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It is early afternoon. An old woman with a cane steps sprightly to the junkyard of the kindergarten on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. At 90 her vision has deteriorated but she walks confidently along the paths of the kibbutz, her kingdom. She does not seem to be affected by either the heat or by fatigue, perhaps because she is made from the stuff of pioneers. The odd enclosure in front of the kindergarten does not exactly look like a yard. The children aren't visible either. But Malka Haas, who was the first kindergarten teacher of the kibbutz and who built this kindergarten in the 1940s, does not bat an eyelid. We take a seat and wait. After a few minutes a few kids suddenly surface from under the tables, boxes and other objects. They were there the whole time.

Three little girls make birdcalls to her from somewhere. Most of the people I met during a visit to the kibbutz treated Haas with a mixture of awe and admiration. After all, she developed an entire pedagogical theory for the kindergarten, and generations of kindergarten teachers and assistants trained under her. Nevertheless, the children appear to feel completely at ease with this white-haired woman.

"We opened a grocery store," one of the "little friends," as Haas refers to them, reports in all seriousness. Her face beams as she starts questioning the children, delving into the smallest details. You could say that Haas' life's work is connected to gathering the hidden details in the girls' world.

Cave paintings

For over 60 years Haas has been studying the development of toddlers as well as children's paintings. In her bedroom are about 250,000 meticulously catalogued children's painting done on the kibbutz starting in 1958. She studies the lines, the cross-hatching, the curves and other shapes that two- and three-year-olds draw. Only the ignorant see them as mere scribbles.

"Grownups ask a two-year-old, 'what did you paint?'. They don't look," Haas declares, as if to imply that the adults simply aren't trying hard enough. According to Haas, the standard study of children's paintings starts as soon as they paint identifiable shapes such as a house or a flower, only because the earlier markings confuse most adults. Her study of early attempts at painting led her to develop the pedagogy of early childhood. "It is a mistake to call this age the tender age. It's a very difficult age," she says with a touch of irony.

Haas, an autodidact who drew her knowledge of childhood and human nature from Freud, Piaget and other theoreticians, sees in a person's early graphic productions something of universal value that touches on the development of human culture in general and art in particular. She notes, for example, that toddlers all over the world draw the same images in their first attempts at painting, and that their creations are surprisingly similar to those in prehistoric cave paintings and early tribal art.

It is no coincidence that the House of Painting, where generations of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu's children have painted, resembles a cave. The entrance to the structure, which is at the base of the water tower, is from the side. To reach the door one must circle around a myrtle tree. "You have to make an effort to get here," notes Haas, as we descend single file.

When the door opens, one can understand the attraction that this hidden, remote place held for the young children who came here in the afternoons. Pictures hang on the wall of the modestly sized room.

In 1998, the House of Painting received artistic recognition when the children's works (and also those of their parents) were displayed at the art museum in Ein Harod. Recently Haas' work also achieved international recognition; around 2,000 works from her collection of children's art were scanned this year into the Harvard University Library Judaica collection, considered the largest Jewish archive in the world. The collection, which will be presented in this year's catalogue this year, was accepted as documentation of an era, of Israeli childhood on kibbutz.

Fifty of the works created in the pavilion over the course of five decades, whose colors and sensuality seem to jump off the page, will be featured in an exhibition that will open in October at a conference on culture and education in the State of Israel. Haas will give a lecture at Harvard about her work and the library is to document her work in early childhood pedagogy. Undoubtedly this will mark a peak in the life's work of Haas, who has made a reputation for herself in the country's kibbutzim, and who for years taught at the kibbutz movement's Oranim Academic College of Education.

The recognition from Harvard clearly is satisfying to Haas.

"I outflanked them," she says, with a rebellious flash in her eye, referring to the failure of the Israeli academic establishment to grant her recognition.

Chatting in the yard

Haas has short hair and the unmistakable accent of a German-born Jew. She and her husband Kloni (for Kalonymus) are representative of the enlightened, cultured religious Zionists who immigrated to Israel from Europe. They have three children.

Malka was born in Berlin in 1920 and describes a childhood full of warmth and love that laid the foundations for a creative lifestyle.

"It was an artistic home and rich in culture. I painted all through my childhood," says Haas. At 14 she joined a religious Zionist youth movement, without her parents' knowledge, where she met Kloni. At the age of 15 she persuaded her parents to allow her to immigrate to pre-state Israel with the Aliyat Hanoar organization. She and Kloni went first to Hadera. When they were 18 the couple - who later married - were sent to settle the desolate Beit She'an Valley. They were among the founders of the religious kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.

Kloni's family was killed in the Holocaust but Malka's parents and brothers managed to escape from Berlin at the last minute and to go to the United States.

When the first generation of kibbutz pioneers began having children Haas decided to study to be a kindergarten teacher at the kibbutz seminar. She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 20 years and later taught early education. At a certain point, she says, she had to choose between becoming an artist or a teacher, and while she chose education she never gave up her art.

Among Haas contributed to the kibbutz, among other things, the famous junkyard, a space full of stimuli and activity options for toddlers. She allowed the children to build the world in their own way, in an open space, using found materials and based on a dialogue with their friends and the surroundings.

"Contrary to what people think, going out to the kindergarten yard is not a time for the children to stretch their legs and for the teacher to sit with her legs crossed," says Tzila Gavish, a former student of Haas' who is now a colleague. "It's the most important time in kindergarten. In the education system things were turned inside out. The encounter, the chatting with the teacher, that is the important learning time; all the rest is marginal," Gavish said.

Undoubtedly, the place that most reflects Haas' creativity is the House of Painting. "The children worked standing up, the paintings were nailed to the walls," says Varda Garing of Jerusalem, a former student who is now an art therapist. "Inside you always met the woman with the quiet presence who made precise comments. Her yekke (exacting) nature could be off-putting but that was her attitude, that you must be serious. I sensed her empathy. I liked her noninterventional approach, her ability to look as if from the side and see everything. She knew when to give a child the right paper and when to give out paint but she didn't tell us what to do and also didn't compliment us. But no one praised us. The concept that you don't have to inflate the egos of children typified kibbutz society."

Within the House of Painting adults were not allowed to ask children what they were painting or to criticize their work. "For Malka it was important to preserve creative freedom. She was aware that it was a critical society," Garing says.

It's okay to be afraid

In wartime the House of Painting became a haven. "During the Yom Kippur War, when I was 13, there was an atmosphere of fear," Garing recalls. "There was no school and in the afternoons we would go to paint with Malka." Haas' collection of children's artwork contains many that address the fear of war and bereavement.

Today it may seem trivial, but 30 years ago Haas was ahead of her time in giving children the freedom to express their fears. She never engaged in diagnosis and objects in principle to diagnoses based on schematics (for example, that disproportionately large hands in a child's painting indicate sexual abuse).

Haas' creativity came to the fore in the early years of the kibbutz, in the materials she created for the kindergarten. She told Bible stories and translated children's books her mother sent from the U.S. In the 1960s Haas translated "Madeline," the classic by French author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans, into Hebrew, and generations of Israeli kindergarteners have performed plays based on it. (A Hebrew edition translated by Aviram Golan was published a few years ago.)

Another testimony to Haas' nonconformism is her success, in the 1940s, in persuading the kibbutz to build a kindergarten without sleeping quarters so bedrooms, so that starting in kindergarten the children slept with their families instead of in separate children's home.

Haas teaches a large group of kindergarten teachers who come from all over the country once a week, and does not stop creating and learning. She is currently learning the Yemima Method (for attaining self-awareness - T.R.). Haas says the method's effect on her life and on her relationship with her husband is beyond description. "We are happier than we've ever been," she says. "My problem is that I have so many plans. I hope we'll be healthy and live a little longer so that we can fulfill some of them."

No great artists have come from Sde Eliyahu. This is not surprising, says Garing, the art therapist. "The House of Painting was not an artist's workshop. The word artist was never said there. Because being an artist is a profession, whereas artistic creation is a way of life. The House of Painting was a protected space where you experienced things as a child, and it was an integral part of our development, just like the kindergarten and the junkyard. As children, we grasped that we and our creations were respected, and that provided us with a meaningful learning experience. It is connected to flexibility, to a person's ability to adapt himself to situations that are changing for better or worse, and a child takes this experience and keeps for life."