An exhibit in Tel Aviv surveys the changes in Israeli history, and the nation’s self-perception, through the once-popular medium of decorative dolls
To those who grew up in the pre-television Israel of the 1950s and 1960s—the country’s first broadcast came in 1966—the physical world that lay beyond our narrow territorial confines, its colors, smells, and textures, was often imagined via small personal collections of souvenirs: coins, stamps, cards, matchboxes, empty cologne bottles, napkins, and other potential discards. Modest thematized collections of trivial bric-a-brac went beyond kids’ stuff; grown-ups were equally engaged, showcasing in their modest living-rooms carefully assembled displays of small objects acquired in far-off lands like salt shakers and miniature liquor bottles. The curatorial emphasis was mostly on variety, not aesthetics, the decorative trophies endowing the household with social prestige and marking the collector as diligent and intelligent.
Dolls in national costumes were a particular favorite. These 4-to-7-inch figures were not meant to be played with, and when we children were given permission to hold them—one at a time, and only after our hands were inspected for cleanliness—we were forewarned to handle them carefully, and we felt privileged and trustworthy. Fingering the delicate lace mantilla of the Spanish doll, the tiny dirndl skirt of the Swiss, the gold flecks on the Mexican’s sombrero, or the shiny black boots of the Russian was an unmatched pleasure, a flight of fancy to faraway regions of the imagination, to rivers and mountains and steppes, to languages and sounds, to songs and dances that were as exotic to us as the Orient had been to the European imagination. Yet a measure of local patriotism was never absent from these homey international extravaganzas—every collection I remember included an Israeli doll, usually of a typical sabra in khaki shorts or a Yemenite Jew with long sidelocks in an elaborate ethnic garb, thus asserting our own national identity and our proud membership in the family of nations.
These displays seemed to disappear as I grew older. I never gave them a second thought. The local dolls I sometime glimpsed in store windows now struck me as crass trinkets of the tourist industry, much like the wooden camels with which they often shared space on the same shelves.
“A Land and Its Dolls,” a captivating exhibition that opened in May at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, brought back these memories.
Shelly Shenhav-Keller, the anthropologist who curated the exhibition, assembled more than 200 dolls from museums, organizations, and private collectors—some of them non-Israelis who, as tourists, had bought the dolls as mementos of their visit. As souvenirs go, these dolls encapsulate their period’s essential notion of Israeliness, and thus, says Shenhav-Keller, they express important aspects of the construction of Israeli identity and societal values, ranging from the early uniformity of the melting-pot ideal to the multiethnic and multicultural spirit of more recent years.
All the dolls displayed in the exhibition were produced in Israel, first by individual artists and craftspeople and later, as demand grew, by local workshops. The earliest dolls in the exhibition—a middle-eastern man and woman—were created by Rivka Stark-Avivi (1895-1979) in 1919. The most recent ones are from the 1980s: Local production of Israeli souvenir dolls came to an end in the 1990s, when there was little demand for them mostly due to the sharp reduction in tourism caused by the first Intifada. Dolls of a more recent vintage are bound to be made in China.
Nearly all the original artisans engaged in the production of the Israeli dolls were women, many of them with a European art education. Their handicraft was infused with their respective artistic, social, and personal experiences, interests, and concerns. Their life stories—of immigration and resettlement, of working in the margins of the art world, on the borderline of folk art and commerce—are fascinating from a feminist perspective: Stark-Avivi, for example, the first Israeli doll-maker, had studied in the art academy in Vilnius before arriving in Palestine in 1914, when the land was still under Ottoman rule. She created mostly female dolls, representing the rich array of Jewish communities she encountered in her new homeland. Her intricately dressed figures, which she made of cloth, are not merely pleasing to the eye but also provide a wonderfully rich ethnographic resource.
The work of Edith Samuel (1907-1964) is similarly impressive. Samuel was the daughter of a liberal rabbi in Essen, Germany, and later studied art in Stuttgart. She lived in Berlin during the 1930s, and, in addition to her work with a local puppet theater, she was well-known for the portrait dolls she created by special order. In 1939, she fled to Palestine and settled in Rishon Lezion, where she would create many dolls of children and young people. Samuel’s aliya was not uncomplicated, and she found it difficult to adjust and find her place in her new land. This explains, perhaps, the loneliness and ambivalence that radiates from the highly expressive self-portrait doll she created in the 1940s.
Two other German Jews played an important role in the world of dolls: Fannie Peltz, who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and specialized in creating small, richly detailed figures of typical characters; and Frank Meisler, an architect, who as a boy left Nazi Germany for England and moved to Israel in 1955. In the 1960s, Meisler’s atelier in old Jaffa employed dozens of Jewish and Arab workers, who created modern-looking and often humorous wooden dolls that spoke to a new, more whimsical visual sensibility. Meisler later switched his creative energies to the production of upscale Jewish-themed metal sculptures, which, to this day, are popular with well-heeled tourists. The only native-born doll-maker in this core group of founders was Ruth Sarfati-Sterschuss (1928-2010), a highly respected artist, sculptor, and book illustrator who, following the 1967 war and influenced by traditional Palestinian artistry, designed cubistic wooden dolls mostly depicting Bedouin and Arab women.
To organize the display, Shenhav-Keller opted for a joint chronological and thematic approach. The exhibition begins with the pre-state period, in which the curator notes a gradual shift from ethnic pluralism to the hegemonic representation of the sabra. It proceeds to the 1950s and 1960s, when souvenir dolls were mostly devoted to the depiction of the idealized version of the “new Jew,” often as a young chalutz, or pioneer, in an embroidered blouse and khaki shorts. The 1960s and 1970s were a period of great changes in Israeli society: The old sabra ideal still held firm, but the 1967 war glamorized the figure of the young soldier on the one hand and led to a new interest in religion and tradition on the other, which introduced into the doll market the once rejected figure of the hasid. Soldiers and hasidim dolls were mostly produced by commercial workshops that supplied the growing demand of mass tourism. The war also led to a new encounter with Arabs, which was expressed in the wooden dolls of Meisler and Sarfati-Sterschuss. In the 1980s, as Israel was transforming into a capitalist and individualistic society and new questions regarding the meaning of Israeli identity upset the old sabra ideal, the country’s once-thriving souvenir-doll industry began its decline.
What do the visitors flocking to this exhibition make of this rich assemblage of decorative figures of halutzim, coquettish biblical maidens with water jugs, Yemenite Jews engaged in traditional handiwork, Arabs and Bedouins, newspaper boys and praying hasidim? Many of the older visitors, who remember these stereotypes that once dominated Israeli popular culture, smile with savvy recognition and a tad of nostalgia. Their children, in the meanwhile, look with fresh eyes at the colorful kaleidoscope, savoring the shapes and textiles, eager, I am sure, to take some of the dolls out of the display cases, touch them, and embark on flights of fancy as only children can, as I once did, as once the entire nation played and dreamt.
Edna Nahshon is a professor of Hebrew and performance studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her most recent books are Jews and Shoes and Jewish Theatre: A Global View.
Before he was the famous voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Woody Woodpecker, Mel Blanc was a Jewish kid in Portland, Ore., doing impressions of his immigrant neighbors