Once a cultural hub, Israeli modernist icon is left to languish
The auditorium at Kfar Warburg,a hybrid between the International style and early Israeli modernism, is waiting a savior.
At the end of the summer of 1957, composer and poet Naomi Shemer was asked to write a short tune in honor of the inauguration of the Passman Auditorium in the moshav of Kfar Warburg. For Shemer, this was not an unusual assignment. Over the years she supplied hundreds of songs for various events honoring members of the labor settlement movement.
Shemer jotted down the words and melody onto a blank piece of sheet music, preserved to this day in the moshav's archive. She signed it: "All rights reserved by Naomi Shemer." The lyrics of "A Village in the South" describe, as one would expect, the tenacious struggle of the residents to build a settlement on the northern fringes of the Negev Desert. "The day when both hammer and combine / Clap, clap and sing a new song / The day when under blue skies / Metal sparked and light met light / And light to light called: The end has come / The end to poverty / And people turn to one another saying: Today we built a village."
In many ways the Passman Auditorium was a dream come true for Kfar Warburg's residents - a place to shape the nature of the community and mark shared cultural events, from holiday celebrations, through children's activities, to weddings on the expansive lawn. Additionally the Passman Auditorium functioned as a regional venue for live performances. It hosted plays by leading theater companies, showed first run movies, hosted political conventions and even sporting events, with the stage serving as a basketball court. Fifty five years after its construction, the building is now mostly deserted. The theater is locked, the youth clubs have moved elsewhere, and only the ground floor is still open to the public. Lacking proper maintenance, the structure with its beautiful architecture is crumbling. Air conditioning units have been hung across its facade, the walls have started to crack, and weeds have sprouted even inside.
Kfar Warburg operated a temporary auditorium almost from the day the village was founded in 1939. At first it was a small wooden shack for meetings and activities. After that burned down, events were held in alternate locations, such as the supply shed and the roof of the grocery store, which served as the village's provisional movie house. In those first years, the villagers were greatly concerned with culture.
"City folks, even if engaged in physical labor, are free to spend their time in various cultural pursuits after their workday. This is not the case for us. We work from dawn to dusk, sometimes also borrowing some hours from the night," wrote moshav member Petiya Zuk in a book published to commemorate the village's 25th anniversary. "It is really not enough for members to travel to the theater or movies or go to a lecture once a month. We must accord greater respect than that to activities that demand active involvement of all, such as a choir, an orchestra, or study groups." In the same book, village resident Hadassah added: "The culture of the moshav must not be a commodity that's imported from outside; it must grow on the soil of the moshav itself."
After the village finished building the homes, farms and agricultural facilities, the members focused on constructing an appropriate auditorium. In the early 1950s, the population of the village doubled. The moving force for the new auditorium was Menahem Haimson, who headed the moshav's governing council. Haimson had a vision of a particularly large hall that would serve not only the village but would also attract residents from the surrounding towns and villages - a kind of cultural Acropolis that would carry the name of Kfar Warburg far and wide. He enlisted the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association and its head, Charles Passman, to donate 30,000 Israeli liras. The rest of the money came from villagers' contributions and loans. A large lot in the heart of the village, at the crossroads of three main thoroughfares, was designated for the project.
Architect Arieh Levine (1924-1968 ) was selected to design the auditorium. He worked extensively with the labor settlement movement, designing Ein Yahav, a moshav in the Arava, among other projects. His office was located in the moshav movement building in Tel Aviv even though he was in private practice. Levine was asked to plan an auditorium that was many sizes too big for the moshav. He created a hybrid between the International style and early Israeli modernism and used great mass to lend the building a monumental nature. The ground floor housed a club, library, rooms for children's activities, performers' dressing rooms, and the box office. An 880-seat theater with an enormous stage - 25 meters by 15 meters - was located on the next level. The courtyards in front of and behind the building were also exactingly planned and cultivated, and served village residents for a host of different events.
Levine was very influenced by the work of Richard Kauffman, who had extensive experience in planning kibbutzim and moshavim. This is evident in the functional lines free of ornamentation as well as in the play of different shapes of mass. The main facade was pushed into the building so as to create a covered gathering place above which there was a patio. Another curious feature is an arched opening in one of the sides, which served as a direct entrance for village residents.
The total cost came to 174,000 liras, almost double the initial estimate. Commissioning this detailed plan and the materials chosen for the finish are evidence that this was one of the most sophisticated auditoriums of its time. The Passman Auditorium served the moshav for every shared communal activity. For example, the village archive has dozens of photographs of weddings that took place there. Productions by Habima National Theater and the leading Tel Aviv Cameri Theater were presented almost every week. Later the venue hosted the members of the comedy troupe Hagashash Hahiver and musicals produced by Giora Godik, such as "Anna and the King of Siam." Because that musical involved many child actors, and the journey from Tel Aviv was considered exhausting, some of the moshav children got to participate in the production. Godik was quite pleased with them and they continued to play roles in regional shows.
The Passman Auditorium was recently researched as part of a comprehensive study of auditoriums being carried out by Dr. Esther Grabiner and Dr. Adina Meir-Merril of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Arts. Yasmine Schmidt, a student in the program, traced the history of the building and its role for moshav members. Moshav residents told her that its communal purpose ended "the day TVs were brought into village homes." This trend is typical of virtually every one of the hundreds of auditoriums that operated in the labor settlement movement and in cities across Israel. All of them have a glorious past, a sorry present, and an uncertain future.
"The building became too big for the moshav to maintain on its own," says Yariv Zuk, the head of Kfar Warburg's local council. "The residents call it their white elephant."
Today, the Passman Auditorium is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the moshav does not have enough funds to finance repairs and maintenance; on the other hand, residents have no intention of selling it. "We're trying to interest people in the building and achieve some sort of cooperation that would allow us to operate the building again. As a moshav, we can't do anything by ourselves," adds Zuk.
The dilemma facing Kfar Warburg is one shared by many towns throughout the country. Many auditoriums like the Passman one lack orderly restoration plans, dooming them to neglect. Who will finally take on this challenge? Will government ministries be able to contribute something to the planning and restoration of these halls? Can the Jewish Agency or Mifal Hapais, the national lottery, raise the funding, or will a private philanthropy decide to take responsibility for a project on so large a national scale?
In the meantime the auditoriums are waiting for someone to reinvent them and bring them back into the center of Israeli society.