A Brush with the Past

The brushstrokes of Nachum Gutman reflect and reveal Tel Aviv’s rich and colourful journey from sleepy city to the ‘city that never sleeps’.

By David E. Kaplan

The art of Nachum Gutman is a colourful and vibrant roadmap into the past. It offers a visual narrative of days gone; but also an understanding of where we are today. If we marvel at the creativity and unpredictability of Tel Aviv today, explore the art of this great artist to best understand this great city.

Window into the Past. A visual tapestry of early life in Tel Aviv at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art in Neve Tzedek.

Located in Neve Tzedek – the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the ancient port of Jaffa – the location and setting of the Nachum Gutman Museum could not be more idyllic. Perched on the east end of the narrow cobbled Rokah Street, with its quaint old, restored homes and lined with trees, the area exudes the ambiance of an artist colony.

Blue and White. The colours of Israel emblaze the walls exhibiting life in the “First Modern Hebrew City” – Tel Aviv.

In this aesthetic locale, the Nachum Gutman Museum is at home. Comprised of two buildings, the main one houses Gutman’s permanent collection called Beit Hasofrim (Writer’s House). Built in 1887, “It was one of the first buildings in Neve Tzedek and is the oldest in the neighborhood,” says Monica Lavi, the Director and Chief Curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum, whom I met in the foyer of the site.

Bright and Beautiful. Interior of the Nahum Gutman Museum, Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv.

In the early years, Tel Aviv’s intellectuals favoured this new neighborhood,” says Lavi, “and Writers House acquired its name due to the impressive number of famous writers who lived here and gathered for literary meetings and discussions.” Such literary luminaries included the famed Jewish poet Hayim Bialik, S. Y. Agnon, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joesph Aharonovitz, Dvora Baron, and Nachum Gutman’s father, a renowned Hebrew writer and educator who wrote under the pen name S. Ben Zion. The Gutmans too lived in this neighbourhood, “so Nachum grew up here, absorbing as a child the local lifestyle and intellectual culture of a young city on the move.”

Street Scene. Colourful life in Neve Tzedek where the artist grew up.

Between the years 1907 and 1914, the museum was home to the weekly newspaper, Hapoel Hatzair (The Young Worker), founded by A.D. GordonYosef Ahronowitz, and Yosef Sprinzak, that followed a Zionist socialist agenda and sought to establish a Jewish foothold in Palestine through personal labour in agriculture. “These pioneering idealists,” says Lavi, “were active from 1905 until 1930. So, as you can see, this building was an intellectual powerhouse, a natural home for the art and writings of Nachum Gutman whose art captured all the trends that were shaping the emerging nation.”

Visually Vibrant. A watercolor of ‘Figures in Neve Tzedek’ with the Mediterranean in the background.

We learn how intimate Gutman was to the historical sources from his contribution to the ‘Book of Tel Aviv’, which the Tel Aviv municipality commissioned his father, S. Ben-Zion, to write in honor of the city’s 25th anniversary. “Sometime after he began to work, S. Ben-Zion died,” says Lavi, “and the editing work was completed in 1936 by editor and translator A. Druyanov. Gutman produced eleven illustrations for the book, one of which was his father sitting and writing at night.”

As I reflect on Gutman’s father “sitting and writing at night”, I think of the lights of Tel Aviv’s commercial skyscrapers  – separated by a century – indicating the young and the ambitious, working well into the night.

After all, Tel Aviv is now known as the “City that never sleeps.”

‘Good Morning, Tel Aviv’. The artist capturing in this oil on canvas a new dawn in a young city.

Streetwise

The first work that greets the viewer is a large colourful painting of Tel Aviv. A juxtaposition of images, it captures its iconic architecture, its outdoors way of life and that it’s a coastal city. With the sea in the background and ships coming in to dock – this was still the age when the docks at Tel Aviv still operated – one can identify Allenby Street as it reaches the seashore. We see outdoor cafés with people sitting around tables on the sidewalks, chatting, reading and watching the passing show. This is quintessential Tel Aviv – a vibrant city with people on the move. In this sense, little has changed. Gutman captured the essence and spirit of a city that stands the test of time.

Tale about Transition. The pastoral and the urban mesh in an emerging Tel Aviv sprouting north of the ancient port of Jaffa  replete with ships at sea and ‘ships of the desert’ – camels.

I gravitated to a nearby computer screen where I waded through a most colourful compilation of Gutman’s paintings of Tel Aviv. All bright and expressive – the streets were bustling with honking cars, horse and donkey drawn carts, people standing around and talking in the middle of the streets ignoring the traffic. There were the residents of apartment blocks sitting sunbathing on rooftops reading newspapers, and in the distance in many of these paintings, one can see the port of Jaffa. The contrast from old and new Tel Aviv was startling. Relatively high-rise buildings in the foreground of a modern 1920s Tel Aviv with ancient minarets in old Jaffa in the far off background, convey the trajectory of a journey from the past to the future. Israel was changing and Gutman captured this transition in animation and vivid colours.

Family Man

Moving to a mock up of the artist’s studio with his original chair and upright easel, one’s eyes gravitate to a huge black and white photograph of the artist sitting on the same chair, hard at work painting on a large canvass on the same easel now on display. The alignment of props and photographs is such, that one ‘feel’s the artist’s physical presence as well as his close feelings towards his family: on the wall is a painting of his wife Dora, one of many on exhibit.

Room with a ‘Vision’. A recreation of the artist’s  studio  in the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art.

The writer then moved along a wall mostly taken up with oil paintings of Gutman’s only son Hemi sitting on his mother Dora’s lap. Preceding these is a self-portrait of the artist with Dora sitting on his lap as if a pleasing portend of what was to follow – son Hemi. In each painting, ‘baby Hemi’ is dressed in a different baby outfit as is his mother – the affection between mother and son is so emotively evident.

Cuddling Couple. Dora Gutman intimately seated on the lap of the artist.

Clearly, the artist was expressing himself as a loving family man. This sense was reinforced when curator Lavi explained some background to understating these paintings: “Nachum was twelve when his mother died and his father took another wife and left. Nachum was left with his grandparents who raised him so when he became a family man, he painted over and over again his wife and child, as if to show that he was the father that his own father was not.” The titles speak for themselves:

Dora, Hemi and a toy’, ‘Dora with Hemi on her lap’, ‘Sleeping baby (Hemi)’ and so on.

Mother and Child. The artist’s wife Dora and son Hemi.

He wanted to show through his art,” said Lavi that “he was a loving husband and father, and that the family was united.”

Looking Back

Ascending the stairwell between landings in the museum, I notice a large Gutman self-portrait standing before his easel but looking back over his shoulder, towards the viewer. It’s a powerful painting, all the more so when one understands that the artist was constantly in a retrospective mode. He was painting not so much what he was seeing in the present but what he remembered of the past.

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. A relaxed Nahum Gutman reclining in a chair.

It is easy to forget that Gutman was only 11 years old when Tel Aviv was founded,” says Lavi. “Apart from one immature drawing, we have no childhood sketches by Gutman depicting the city. Even in that single sketch we see the houses in a built up street and not virgin sands. The Ahuzat Bayit and Tel Aviv that we know from his paintings and stories are all from memory, from his knowledge and historical materials. They were painted when he was in his thirties, decades after the city was established.” For this reason, explains Lavi, “when we tried to organize his body of work chronologically, we discovered that it was hard to arrange along a timeline. What we had believed to be an early work was actually a later one. His own adventures, together with historical events were written many years later and were based on written sources, and what seems as if it might have been painted as an observer at the time of an event, was actually painted from memory.”

Dreaming on the Dunes. A city founded on sand dunes north of Jaffa in 1909, Nahum Gutman’s idealistic impression of a sun soaked Tel Aviv depicting icons of the Zionist enterprise.

Out of Africa

There were once few children in Israel unfamiliar with Nachum Gutman’s illustrated book ‘Lobengulu, King of the Zulu’. It was written during his visit to South Africa in 1934 when he was sent by the Municipality of Tel Aviv to paint a portrait of General Jan Smuts, who would later emerge as that country’s Prime Minister and a great supporter for a Jewish national homeland. The book in Hebrew was serialised in 1935-6 and became a children’s bestseller. Apart from the many prizes Gutman won for both art and literature – for over 30 years he was also the illustrator for the ‘Davar for Children’ newspaper – he was awarded in 1978 the country’s most prestigious civilian award, the Israel Prize for children’s literature.

Out of the Wild. The front cover of ‘In the Land of Lobengulu, King of Zulu’, Nahum Gutman’s popular book about his adventures in Africa (Courtesy Nahum Gutman).

In the museum there is a room dedicated to Lobengulu King of the Zulu, which is an adventure story, written in the first person, of the author and his friends searching for the treasure of the Zulu king. While they fail to discover treasure, the author does discover in his first of many books, something far more enriching – the ability to reach the minds and hearts of children; especially at a time when they needed an infusion of faraway fantasy.

Explains Lavi:

 “It was during the turbulent thirties. The Arab Revolt in British Mandate Palestine was in full swing, and Gutman provided with pen and brush a valuable service by taking the minds of young children away from disturbing events in their daily lives to a land far removed, where they could indulge their imagination in adventure and fantasy.”

The room is replete with colourful paintings of tribal and wild life in Africa, set in forests, mountains, open veld and rivers, crocodiles, elephants, monkeys and hippos engage the viewer. “The kids love this room,” says Lavi who is most proud of the museum’s commitment to children’s education in art.

Adventure in Africa. Artist, writer and illustrator, Nachum Gutman brings the mystique of Africa to the Jewish children of Palestine with his popular ‘In the Land of Lobengulu, King of Zulu’. (Courtesy)

The wondrous warm character of the artist is revealed here not by his brush but by his pen:

“Have you ever paid attention to how much the word tzayar (painter) is similar to the word tzayad (hunter)?
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a hunter,
And even now I’m a kind of hunter. I have the character of a hunter.
Not to kill the animal,
But to capture its soul on the canvas.”

Hello Hemi

Noting my interest in the many paintings of the artist’s wife and their child Hemi – all painted in the 1930s – Lavi asked: “Would you like to interview Hemi, he is a professor emeritus biophysics at Tel Aviv University?” I jumped at the opportunity, and Hemi was no less excited: “visitors are a museum’s oxygen,” he expressed at the beginning of the interview.

What was it like growing up in the Gutman household?” I asked the retired professor, who until then I only knew as a toddler on his mother’s lap.

It was like living with a legend. While on the one hand he was a normal father, I was constantly fascinated by what he was doing.” Smiling he adds, “I think I was a little jealous at times. I remember thinking that he was so busy writing, painting, and meeting important people that he was spending too little time with me.” He agreed that in a way he is destined to spend all eternity with his illustrious father being immortalized in so many of his paintings.

Age of Reflection. The artist in later life.

While Gutman immigrated with his parents to Eretz-Israel in 1905 at the age of seven, he was truly a product of his new environment “and as a student, he soon rebelled against the European style of painting at the Bezalel Art Academy,” said Hemi. “When my father attended Bezalel, all the teachers there were of European descent, and their entire treatment of subject matter was based on European landscapes and even on European lighting. Dad’s group rebelled; believing that the different landscapes in Israel, one in which summer days are often gray and filled with blinding light from dust, required a new and different treatment.”

In this way, Gutman was the leading ‘light’ – the operative word – in creating a uniquely Israeli style of art.

Before Gutman, “there was no such thing as Israeli art,” says curator Lavi. “Yes, you could say there was Jewish art and Judaica would fall into this category, but no Israeli art as such.  This would be left to Nachum Gutman – one of the first children to live in Tel Aviv and one of the first students at Bezalel. His contribution to Israel’s culture is immeasurable.”

1912 Overture

I concluded the visit by staring at a huge photograph taken of an art class of aspiring students at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. The year was 1912 and the students in the class, all fourteen of them, are painting while their teacher, Abel Pann appears in the front right corner, sketching. The large photograph appeared to me like an orchestra practicing with the teacher at the head looking like a conductor.

Artist on his Way. While many in this 1912 art class at Bezalel Academy of Art turn to face the photographer, Gutman, seated at the back, remains transfixed on his canvass.

Seated in the back of this ‘composition’ was the emerging ‘maestro’ Nachum Gutman immersed in his work. While many in the class turn to face the photographer, Gutman’s eyes remained transfixed on the canvass in front of him, too busy capturing others to be concerned with others capturing him.

With each brushstroke, the young student was on his way to become the founding figure of Israeli art.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (O&EO).

Beauty and the Beach

An architectural masterpiece  on Tel Aviv’s coastline canvas will enhance the city among the leading cultural capitals of the world

By David E. Kaplan

It is said that the 21st century is destined to be the century of cities rather than countries. This forecast is evident in the vocabulary of today’s tourists –  at least before Corona –  of visiting Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg or Shanghai rather than mentioning the countries in which they are situated – France, Spain, Russia or China!

Down by the Riverside. On the banks of the Yarkon River and a few steps from the sea, Tel Aviv’s future World’s Jewish Museum.

More than half the world’s population has already moved to cities and this is expected to rise to 80% by the middle of this century. With so many cities vying for center stage, Tel Aviv is now going beyond its branding of being the “Bauhaus Capital of the World” – reflecting early 20th century clean, utilitarian architecture – to an uncertain and exciting future of flirtations and fluctuations. This has given rise to one of the most poignant descriptions of Tel Aviv as a city “waking up each morning and deciding what it’s going to be.” The  new spectacular sculptures ascending to the heavens across the Tel Aviv landscape,  attest to this branding and in a few short years’ time, there will be a major addition that encapsulates the city’s essence and affirms its rising global status. That addition will be the new  World’s Jewish Museum designed by the legendary award-winning Canadian-born American architect – Frank Gehry, whose masterpieces have disrupted the very meaning of design within architecture. These “disruptions”  are powerfully projected in such monumental works as the La Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

It was hoped before the Corona pandemic that this world-scale museum, cultural and entertainment center would have been completed before May 2023, in time for the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. However, when completed, the World’s Jewish Museum on the 22-dunam (5.5-acre) site overlooking the Mediterranean along the bank of the Yarkon River at the northwestern edge of Hayarkon Park and steps from the Namal ( Port of Tel Aviv), will be the hub of cultural and recreational activity and the heart of the city’s vibrant waterfront.

Marvel on the Med. Adjacent to the Medetrrnean and the Hayarkon Park that attracts over 15 million visitors a year,  a model of Tel Aviv’s  World’s Jewish Museum.

While engendering great excitement, there are however, those that remind us that society cries out with so many pressing needs from education and health to socio-economic inequalities and criticize the need for such expansive and expensive adventures.

There is however a strong counter argument.

Look to Bilbao in Spain and what Gehry achieved for the status of that city and just as important – the benefit for Bilbao’s citizens!  

From Bilbao to Tel Aviv

Architects and city developers talk about the “Bilbao Effect” referring to the “WOW factor” that followed the opening in 1997 of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain. From being a lack-luster industrial city totally off the tourist’s map, Bilbao emerged virtually overnight as one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Frank Gehry’s stunning monumental structure hailed as “one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture” and which the late esteemed architect, Philip Johnson, called “the greatest building of our time”, rapidly reversed the city’s fortunes which had fallen victim to an industrialization that had either aged or moved elsewhere. Within the first year, the museum with its distinctive titanium curves and soaring glass atrium attracted over 1,300,000 visitors exceeding all expectations and infusing $160 million into the local economy. In its first five years, the Museum generated more than a billion US dollars for the Basque country, more than ten times the museum’s cost. Whatever the staggering costs of financing alluring cultural magnets, the returns far exceeded the outlay. Widely credited in putting Bilbao on the map, Gehry’s masterpiece has subsequently inspired other iconic structures around the world, which will soon be joined by the World’s Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv.

Maestra and Masterpiece. Famed architect Frank Gehry with a model of the future World’s Jewish Museum in his office.

Back to the Roots

It may at first seem strange that Gehry, who doesn’t identify as Jewish, took on a uniquely Jewish project in the Jewish homeland?

His explanation is a long journey – nearly as complex as his architectural designs, but it includes this admission:

 “There’s a curiosity built into the Jewish culture. I grew up under that. My grandfather read Talmud to me. That’s one of the Jewish things I hang on to probably— that philosophy from that religion. Which is separate from God. It’s more ephemeral. I was brought up with that curiosity. I call it a healthy curiosity. Maybe it is something that the religion has produced. I don’t know. It’s certainly a positive thing.”

What intrigues the architect  – who was born Frank Goldberg – is that “The Talmud starts with the word ‘WHY’.”

So little surprise that on the model of the museum sitting in Gehry’s offices, the word Lamah (“why” in Hebrew) is carved into one of the buildings, although the architect remains usure whether it will be included in the final construction.  

 Reframing the Jewish Narrative and Showcasing Achievement. Gail Asper holding a World’s Jewish Museum folder in the Frank Gehry-designed Galleria Italia at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in March, 2018. (Photo by Etye Sarner).

Fellow Canadian Gail Asper of the Asper Foundation – the visionary behind the museum – explains that “The site will have the greatest story that’s never been told about the Jewish people. It will celebrate the joys not the oys. The museum is more about how Jewish values have transformed and improved the world.” 

For Asper, having Gehry bring her vision to fruition “is like hearing angels sing,” she says. “Frank immediately loved the vision. I know that beautiful architecture inspires the soul and Frank designs incredibly breathtaking, inspiring buildings. I love Bilbao. I love the Disney Concert Hall. I love what he does. And for all the countries in the world to not have some extraordinary breathtaking Frank Gehry building, Israel absolutely deserves that. And Israelis deserve that. They put up with an awful lot living in Israel. They pay high taxes. They’re dodging rockets, even in Tel Aviv.” 

Inside Story. An artist’s impression of the inside of the World’s Jewish Museum Tel Aviv.

The Museum will provide a cutting-edge, educational and inspirational experience that explores the contributions that Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel have made to civilization in numerous fields over the past 3,500 years, from the Bible to enterprise, science, education, culture and social justice. Says Gehry:

Most of the buildings until this point to represent Jewish causes and issues have included the Holocaust  because that was such a searing, burning, terrible issue in our lives. This museum will really be about celebrating the achievements of this culture over time, and some of it is extraordinary, and a lot of it has not been told as it will be in this museum.”

Shape of things to Come

Gehry is passionate about restoring art back into architecture. He laments that “a lot of the world no longer considers architects as artists. So I think what’s needed is architects who are artists.” Historically, he asserts, “architecture was considered an art”, but that changed following WWII when “it got mixed up with other issues like commercial developers.” In the aftermath, a debate has persisted over whether architecture is an art or just the creation of a solid structure for the benefit of society.  For Gehry it is both as we will one day see and be bedazzled by the allure of his first building in Israel, Tel Aviv’s World’s Jewish Museum. Israelis and tourists from abroad will visit the museum to see the building  as much as its exhibits within. The packaging will be no less fascinating than its contents. This was the case of Bilbao.

Taste of Tel Aviv to Be. Gail Asper with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, center, and Moe Levy, executive director of the Asper Foundation in Winnipeg. (Courtesy)

Alluring Architecture

Since the Bilbao success –  a deliberate choice in using contemporary high-profile architecture as a tourist draw card – the term, ‘Architourism’ has gained currency. There is no doubting the seductive value of these highly photogenic and iconic buildings  to lure visitors. Apart from Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one has only to think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Danish architect, Jørn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur that has featured in movies and TV productions, most notably the film Entrapment, where the building ‘starred’ alongside the late Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The building was no less the star of the show!

There is no denying the power of man-made marvels capturing people’s imagination. From ionic structures in ancient times such as the Acropolis and Colosseum to the more  modern examples such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Empire State Building, all achieved celebrity status as powerful visual metaphors of their cities. Imaginative architecture brands a city to lure visitors and commerce.

Success of Structure. Hardly any other city has benefited from a museum as much as Bilbao. The Guggenheim Museum has made Bilbao so alluring that it attracts millions of tourists annually  from all over the world.

In a few years, adding to this illustrious list of iconic global edifices, will be Frank Gehry’s World’s Jewish Museum that will further lift Tel Aviv to new prominence in the world of contemporary design.

I marveled at this thought when last Friday morning, I stared at the vacant sight where construction has yet to begin and with the model of the museum in my mind, thought  of Tel Aviv’s exciting tomorrows.


World’s Jewish Museum architect and visionary Frank Gehry discusses his vision for the design of the building.






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

From Drive-In to Sail-In

Tel Aviv-Yafo goes ‘retro’ with  Israel’s first “Sail-In” floating cinema

By David E. Kaplan

Those old enough, would well remember the “Drive-In”? Whether in the USA, South Africa, Australia and yes, Israel’s Tel Aviv, couples used to pile into their cars  to watch movies and snack at the same time, without someone bellowing “keep quiet!” Sound came from speakers clipped to the car window – not that the quality mattered too much in those days.

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Sounds of Silence. Remember when the speaker did not work and you had to move the car.

It was the age of motorcar romance and as one commentator so ‘fondly’ recalls, “Whether they watched the movies or not depended on how friendly they were.” And as I recall, those sixties and seventies horror movies were a ‘sure thing’ to engineer getting extra ‘friendly’.

No doubt, the Drive-In played its role in propagating our species.

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Oh, Those Were The Days.

Unlike today when Tel Aviv is in the vanguard for innovation, the “City that never sleeps” came late to the ‘Drive-In’’ party.

Only opening its first Drive-In in 1973 north of the Yarkon River with Disney’s Jungle Book, it remained open until 2000, finally giving way in 2014 to the Shalom Group Arena, the home ground for the Hapoel Tel-Aviv basketball club. Most important, it retained its huge parking area from the Drive-In era and to mark the annual romantic Jewish holiday – Israel’s Valentine’s Day – of TuB’Av (4th August) – it was back in business. In the City’s press release, it advertised the Drive-In’s opening with the anatomically suggestive “for the romantically inclined”!

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Adjusting to Corona. The parking lot of the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball arena is repurposed for a drive-in theatre.

On select evenings of the week during the sweltering summer month of August, in conjunction with the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality and the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, there will be screenings for 200 cars, strictly in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines and “purple badge” public health standards. Movie audio is transmitted in high quality via an FM radio frequency. “Tel Aviv is the ‘non-stop city’ but the coronavirus outbreak understandably halted a large share of cultural and leisure activity,” said Tel Aviv-Yafo Mayor Ron Huldai. “Nevertheless, we constantly searched for creative ways to grant residents access to culture. The return of the drive-in is another creative way to pass the hot August days, in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines.”

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Tel Aviv’s legendary Drive-In Theater Returns. The screenings are exclusively for DigiTel Resident Card holders and tickets must be purchased ahead of time via the municipality website. (photo credit: AMIR YAKOBY)

The director of the culture department in the Tel Aviv municipality, Shavei Mizrahi, said that in light of the high demand for screenings, “a reassessment of the situation will be made, and the intention is to conduct more screening days, including weekends.”

Down By The Riverside

Tel Aviv is characterized by always taking things to the next level and in this case from land to water. Fresh off the successful return of Tel Aviv’s legendary drive-in theatre, Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality was delighted to announce on the 9 August, the launch of Israel’s first “Sail-In” floating cinema at HaYarkon Park’s boating lake.

With the Coronavirus pandemic proving particularly challenging for the entertainment industry worldwide, outdoor initiatives represented almost the sole solution for cultural events.

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Floating Around. An illustrative image of the ‘Sail-In’ floating cinema at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. (courtesy of Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality)

Following Health Ministry approval for open-air drive-in events,  Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality again in partnership with Tel Aviv Cinematheque, will launch a “Sail-In” floating cinema under the clear night sky from August 22-28.

A total of 70 ‘socially distanced’ boats will be available to moviegoers, adults and children alike, seeking to enjoy a night of cinematic entertainment under the stars.

Like people in public, boats will be distanced two meters apart at all times opposite a large screen, ensuring a safe and fun experience, and allowing all ticketholders to float and unwind and escape the daily grind in a serene atmosphere between the water and the stars. If movie-goers are unlikely to hear other patrons crunching their popcorn, they may hear the night owls, crickets and frogs – nature’s divine soundtrack.

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No Dress Code. Feet out the window, relaxing and watching a flick at Tel Aviv’s Drive-In. (Photo: Avshalom Shoshani)

Tickets for eight screenings – four suitable for families and four suitable for adults – will be available exclusively to DigiTel Resident Card holders.

The launch of the “Sail-In” floating cinema joins a long list of municipal initiatives that include fitness classes on the roof of the Tel Aviv municipality building and musical performances on the roof of the Eretz Israel Museum.

Tel Aviv is in the forefront  of coming up with creative ideas during corona as befitting one of my favourite monikers:

 “The city that wakes each morning wondering what it’s going to be.”

 

 

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

 

Tea with Topol

By David E. Kaplan

If the 1999 movie ‘Tea with Mussolini’ with its all-star cast that included Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Cher was a treat, it was not half the treat for this writer as having  – in the flesh – tea with Topol, Israel’s iconic award-winning movie star. I enjoyed this experience in 2010 when interviewing him as the editor for the Hilton Israel Magazine and thought back to this encounter after reading recently that there are plans for a remake of the Norman Jewison 1971 music classic “Fiddler on the Roof”. The lead role of Tevye was played by the inimitable Chaim Topol.

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Tea With Topol. The writer (right) with Chaim Topol enjoying tea during the interview at the Hilton Tel Aviv in 2010

One could understand the mixed responses reflected in today’s media – from jubilation to questioning “Why?” and even the accusation of “sacrilege”. While most would welcome the perpetuation of the musical message of  Sholem Aleichem’s shtetl tales of ‘Tevye the Dairyman’ trying to marry off his daughters to the best catch – but a remake?

While today the role of Tevye is considered synonymous with Topol, back in 1966, preceding the movie, the young Israeli had to audition for the role in the West End production of Fiddler and what is more, he knew very little English!

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A Star Is Born. Poster of Fiddler on the Roof with Chaim Topol as Teyve.

“My English vocabulary at the time consisted of a few words such as “hungry”, “tired”, “where”, “when” and “how much?”

What did he do?

“I quickly found myself an English teacher in Tel Aviv and for four days underwent a crash course; learnt all the Fiddler songs in English and then presented myself in London.”

How did it “play” out, I asked?

“Well, the agent came forward and took me in to meet the producers and the director and announced: “Mr Topol is here.”  It was quite bizarre – I had all these people not only looking at me but through me. I was thirty years old, clean shaven with a short haircut and they were gaping at me – mouths open.  “Where is the ‘old man’?” they were clearly thinking. They felt cheated.

“Anyway they told me to hop onto the stage – they could surprisingly see I was young enough to hop –  and sing. And sing I did. I started with “If I were a rich man”, followed by “Sabbath Prayer,” “Tradition”, “Anatevka”, and finally with “Sunrise, Sunset” and it was clear where this was going. Well versed in auditions, they usually stop you halfway through the first song as they quickly make up their minds one way or another.

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Quintessential Tevye. Topol as Tevye the Milkman.

“They like you,” whispered the agent between the third and the fourth song and it was evident I was no longer auditioning but entertaining. They had made up their minds and they were loving it!

“Where it got even more bizarre was when I finished, and they asked me how I had perfected these songs. Where do you know Fiddler from?”

Now it was my turn to be astonished.

“Don’t you know that I have been performing Tevye in Tel Aviv?”

“No, first we are hearing of it.”

“So how come you invited me from the stage in Tel Aviv to audition here in London?”

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If I Were A Rich Man.Topol as Teyve appealing to the Almighty: “Dear God, you made many, many poor people.…what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.”

And then one of the producers said, “Well, my secretary had seen your performance in Sallah Shabati, for which you won a Golden Globe and suggested we try “the old man from Tel Aviv.”

And this explained their gaping mouths during the initial introduction. They were expecting an 80-year-old man not the image before them of abounding energy with a Mediterranean suntan!

Topol’s performance in Fiddler on the Roof, earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor and a nomination for the Oscar and the film went on to be seen by over a billion worldwide. “It was quite ironic,” notes Topol with his broad smile,  “that my portrayal of a Mizrachi Jewish immigrant in Sallach Shabati would lead to the most iconic Ashkenazi role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.”

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Movie Magic. The 1964 satire about new immigrants Sallah Shabati with Topol in the lead became the most successful film in Israeli history until that time.

As a young teenager in Cape Town, South Africa, I recall the impression Topol as Tevye made on my parents who had seen the West End production in London in 1967, days before the outbreak of the Six Day War. They raved about it but no less memorable was their recollection when Topol announced from the stage that this:

 “Will be my last performance as I am leaving for Israel – my country  is about to be engulfed in war.”

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Israel Calling! A young Chaim Topol at the time of the West End production shortly before the Six Day War in 1967.

Only a little over two decades after the Holocaust, the future of the Jewish people was again threatened and uncertain and the eyes of global Jewry was on the Middle East as Israel stood alone against the mighty armies of the Arab world about to invade from all fronts.

Topol’s rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset” took on a more poignant meaning as did the theme of the production.  For while Tevye must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wished to marry for love with each one’s choice of a husband moving further away from the customs of their Jewish faith and heritage, there lurked a far greater concern. Near the end of the musical, the Tzar’s constable arrives in the Shtetl of “Anatevka” telling everyone that they have three days to pack up and leave.

From Tevye in 1906 to Topol in 1967 the nature of Jewish destiny – from pogrom to war –  remained a crying constant!

Did Topol at the time realise that Fiddler would turn out to be such a success and the turning point in his career?

“No, not at all. Let me tell you a story. A well-known local TV producer in England, who was not Jewish, met me at a party just before the opening and said “Topol, if I had enough money I would buy the show and close it down. I would rather it closed before it opened. It’s not going to be good to present this image of Jews.” He was genuinely concerned.

“Then, after the rousing response of the opening night, he came backstage and said, “Yes, okay, you had a mostly Jewish audience tonight, so they laughed and cried, but wait until you are left with the normal theater-going crowd. I give you two months – tops, no more?”

“Well, after three months he brought his parents and they too cried and laughed and he came backstage with them after the performance and said, “Damn good, bloody damn good. Would you like to appear on my TV show and sing some of the songs?”

Not only his viewers but the people the world over enjoyed its universal appeal.

“It touched people. Think of it, we took the show to Japan, a totally different culture with a tiny Jewish community and the people there loved it. It is interesting the impact that entertainment can have on people.

“When I left on the El Al plane on the first day of the Six Day War with doctors and other returning Israelis, who do you think came up begging me with tears in his eyes to take him along?  None other than the same British TV producer who had initially dismissed Fiddler as too parochial and then inviting me onto his show! Something about Fiddler had changed his perceptions and perspective. Of course, I could not get him on that flight but that didn’t stop him. He found his own way and on the third day of the War, he arrived in Israel and stayed for six months.”

 Regarding an earlier war, Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Topol spoke about his part in another blockbuster, Cast a Giant Shadow, filmed in Israel and starring Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Senta Berger and John Wayne. “Even Kirk’s young son Michael Douglas appeared in this film, as a jeep driver. “

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Touch Of Topol. Class cameo role for Topol as Sheik Abou Ibn Kader (right) with Kirk Douglas (centre) in Israel’s War of Independence movie, ‘Cast a Giant Shadow’.

This film was also very personal for Topol.

“I was raised on kibbutz Mishmar David, named after the hero of this movie Col. David (Mickey) Marcus, an American officer who came to fight and command our forces in our War of Independence. His portrait stared at us every day in the cheder ochel (dining room). Most of the action and the tragic end of Mickey took place in the area where I lived.”

Topol took the part of an Arab, Sheik Abou Ibn Kader and “we had a scene where we were standing around a map that Mickey Marcus – played by Kirk – had drawn in the sand relating to an impending battle. Kirk was holding forth, “You will attack from here, and you will come in from there and so on,” when I interrupted by mucking up the map and saying something to the effect that you are talking nonsense. Someone then asked: “Why are you listening to him?”

My line in response as the Sheik was:

“If one of my men spoke to me that way I would take out my knife and make him a eunuch.”

Well, Yul did not approve of this line and made a noise by scraping something so that the sound engineer asked me to repeat the line. Again Yul made a noise, and this went on and on.

The director argued with Yul but you try stopping the man that led The Magnificent Seven! Everyone was laughing and in the end the director gave up as we could not waste any more time.

Time on a set is money.

Weeks later, after we finished filming, I received a call to come to London for one reason only – to dub over the one line: “If one of my men spoke to me that way I would take out my knife and make him a eunuch.” There is no shortage of reasons to visit London, but this was a first and I have no doubt will remain so!”

To the question of dealing with the trappings of stardom, Topol replied:

“Easy. Look at me. I am as you see me – a casual Israeli. I was not born into a tux (tuxedo). When I attended Hollywood parties, I felt I was on stage – another role to play. They probably thought me a bit of a bore as I never drank or smoked. Mia Farrow, who I co-starred with on The Public Eye, tried to get me to join her downing beers with chasers. I had to disappoint her. I preferred my mint tea just like I am drinking now.”

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Delightful Duo. A romantic comedy with Mia Farrow and Topol.

So while Topol has never throughout his illustrious career been short of good roles, the role that tops it all was without doubt, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

A billion people could not all be wrong!

On concluding the interview, how fitting on the walk from the lounge to the elevator, Topol broke into the Fiddler melody, “Sunrise, Sunset”.

“Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly flow the days,
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as they gaze…
Sunrise sunset,…”

 

 

 

 

While the mission of Lay Of The Land (LOTL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LOTL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

A Walk In The Park

While man is frequently at war with the environment, not so for Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan whose work is harmoniously in sync with its surroundings

By David E. Kaplan

Back on welcome “grandparent” duty following our release on parole from lockdown,  meant a return to one of my favourite parks – the Edith Wolfson Park on the eastern edge of the city of Tel Aviv. If its Tuesday, “we, the grandparents”, are usually there with our grandson. Perched high, the park offers a magnificent view of the city from its most iconic vantage – a massive sculpture by famed Israeli artist Dani Karavan. Called “The White Square”, the monumental work overlooks “The White City” as Tel Aviv is famously known because of its white Bauhaus architecture and is a complex geometric work that is an ode to the city itself.

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An Ode To Tel Aviv. Dani Karavan’s ‘The White Square’ at Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

If Tel Aviv is a city not so much to see but to experience then so to is Karavan’s sculpture where it is less viewed than it is walked, climbed, roller-skated and rollerbladed upon. I invariably join the “kids” in sliding down the sculpture’s colossal “sundial” on carboard as well as scampering up the large “pyramid”. The sculpture exudes physicality  – it is a metaphor for Tel Aviv of open-ended action befitting its reputation as “the city that never sleeps.” If you are generally “into art”, then visiting The White Square you literally, “get into” this art as you climb in, over, upon and through it!

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White Square Overlooking White City. The hill in the park with Karavan’s The White City is topographically the highest vantage view of Tel Aviv.

My first encounter with this monumental sculpture was of complete surprise. I came upon it with my first visit to the park in 2018 when my grandson, Yali, was only a few months old. I stared at the structure and thought, “Déjà vu – I have never been here before! Why is this massive sculpture so familiar?” And then I remembered that nearly a decade earlier, I co-wrote an interview with this sculpture’s creator – Dani Karavan, where he described this renowned work and I wrote about it including providing captions for photographs of what I now weekly ‘experience’.

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Structuring Dreams. Symbolizing fertility and peace, the olive tree in Karavan’s White Square at the Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

Dominating the sculpture is a 65-foot cement tower that can be see from afar as well as providing from the top, a majestic vista of the city. The tower symbolizes both the steel siren that once stood there and its function – security – watching over the city. The “migdal” or watchtower, is an enduring image that so characterized early settlement life in Israel as a state-in-the-making, providing security to its people working in the fields.

Beside the tower, is a large geometric piece composed of east-west facing shapes representing the surrounding urban neighborhood, much of it built in the Bauhaus style of architecture that has recognised Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Next to this is the pyramid-like structure symbolizing the tents lived in by those who built the city well over a century earlier, and then there is a dome-like structure with an olive tree at its center, depicting the orchards that surround Tel Aviv.

Lastly, there is the sun dial, possibly the most popular attraction as I can every Tuesday attest to, noting that it is used as much for skateboarding as it is for any other intended purpose.

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‘Time’ for Fun. Karavan’s Sun Dial (above) enjoyed most by skateboarders (below)

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Portrait Of An Artist

So who is this internationally acclaimed sculptor and Israel Prize recipient who lives in the same house in Tel Aviv, that “I  grew up in” and whose work can be seen across Israel, Europe, and Asia?

Karavan credits  being most influenced by his father when “I turned from painting to sculpture.” His father, Avraham Karavan, was the chief landscape designer for Tel Aviv from the 1940s through the 1960s.My father grew up in Manchester and I think he was very inspired by the English gardens. He always wanted to recreate nature – gardens as nature. I understand now that I am following in his footsteps: When I approach a site, I often develop the project in a similar way to his way of creating gardens.”

It is hard to escape his distinct style, which blends sculpture, architecture, and the landscape into unique and monumental pieces. Putting the question to Karavan that his work appears “as if you are sculpting the landscape”, he replied:

“That’s correct. This is what characterizes my work, which is rooted to a physical environment and not to an atelier [an artist’s workshop]. I was once privileged to meet the distinguished sculptor Henry Moore and observe him work in his environment – how he molded a model the size of a suitcase handle and enlarged it ninety-nine times its size. For me it is the opposite, because the large environment where I work emerges as part of my composition.”

One example the artist cites is the large sculptured wall of the Plenum Hall at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Called Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, the wall depicts an abstract Jerusalem landscape, the surrounding hills, and the Judean desert. It is one of the most recognised works of art in Israel as it appears almost daily on TV screens as a backdrop as the people’s elected representatives take to the podium to address the Knesset.

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Art To Inspire. Considered Israel’s most recognised sculpture, Dani Karavan’s Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem in the Knesset Plenum Hall. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Another example Karavan cites “was my first big piece as a sculptor,” the Negev Brigade Memorial. Although a  monument to commemorate those who fought in the Palmach Negev Brigade in 1948, the artist is quick to add:

 “I am not an artist who creates memorials. I create homages.”

The late Uzi Narkiss, a commander of the Negev Brigade’s Seventh Battalion, had suggested to Karavan to build a lookout so that visitors could climb up and physically experience the landscape. Observing the surrounding hills leading down to the valley, the views of the rolling landscape, the folds of the ground, the rocks and the bushes, all emerged as the material of the final work.

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Movement Ahead. A precursor to the land art movement, Karavan’s Negev Brigade Memorial that pays homage to members of the brigade who fell fighting during Israel’s War of Independence.

Explains Karavan:

“I had to integrate the landscape of the desert, its particularities, in order to tell the story of this brigade. My father helped me to plant acacia trees, indigenous to the Negev desert. As water was scarce, he knew which trees should be used. He always kept in mind the water. The line of water I created as part of the monument is not only a symbol of life, but also a tribute to the Palmach Brigade who had the mission of insuring the water supply to the kibbutzim in the desert.”

It was a groundbreaking project. “Up until then,” continued Karavan, “site-specific environmental sculpture did not exist. To some degree, it is similar to architecture, where the architect designs specifically for a particular environment.”

Further explaining, he adds:

 “I am not a sculptor that seeks a place, but rather the place seeks me. Michelangelo said that the statue already exists within the stone; I say that the sculpture already exists within the environment. I just unearth it. This is essentially my contribution to the evolution of sculpture. I wanted that sculpture be something people can climb and children play on – that it will be full of life and not pieces where people visit once a year to lay flowers.”

Looking at the children playing all over The White  Square, he has succeeded.

“My works could not exist without people. I want them to experience the work and feel like it is embracing them. At the same time, I never try to impose the way people should interact with my work. The work itself inspires people and leads them to explore the different forms and spaces. The fact that children engage with my works is not because I designed it for that purpose, but because my works give them a sense of freedom to use them in any way they would like to, without aggression, without violence—in a peaceful way.”

While Karavan can mold material to articulate his dreams and visions, he laments “an inability to influence better relations with our Arab neighbors. My father arrived in Israel in the 1920s. He came as an idealist and I inherited that idealism. What better vision to work for than the pursuit of regional peace and happiness? If you ask what I still want to do, yes, I need to finish my autobiography, but also to collaborate with a Palestinian artist on a project toward peace.”

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Man And His Work. Dani Karavan

From time immemorial, the olive tree is a symbol of peace and I thought of this quote of the artist again when I saw last Tuesday perched in the middle of The White Square the olive tree – the sole vertical living organism amongst the concrete.  It was the right milieu to reflect on the artist’s 2019 response to the question “What is his hope for humanity?” from famed landscape designer Lily S. Kwong:

Karavan replied: “I hope people will be more tolerant of others and to each other. I hope for more education all around the world. I hope that in most countries, art will have a key role in people’s daily lives.”

I felt assuredly of the artist’s hope of art playing “a key role in people’s daily lives,” when watching my grandchild with all the other children ‘explore, engage and encounter’ at the Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

 

Some of Karavan’s most important works:

A Walk In The Park1Negev Brigade Memorial, Beersheva, Israel

 

 

 

A Walk In The Park7Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem – Knesset wall relief, Jerusalem, Israel

 

 

A Walk In The Park3Kikar Levana, Tel Aviv, Israel

 

 

A Walk In The Park4Culture Square, Tel Aviv, Israel

 

 

A walk in the park7The “Path of Peace” sculpture by artist Dani Caravan. An environmental sculpture which is one of the attractions of Nitzana

 

 

A Walk In The Park5UNESCO Square of Tolerance – Homage to Yitzhak Rabin, Paris, France

 

 

A Walk In The Park6The Axe Majeur, Cergy-Pontoise, France