Keeping history in the picture

‘Hatzalmania,’ screening as part of the DocAviv Festival, is an intimate and sweetly emotive vignette about the landmark Pri-Or photography store.

Horse drawn ice vendor 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Horse drawn ice vendor 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hatzalmania (The Photography Store) is a labor of love in more senses than one. Young documentary director Tamar Tal says that for about three years, she devoted a lot of her waking hours to recording the landmark Pri-Or photography store on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street.
What started out as a relatively small-scale academic assignment became an all-consuming project and, eventually, a full-blown film. Hatzalmania will be screened to the public for the first time at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at 8 p.m. on May 16, as part of this year’s DocAviv Festival, with a second showing at the festival at ZOA House, at 4:30 p.m. on June 21.
Anyone walking around the Mograbi area of Tel Aviv, near the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Allenby streets, can’t help noticing the store’s imposing window display, with its impressive monochrome portraits. It often seems as if the place has been there forever – which isn’t too far from the truth.
Rudi Weissenstein opened Tzalmania Pri-Or over 70 years ago; in 1940, to be precise. He made aliya from Czechoslovakia in 1936 with the clothes on his back, 10 lirot in his pocket and a camera around his neck – and proceeded to photograph almost all the momentous occasions in the burgeoning state’s evolution, including the Declaration of Independence.
Weissenstein, who died in 1992, was one of only two photographers asked to record the historic event at what was then the Tel Aviv Museum on Sderot Rothschild.
Cheekily, he didn’t just make do with ensuring that David Ben-Gurion and the other VIPs at the declaration were suitably snapped. As he left the building after the ceremony ended, he also took a picture of the dozens of frustrated uninvited photographers waiting impatiently outside.
When he traveled the length and breadth of the country to photograph landscapes, towns, kibbutzim and ma’abarot (transit camps), it was his wife, Miriam, who did the driving.
The portraits that have graced the storefront for so long include the often stern and generally imposing faces of national leaders the likes of Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, and former iconic Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo “Chich” Lahat. Inside, a priceless documentary treasure trove of over a million negatives and thousands of prints awaits the unsuspecting visitor.
When Tal paid her first visit to Pri-Or, Weissenstein’s widow, then 92 years old, was running the business almost singlehandedly. Now Miriam’s grandson, Ben, takes care of most of the shop’s affairs, particularly in the last few months since Miriam’s health – she is now 98 – deteriorated. According to Tal, the catalyst for the downturn in Miriam’s condition was the decision by Tel Aviv Municipality to pull down the block where the store is located.
“When they were told of the decision to demolish the block, it really hit Miriam hard,” Tal explains. “It is only in the last few weeks that she has started getting a bit stronger and she goes to the store for a few hours.”
Ben is now packing up the contents of the store in readiness for a temporary relocation to nearby premises at the Rehov Allenby end of Rehov Tchernikovsky.
The Tzalmania will return to a site close to its current location, in the rebuilt block.
Hatzalmania is, in fact, the follow-up to a previous documentary Tal made about Miriam and Rudi and the store when she was a third-year photography student at the now-defunct Camera Obscura school of photography.
A bunch of students made a study trip to Tzalmania Pri-Or in 2002, and Miriam and Tal hit it off straightaway – albeit by default.
“She asked us who had been to the retrospective exhibition of Rudi’s pictures that was showing at the Reading Power Station at the time, and I was the only one who raised my hand. She scolded the others, but from that moment on, I was her favorite.”
A while later, Tal began thinking about her school assignment to make a documentary, and realized the Pri-Or story was the ideal subject.
“I was studying still photography, so what could be better than making a documentary about Miriam, Rudi and the store?”
DESPITE MIRIAM’S characteristic initial reluctance to cooperate, Tal made a 20-minute documentary called The Iron Lady and the Tzalmania, which was shown at the 2007 DocAviv Festival, and subsequently on Channel 2.
“There was Miriam, 92 years old and running this incredible place with so much history, and I thought the whole thing would disappear when she died. I felt I had to record it for posterity,” Tal explains.
In 2007, Ben decided to help his warhorse grandma run the store, which indirectly spawned Hatzalmania.
“One day, Ben called me to say he was renovating the store, and I realized that Tzalmania was entering a new phase, and that my movie hadn’t ended,” Tal recalls. “I told Ben: ‘Start the renovating, I’m coming to film.’ That’s when I started to shoot footage, together with Ben.”
The new, full-length documentary has a different orientation from the first student effort.
“It is about the relationship between Miriam and Ben, with the store as the backdrop,” Tal continues. The result is an intimate and sweetly emotive vignette about an extraordinary bond between grandson and grandmother, and a remnant of bygone years which, by all rights, should be a revered national institution rather than having to pull up stakes for a few years.
“Miriam kept going for so long because she went to the store every day. It was her whole life,” Tal says. She would like Hatzalmania to have a far-reaching impact beyond just telling the tale of the store, an indomitable nonagenarian and her grandson.
“I hope it shakes people up a bit, awakens them to what is happening to Tel Aviv in general.
“There are so many changes occurring in this city, with the old going out of the window. The Tzalmania is just one example of what is happening to lots of places in this city.”
“I don’t know if [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai will like the documentary,” Tal says. “And it’s not even me who is highlighting the replacement of some of the older beauty of Tel Aviv by far less aesthetic new stuff. Just look at the photographs in Pri-Or – like of the old Habimah building compared with the monster they have put up now; or the pictures of the original Kikar Dizengoff against the square today.
“Rudi’s pictures depict how beautiful Tel Aviv once was, and how we haven’t taken care of it.”
It gets worse. “If Ben hadn’t started taking care of the Tzalmania, the repository of all those wonderful photographs would also have disappeared. At some stage, Miriam would have died and the photos would have ended up in some attic, or been sold to someone abroad.”
Indeed, Miriam once told me that a wealthy Canadian had offered her no less than a million dollars for all Rudi’s negatives and pictures. Typically, she declined the offer because she wanted to keep the collection in Israel.
“Miriam wanted to preserve the negatives for the state,” says Tal. “There is a message here that I hope will come across in the film.”

Hatzalmania will be shown at this year’s DocAviv Festival, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at 8 p.m. on May 16, and at ZOA House, at 4:30 p.m. on June 21.

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