman; writer Aharon Megged and former international soccer player Giora Spiegel are just some of the celebrities who gained their initial education within the portals of Gymnasia Herzliya.
The teaching staff included poet Shaul Tchernikowsky, writer Yosef Haim Brenner and Ruth Kaniuk, mother of 82-yearold prize-winning author and painter Yoram Kaniuk.
Prior to settling in to the expansive and aesthetically noteworthy Herzl Street building, the institution led something of a nomadic existence, operating from three different addresses in Jaffa in its first six years. The site of the school is now occupied by no less a voluminous edifice than the Shalom Tower building, this country’s first skyscraper and, at the time, the tallest in the Middle East. As British actor Michael Caine is reported to have said, in his inimitable Cockney accent, not a lot of people know that.
“That’s true,” admits Raz, adding that he has some street-level evidence of the general public’s ignorance of the historical tidbit.
“There is a company that is constructing a building behind the current Gymnasia Herzliya premises called the Gymnasia Tower. They took the logo of the school building [on Herzl Street] as the project logo. I spoke to someone in the company and I suggested they provide funding for the exhibition because of the neat tie-in. He didn’t know it was the Gymnasia Herzliya logo and he certainly didn’t know where the previous school building was located.”
The bottom line is even more disappointing.
“He didn’t give me any money either,” says Raz wryly.
Elsewhere in “Gymnasia Days,” there are shots of the first group of the school’s students – all 20 or so of them – and, as you pass through the exhibition areas, you get the sense that the various people responsible for documenting events at the institution were keen to ensure that later observers would know exactly when the events took place. There is a photo of an obviously staged classroom scene, with the words “Tu Bishvat” clearly written on the blackboard, and there is another with the word “Hanukka” on the blackboard.
There are non-photographic, equally evocative, items on display in the show too. There is a lovely copy of a book of rules to be adhered to when the school’s students went on walking trips. These include such logical ground rules as not allowing any student to lag behind the rest, and retaining the right to punish a student who behaves inappropriately during the trip. There is also a logbook of clothing purchased for some of the students, and an accounts logbook with details of the salaries paid to staff members, including Bograshov.
One of the more fascinating remnants of the Herzl Street building greets visitors to the exhibition as they arrive in the hall.
High up on the wall is a fetching light blue-gray circular wooden frame.
“That is a window frame from the original building,” explains Raz. There is also a colorful anecdote to go with the old architectural item. “The night before the building was destroyed, [late acclaimed writer and media personality] Netiva Ben- Yehuda broke into the building and took the frame. Netiva died last year, and I found it in the balcony of her apartment in Jerusalem. The frame undertook a circuitous route to get into the exhibition – from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv.”
Ms. Ben-Yehuda’s keepsake also helped to solve an argument. “People had all sorts of ideas about the color of the exterior of the school building,” continues Raz. “Some people said it was reddish brown, and some said it was white. But all the surviving former students said it was a light shade of blue, and here we have the proof.”
While I was being shown around the exhibition, I could see a group of senior citizens excitedly discussing some of the exhibits. It transpired that one of the group, Yehudit Rovyad-Levin, was a former student of the school.
“I was there from 1954 until the original building was closed at the end of the 1958 year,” she recalls. “My family moved to Holon so I moved to a different school after that.”
Rovyad-Levin has fond memories of her alma mater. “It was a beautiful building and it was very sad to see it being demolished,” she says. “The new building is ugly in comparison.”
While she was delighted about the exhibition, Rovyad-Levin said that, on a personal basis, she was a bit disappointed. “I came here to see if I could find any photos with my classmates, but there aren’t any pictures of students from the last few years on Herzl Street.”
In addition to photographs, notebooks and logbooks, there are some Judaica items crafted by the students at the school, including a handsome hanukkia.
The static visual elements of the show are augmented by some film footage of important events, including a visit by Baron Rothschild and an outdoor physical education class. There are also some other reminders of the school’s history, with background music of songs written by the high school’s fabled music teacher Hanina Ben-Yitzhak Karchevsky.
In between curating exhibitions, Raz earns his crust as a photography research.
He admits to harboring an ulterior motive for putting on the “Gymnasia Days” show.
“Without photography, we would have almost no tangible memories of the school,” he states. “These [Gymnasia Herzliya] archives are in a terrible state. The photographs are languishing in the basement of the current school building and they are rotting away. I would really like someone to step up to provide the resources necessary for ensuring these precious archives are not lost to the country. That would be a tragedy.”
“Gymnasia Days” closes on May 30, 2013.For more information about the exhibition, call (03) 641-5244 and visit