The way we were?

Naftali Oppenheim, an ethnographic photographer who documented life on Kibbutz Ein Gev and in the Jordan Valley, eschewed political, propagandistic, journalistic images, preferring ‘happy’ subjects.

Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret. (photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)
Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret.
Historian Jacob Burckhardt had this to say about the study of history: “To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a great civilization present a different picture. In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for my work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead to essentially different conclusions.”
In other words, the past is one thing; “history” is how we remember and interpret it.
Or as Winston Churchill once remarked, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
Among the most important creators of such history, according to Guy Raz, are photographers. “I call them the people who stand between us and the past.
They decide what to shoot, and after that, that’s what we call history.”
Raz knows what he’s talking about.
“Since 1995, I’ve been dealing with the history of photography in our region.
In 2003, I edited a book called The Photographers of the Land; it included 200 short biographies of the photographers.
Since then, I have curated exhibitions on specific photographers and specific subjects.”
Curator Raz’s current exhibition, “The People of the Kinneret,” on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, focuses on the work of Naftali Oppenheim.
“Oppenheim is one of a group I am researching now, photographers of the kibbutzim,” Raz explains. “These photographers documented the kibbutzim from the inside, as members, and not from the outside, as photographers for agencies like Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund. Oppenheim was one of these insiders, from Kibbutz Ein Gev on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
“He documented not only his kibbutz, but the whole Jordan Valley area.
He photographed Jews, Arabs, Tiberias, the British Mandate, the creation of the tower-and-stockade settlements, soldier training before and during the War of Independence. But there were no heroic images. He didn’t cover the war itself, or the independence declaration. He photographed people, and this is a very humanistic exhibition, an exhibition about the people of the Kinneret.”
Born Herbert Oppenheim in 1912 to parents who specialized in haute-couture tailoring, the future photographer grew up not far from a Zeiss factory in the neighboring city of Wetzlar. The factory manufactured both Zeiss lenses and Leica cameras and, in the spirit of good community relations, offered photography courses in the evenings.
Oppenheim took the course and began taking photographs as a hobby at the age of 16.
Also active in Jewish youth movements, Oppenheim became an ardent Zionist, training in agriculture and leaving Germany for Mandate Palestine in 1937. Upon arriving in Haifa, he changed his first name to Naftali.
He soon joined the Batelem pioneer group. “Oppenheim wanted to be an agricultural pioneer who plowed the fields and worked the land,” says Raz, “but after a few months here in Israel, he contracted polio.” After being bedridden for six months at Hadassah Hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, he returned to the Kinneret on crutches, with a permanently disabled left foot.
Unable to engage in any strenuous physical activity, Oppenheim began to organize his life around something else. He had brought his 35-mm. Leica camera and darkroom equipment with him from Germany, and thus became a full-time professional photographer at Ein Gev, the Batelem group’s newly established kibbutz on the eastern shore of the Kinneret.
For the next 15 years, Oppenheim documented the everyday life of the area, its people, places and events. His camera recorded pioneer life, Jewish settlement, the struggle for independence and the early days of statehood in the Land of Israel.
For all that, Oppenheim’s story does not end happily. On the night of June 21, 1953, the kibbutz was one guard short for nighttime security. He volunteered to fill the gap and serve as the kibbutz guard inspector. While he was moving from one post to another, a guard mistook him for an infiltrator, shooting him dead.
Oppenheim left a widow and two daughters – and around 50,000 photographic negatives.
“The family contacted me 10 years ago,” Raz says, “and since then, we have been scanning the negatives.”
This has been accomplished through the “Preservation for Prosperity” project of Harvard University, in collaboration with Beit Yigal Allon. “And out of all those 50,000 negatives, I have had to choose around 160 images for this exhibition,” Raz says.
Visitors to the exhibition first see a giant video screen suspended above the gallery, showing dozens of images not on the gallery walls, running in a long, continuous loop. They are grouped according to subject; each group usually consists of a flow of four related images, for example a group of four photographs of kibbutz girls dancing.
We then enter the exhibition, passing large images of fisherman on the Kinneret. The Kinneret dominates the opening wall, with portraits of people and vistas of the Golan, as seen from boats on the lake.
As we move forward, we see people swimming across the lake, from Ein Gev to Tzemah Beach, an annual rite of endurance that persists to this day. We move past images of a British seaplane landing on the water on its way to India, or on the way back – the Kinneret being something of a British “water airport” during Mandate times.
The exhibit then flows on to the next subject area, that of the kibbutz and the tower-and-stockade settlements. The visitors sees images of camps for new immigrants, where newcomers from Germany in the 1930s were trained in useful Zionist activities like agriculture.
There are numerous images of such kibbutz agriculture, followed by later images of dance and music festivals, as well as fledgling symphony orchestras.
“You have to remember that these people came from Germany,” Raz says.
“They took the culture of home and brought it here. Naftali Oppenheim took a camera from Germany; some of the others took violins.”
A particularly striking image is that of three Ein Gev children, a boy and two girls, preparing to plant trees on Tu Bishvat around 1950. Raz ponders the image for a moment and says quietly, “The boy grew up and was killed in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. We are now two days from Yom Kippur, so for me this image is a memorial to him.”
Beyond a small alcove in which we see a somewhat minimalist, impressionistic reconstruction of Oppenheim’s darkroom, there is a fascinating array of images of Tiberias during the 1930s and ’40s. We see Jews and Arabs mixing comfortably on the streets and in the city’s markets.
“As you can see from the images, it was a good relationship,” Raz comments. “The Arabs invited the kibbutz members to many occasions and ceremonies. The Jewish doctor cared for the local Arabs. It was neighborly and friendly.”
A flow of three images displays a view of old Tiberias, a camp of tents put up to accommodate new immigrants, and the construction of a new neighborhood to provide them with public housing in the homeland. Another flow of images of an Arab street magician – called the “Houdini of Tiberias” – surrounded by a crowd obviously electrified by his performance is almost cinematographic in the way it seems to narrate the event.
Other groups of photographs depict such subjects as the children of Ein Gev, nearby archeological excavations, Ein Gev at war, and the Arab village of Nukeib, which existed alongside the kibbutz up to 1967.
An interesting surprise are a number of images of horses belonging to Jordon’s King Abdullah. In pre-state times, the king had a horse farm connected with the Transjordan Frontier Force, not far from the Naharayim electrical plant. For Raz, Oppenheim’s images of the king’s black horses in movement are a kind of homage to Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion – most famously of horses – and his early work in motion picture projection.
But perhaps the most attention-grabbing group of images in the exhibition concern the subject of tourism, with visitors to Ein Gev and the surrounding area also exhibited as “people of the Kinneret.” These include musicians who came to Ein Gev’s annual festival, like Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifetz, as well as such political figures as Chaim Weizmann and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. David Ben-Gurion can be seen enjoying the Kinneret on a boat, accompanied by his guide Teddy Kollek, then secretary of Kibbutz Ein Gev. Kollek subsequently became Ben-Gurion’s secretary and, of course, mayor of Jerusalem.
The exhibition closes with images of “the mystery woman.” This tall, slender, elegantly dressed lady of indeterminate age can be seen standing majestically on a boat in the middle of the Kinneret, posing thoughtfully in a grove of date trees, and sitting soulfully beside a large bouquet of flowers at the grave of the Poetess Rahel in the Kinneret cemetery.
No one alive today seems to know who this lady was.
In an article in Haaretz last year, Raz published one of the images and asked, “Who is the mysterious woman beside Rahel’s grave?” He also asked people who had Oppenheim images in their family photo albums to send them to him at an email address posted in the article. Raz did not discover the identity of the mystery woman, but he did unexpectedly find his mother: Oppenheim had captured her image, as a child, as she bathed in the Kinneret on a longago family trip to the area.
Oppenheim’s photographs are a celebration of life in a certain place at a particular time. His images are not political, propagandistic or journalistic.
If anything, they can be called ethnographic, and quite often artistic.
Oppenheim himself declared that his intent was to photograph only “happy” subjects, and not “ugly ones.” This exhibition of his work attests to his success.
“People of the Kinneret” is on display until February 28, 2015 at the Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv. For opening hours and information: (03) 641-5244 or