Aristocratic artist

Pioneering feminist Lea Majaro-Mintz has witnessed more than eight decades of tumultuous local history.

artist Lea Majaro-Mintz 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
artist Lea Majaro-Mintz 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Meeting Lea Majaro-Mintz at her home in Neveh Tzedek is like having tea with a descendent of William Penn in a colonial period townhouse in Philadelphia’s Headhouse Square; or dropping by the Algonquin Club in Boston’s Back Bay for lunch with the Cabots and the Lowells.
This fascinating lady – artist, pioneering feminist and witness to more than eight decades of tumultuous local history – belongs to one of the families that built this country from virtually nothing. If Israel can be said to have an aristocracy, then Majaro-Mintz is among its more noteworthy members.
She is, first of all, the granddaughter of Shimon Rokach, who in 1887, along with businessman Aharon Chelouche, envisioned the creation of a Jewish settlement outside the walls of overcrowded Jaffa and began the neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek – fully 22 years before the founding of Tel Aviv.
She is also the niece of Shimon’s son, Israel Rokach, mayor of Tel Aviv from 1936 to 1952 and later Knesset member and interior minister. Her father, Dr.
Leon Majarovitz – whom his Arab patients in Lod called “Dr. Majaro ” for short – and her mother, Hannah Rokach, were first introduced in the home of then Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff.
After spending most of her life in Jerusalem’s Old City, Majaro-Mintz lives and works in the house her grandfather built in 1887, which she restored almost 100 years later and is now the Beit Shimon Rokach Museum. There she exhibits her paintings and sculpture, along with family memorabilia and artifacts from the early days of Neveh Tzedek and of Tel Aviv.
Majaro-Mintz inhabits the small bronze cupola at the top of the building, which also serves as her studio. Her two sons also live in the house with their families, in private apartments that overlook the garden.
Gearing up for an exhibition of some of her most recent paintings, the woman who greets us in the garden of the Beit Rokach Museum is slight of build, soft-spoken and – astoundingly – almost totally blind. As she leads us into the building, what strikes us first is the sight of so many women – sculpted brown clay women – literally everywhere we look.
If there is an armchair in a corner, a clay woman is sitting in it. If there is a wooden stepladder propped against a wall, another clay woman is lying on one of the rungs, apparently fast asleep. A cabinet has clay women leaning against it, while wooden beams across a ceiling have other clay women hanging from them. Whole rooms are crowded with clay women, and the whole house is overrun with them – in every shape, size and conceivable position – everywhere our eyes alight.
We climb many steep stairs, past a second-floor theater which features a work of clay cars driving through Tel Aviv streets, suspended somehow from the theater’s ceiling. Finally, we achieve the summit, the building’s cupola, where Majaro-Mintz offers us tea and tells us her story.
“After my father married my mother, he insisted on working among the poorest people of the country. And he already understood that the poorest people were in the Old City of Jerusalem. He asked my mother to come join him there, and that’s where they went to live. That’s where I was born, in 1925.
“When I was about 15 months old, my mother set me down on the floor – there was a place on the floor where she would keep me – and I started to cry.
I cried because I wanted her to take me up in her arms. And she was taught not to pay attention to the cries of a child, that a child doesn’t have to get whatever she wants; but I cried so hard that she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“So she took me up, and the moment she took me up, the floor fell exactly at the place I had been put. If she had not taken me, there would have been nothing left of me. She wanted to flee the house, but stairs began collapsing around us. It was an earthquake, in the Old City.”
After the two were rescued from the crumbling building, Hannah found her husband later that chaotic day and told him she no longer wanted to live in the Old City. The doctor, however, did not want to be far from his patients, so the couple compromised on a neighborhood not far away, little knowing that danger awaited them there as well.
“Arabs came one night,” Majaro-Mintz recalls. “Near to where we lived, there was a very large place where Jews sold cloth – an enormous place with many, many shops. So they came and started burning all the shops, and after they finished burning, they thought they might find some Jews around.
There weren’t many, there was only my family. And there were a few Christians there also.
“Arab Christians took us to their home and saved us, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. After that, my mother didn’t want to stay in that place either, so we moved to where the Jews had their neighborhood. And that’s where I grew up.”
WITH EARTHQUAKES and riots more or less out of the way, the young Lea was able to grow up and evolve into an artist. Upon completing high school, she surveyed the educational opportunities available to her and made some interesting decisions.
“There were two schools, one in the morning and one in the evening. In the morning there was the school for artists, Bezalel, and in the evening there was the school for lawyers. So in the morning I went to study art, and in the evening I went to study law.
“What the difference was, at Bezalel, most of the students were girls. There were very few boys. And at law school there were only three girls and 200 boys. So that’s why I chose them, to be with girls in the morning and boys in the evening. But I didn’t work very much with law. I worked more in art, doing art, teaching art.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries who became enamored of more abstract or conceptual forms of art, it was mostly figurative art that Majaro-Mintz was drawn to, both in her painting and her sculpture.
“I felt that I wanted to express what I felt, and what I thought, and what was around me,” she explains. “To do something that has no meaning and doesn’t bring people to think about something is not exciting to me.”
And what Majaro-Mintz wanted people to think about can be stated in one word: women. She has been called one of the first artists in the world, in fact, to “think feminine.”
She explains, “Most women didn’t work yet at that time. But I took up the idea that I wanted to work, that I didn’t want to be just a woman who gets her husband to work for her. I wanted to do the work itself, and to know everything about it. That was not an easy way of life, especially when children were born and I had to take care of them. So I discovered that to do both things was quite a difficult job, and that’s what I felt as a women and an artist.”
It was the difficulties of being a woman, trying to deal with the double burdens of “emancipation” and domesticity that Majaro- Mintz chose to highlight, especially in her sculpture.
Her clay women are not “beautiful” in the conventionally understood sense of the word. They are neither stately nor erotic.
In fact, if one were to choose the word that best describes the women in Majaro-Mintz’s sculpture – women trying to penetrate all of the jobs and professions previously reserved for men, while at the same time remaining child bearers and child rearers – the word would probably be “tired.”
As such, her clay women are rumpled and weary, with sagging breasts and wide hips, depicted in poses that suggest they are trying to catch a few moments of relaxation before exhaustedly returning to work.
While Majaro-Mintz readily accepts the designation of “feminist,” she rejects being labeled an Israeli artist. “I have never felt that my art was made especially to express Israel. It was made to express what a woman feels. And though I haven’t lived much abroad, I suppose that those feelings are universal to women in general, not just here in Israel,” she says.
PROBABLY ONE of her most significant works of art, and perhaps her greatest achievement, is the renovation of the house her grandfather built, for which she was awarded a prize from the Israel Council for Historic Sites and Buildings and the Henry Ford European Conservation Award.
The magnificent home of a prominent family when built in 1887, Beit Rokach had become a virtual ruin. Reflecting the general decline of Neveh Tzedek, which had largely deteriorated into a slum by the late 1960s, the house was abandoned, gutted, and little more than a shell of a building, standing decrepitly on a weed-choked, garbage-strewn lot.
“One day I just happened to come here. I wanted to see the house. Well, later I found the mayor of Tel Aviv. He was talking to somebody. He told me he had the authority to repair the house, but didn’t have the money. So I asked him, ‘Are you willing to give it to me and I will do it?’ and he said, ‘Take it.’ That’s how it started.”
What Majaro-Mintz started was a process that went way beyond the rebuilding of a single house.
She recalls, “It took me almost a year to repair the house. It was not an easy task. But at the time I finished it, before I opened it, there was a lady that came to write about the place. It was on a Friday that the article appeared in one of the newspapers.
“She wrote the whole story of how the place was built, and how I took it and how I repaired it. But I remained that day in Jerusalem, because I was very tired and I thought I would just take a break. So I didn’t know that the next day, on Saturday, many people had read the newspaper and the whole street was full of people. They came to see the house. And that was when people started coming here to buy houses.”
Majaro-Mintz began to move back and forth between her home in Jerusalem’s Old City and her new home in Beit Rokach, before finally settling full time in Neveh Tzedek almost five years ago.
It was around 10 years ago, however, at the height of her career as an artist, that Lea Majaro-Mintz began to go blind. The same evil spirit that robbed Beethoven of his ability to hear started to deprive her of her eyesight. At present, she is almost completely blind, able to see the world only in vague dark shadows, without any detail.
And yet, she continued to sculpt until recently, and still continues to paint. How? “Well, I know the colors, I know beforehand what I want to do, more or less, so that’s how I paint,” she says simply.
Her present exhibition, “Tel Aviv Hidden from View,” comprised of recent paintings all done in blindness, is timed to open at Beit Rokach on April 11, Tel Aviv’s 102nd birthday.
The paintings are invariably bright, vibrant and colorful. We see sparkling rain showers in Neveh Tzedek alongside crowds of people at a Tel Aviv beach – all cavorting in the ocean.
Reflecting the artist’s apparent fascination with the city’s streets, there are several bird’s-eye views of Tel Aviv street traffic, including one with what appear to be Matchbox toy cars glued onto the painted streets.
Says exhibition curator Miri Krymolowski: “‘Tel Aviv Hidden from View’ is actually the Tel Aviv that Lea is dreaming about, the Tel Aviv she loves but can no longer see. I think that that’s why the paintings are so colorful.”
Krymolowski seems to be implying that Majaro- Mintz’s Tel Aviv is a place that is hidden not only from a blind artist, but from an emotionally blind contemporary art world as well.
“Tel Aviv, as seen through the eyes of artists in recent years, is dirty and alienating, even cruel. The city is painted grey, with broken buildings and homeless people. Artists have not been looking at Tel Aviv in a nice way.
“This exhibition of Lea’s work is so different, so warm, so loving. You can see that this is someone who loves Tel Aviv, who adores Tel Aviv.”
What in particular does Majaro-Mintz love? “I love Tel Aviv because of the sea. I love the seashore. That’s the thing I like best,” she replies, without a moment’s hesitation. She in fact loves the sea so much that she goes to the beach to swim – every day, in all seasons, without anyone to bring her there or even to watch out for her while she is in the water.
“I go by myself,” she says. “I know the way. The problem is crossing the streets, crossing through the traffic. So I wait for others to cross, and I cross with them. I go every day when the sea is good.
Sometimes I’m the only one in the water.”
After pausing for a moment to consider that statement, she adds, “Well, all right, sometimes there are people surfing.”
“Tel Aviv Hidden from View” runs from April 11 to May 10 at Beit Rokach Museum, Rehov Shimon Rokach 36, Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv. For further information, call (03) 516-8042.