'I Lived Life to the Fullest'

All but forgotten today, Had Gadya was the first woman to study at the Bezalel Art School and an outstanding painter in 1920s' Tel Aviv. Her autobiography, recently found in her daughter's home, sheds light on the mystery of this artist, who never made a name for herself but painted to the very last.

The photo of the outdoor painting workshop of the Bezalel Art School at the turn of the 20th century is eye-catching. Perhaps because the two painters in the center of the scene continue to work with their backs to the camera, oblivious to the moment. On the left, wearing a black beret, is the painter Nachum Gutman, working on a portrait of a Yemenite man; the model himself is deep in the background. Perhaps it is the defiant pose of the young man in the foreground at left, who looks like a guard or a narrator in a play. The shadow of a smile plays across his face, as if he can guess what the future holds for these young people, who dream of being artists.

The setting is a walled courtyard. Behind the group of students and their easels stands the authoritative figure of Boris Schatz, the founder of the school now known as the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Nearby, looking directly into the camera, is artist Zeev Raban. But it is perhaps the young woman who really steals the show - the only woman in the group. From her position near Schatz, she casts a captivating sidelong glance at the camera. From the moment the viewer notices her, she cannot be ignored.

In 1912, the year the photo was taken, she was 17 years old, the only female student at Bezalel. She had just come from Russia, and had been given the curious nickname "Had Gadya."

"We were a mixture of students at the Bezalel Art School. A strange bunch," Nachum Gutman, Had Gadya's classmate, was quoted as saying in his biography ("Between Sands and Blue Sky" by Ehud Ben-Ezer; Yavneh Publishing House). "Prof. Schatz gathered us from all parts of the world; even his charming personality was not enough to bind us together."

Later Gutman tells of "one beautiful student who wore her hair short like a young man and was the first with this fashion in the entire Middle East, and we called her Had Gadya." Gutman did not mention that at first, the students, led by him, protested the school's acceptance of a woman.

"Had Gadya" was the class beauty, recalls Hemi Gutman, the painter's son. "I think everyone was a little in love with her. My father always talked about her, about her beauty, her warm smile."

During her first year at Bezalel, the artist and teacher Shmuel Levy Ophel painted a wonderful portrait of Had Gadya, a girl-woman, in shades of dusky blue. Her expression was both innocent and arousing - her trademark.

In the 1920s, Had Gadya was the face of Bezalel. A kind of muse, a boyish nymph. She appears in a number of photographs by Yaakov Ben Dov, who documented life at Bezalel in the early years. In one of them, she appears in a romantic biblical scene set against a desert backdrop, in the best Bezalel style. Draped in a white galabia, with a white scarf on her head and a bouquet, she recalls Ruth the Moabite. In another picture she wears a man's hat that shades her eyes, smiling enigmatically. There is no doubt she knew how to pose for the camera.

But Had Gadya was more than a pretty face. She was a talented painter, according to the chief curator of the Israel Museum, Yigal Zalmona. However, he adds: "We know little about her work and more of the folklore."

In contrast, art historian Gideon Ofrat believes that her "spirit hovers over the complex and legendary beginnings of Bezalel and Boris Schatz and that is all." Had Gadya does not interest Ofrat as an artist, he notes, because "she has no body of work."

According to Zalmona: "Had Gadya did not invest the energy required of an artist in those days, and she certainly had her reasons." Zalmona says he does not know the details of her life. The manuscript reveals where that energy was lost - on her journeys from Palestine to Alexandria and Cairo and back in the 1920s; to Manhattan in the 1930s; back to Jerusalem in the 1950s and to Safed in the '60s; and through three marriages.

Had Gadya's real name was Marousia (Miriam) Nissenholtz. She was born in Russia in 1895 in a small town called Kodama, near Odessa. Both her parents were pharmacists. Her mother, who had herself struggled for the right to an education, instilled a sense of independence in her daughter. When, as a young woman, Marousia's mother understood that her parents would not allow her to go to university, she tricked them: She quickly married, only to divorce and use her dowry to fund her studies in pharmacy school. By the time she married again, she owned her own business.

As a young girl, Marousia painted incessantly on walls and scraps of paper, and dreamed of being an artist. As a young woman, she disparaged the small-town bourgeoisie and apparently identified with young Natasha in Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

The most significant event in her life was without a doubt the Bezalel exhibition in Odessa. On Passover in 1911, Boris Schatz came to display works created at Bezalel and to enlist new students and funding for the institution, which was then barely surviving. It was still very cold when the big white tent went up in Alexander Park in the center of the city, according to sources of the period. Roman columns and a symbol of the Ten Commandments were placed at the front of the tent, and above the entrance a sign bore the word "Bezalel" in gilded letters. A "tapestry of the holy places" was unfurled, and nine crates containing the works of art were unloaded.

The excitement was great. Mendele Mocher Sforim was photographed with Schatz at the front of the tent. Later, inside, Schatz presented magic lantern pictures to an audience of hundreds. Marousia was also charmed. The Land of Israel seemed to her to be a fable. She was curious to see for herself the orange and almond groves her educated father, an admirer of Theodor Herzl, had told her about. Indeed, the exhibit aroused Zionist feelings in Marousia's father; he decided that her place was at Bezalel and so the two departed by ship for Palestine. When they arrived in Jaffa, Marousia was disappointed to be greeted by stench and harsh conditions. Her father sailed home, leaving her on her own in an apartment in Jerusalem.

There are conflicting versions as to how the name Had Gadya was born. Had Gadya (literally "an only kid" - the name of a popular seder song) was a common symbol at Bezalel, and the subject of illustrations by Zeev Raban. Nachum Gutman and others described their classmate as mischievous, skipping around like a goat on the mountains. In her autobiographical manuscript, Had Gadya says she invented the name for herself, as she felt like a young goat among wolves because the boys harassed her.

The students of Bezalel's third graduating class, including Had Gadya, studied from morning to evening; classes began at 6 A.M. Prof. Schatz, wearing a white robe in what seemed to be an Arab style, would stand at the door of the classroom looking pointedly at his pocket watch.

In the morning, the students concentrated on painting. A model awaited the class - a beggar, or an old Jew dressed in rags.

"What you saw were hands and feet," Had Gadya complained in her book. "Schatz would say: 'This is how Jeremiah looked, this is how King David or King Solomon looked." In the morning they also studied ceramics. In the afternoon they worked on the "Ark of the Covenant," the "Elijah Chair" and other creations inspired by the Bible and Jewish motifs, according to Schatz's vision. But Had Gadya rebelled against Schatz. "It took years to wipe out the poor art education I received at Bezalel," she wrote.

When the winds of World War I began to blow, the institution's financial situation went into decline. Contributions from America dried up and Had Gadya, like many of Jerusalem's inhabitants, went hungry. In the morning she made do with a piece of candy and hot water; in the afternoon she had soup with a few lentils floating in it, and water in which raisins had been boiled. In the winter she wore knitted shoes, each day replacing the cardboard soles she made herself. Sometimes Schatz invited the students for a meal at his home.

When they were hungry - to the displeasure of their classmates - Had Gadya and a friend ate the nut cakes proffered by Turkish and German officers stationed in the city, "because it was nourishing."

In 1917, when all non-Ottoman citizens had to leave Jerusalem, Had Gadya fled to Alexandria. There she met Raphael Abulafia, the handsome scion of one of the veteran Jewish families in Palestine, a member of the pro-British Nili underground and a good friend of Avshalom Feinberg (who enlisted him in that organization). At the time Abulafia, a member of the Zion Mule Corps, had been injured and was recuperating in an Alexandria hospital. The two married in Egypt.

One day, three British intelligence officers arrived and interrogated Had Gadya about her relationship with one of the German officers she had ostensibly befriended in Jerusalem, suspecting her of treason. However, the suspicions were revealed to be groundless; after all, her husband was a spy for the British, and Nili leader Sarah Aaronsohn herself had visited his home in Alexandria.

When the war was over, the couple moved to Tel Aviv with their daughter, Shulamit, who had been born in Egypt. But Had Gadya, with her bohemian soul, did not find her place among the Tel Aviv bourgeoisie. "I raised my two daughters, we went to parties, we sat in cafes, and we lived a life that could have gone on anywhere, not in a pioneering society," she wrote. "I rebelled, but I could do nothing. I presented to the world the image that was expected of me. But those were 14 unhappy years, and I sought a direction in the darkness toward which my life was flowing."

For some reason this venture did not last. Like other women painters - Ziona Tajar, and later Aviva Uri and Lea Nikel, who was a good friend of Had Gadya - Had Gadya decided to pursue her art abroad. In 1921 she decided to leave her daughter, then three, and travel to Europe. Not to the art capital of Paris, but to Vienna, where among other things she studied batik, which was to become a main source of her livelihood.

In 1929 she moved to New York where she tried her luck for three years as an artist, leaving her two daughters in the care of their paternal grandmother, Rachel Abulafia. At first she lived from hand to mouth, joining a group of artists and musicians with connections to the black community in Harlem. There she first came into contact with liberal ideas, particularly the first glimmerings of the women's rights movement. She earned a living as a portrait painter and was commissioned, for example, to paint Walter Chrysler, the automobile mogul, a millionaire at 26; among other things, she also painted works focusing on soul singers. Only at night did she devote herself to her own art.

When she returned to Palestine in 1932, she separated from her husband and moved to Jerusalem. Each parent took one daughter, and the girls would meet every Saturday. Had Gadya rented a studio in the Bezalel building and taught art. "I am ready for a new love," she wrote in her manuscript.

But the affair did not last: According to Joelson, when Had Gaya asked him how he could have betrayed the actress Hannah Rovina, he answered (in Russian, the language they spoke to each other): "Get used to it." She threw him out of the house.

Ofrat argues that Tajar, who went to Paris as soon as she completed her studies, brought back Modernism, and any one who did not do the same was doomed to oblivion at that time. Zalmona adds that Tajar struggled to get where she was professionally, but also had the right connections with gallery owners and art critics, while Had Gadya had no one to depend on. "Schatz could no longer help her because the art scene and the power centers had moved to Tel Aviv," he says.

Carmela Rubin, director of the Reuven Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv, says that Had Gadya's story cannot be divorced from the issue of the status of women artists in those years. Rubin, the daughter-in-law of the famed painter, researched the history of other struggling women artists from that period, like Yonah Shechter Zaliuk and Mussia Bograshov.

"In the 1920s, these painters, who were good painters, exhibited in major shows at Haohel Theater. But the moment they got married, they became invisible," Rubin says. "This was not only because family life and the life of a woman artist could not be combined, but because no one paid attention to them. All of them, including Tajar, Lea Nikel and Aviva Uri, paid a heavy price for their career at a time when women were not expected to stand out. They were expected to stay home. They left their children and devoted themselves to art, but a little later than Had Gadya did."

In her book, Had Gadya regrets not becoming a well-known artist, but wrote: "I lived life to the fullest." Everywhere she lived she attracted artists, musicians and bohemians. Her home was always full. "She would cook as if she were inspired by heaven," her daughter recalls.

In the 1940s, Had Gadya married Richard Harris, an American 14 years her junior. When her husband opened a business importing merchandise from Cairo, she moved there with him. Some time later, her younger daughter came to live with her in a large house on the Nile. Once again, ordinary life suffocated her artistic aspirations. In the early '40s, with the looming threat of the Nazis' advances, she was anxious to leave, and after a harrowing journey through Baghdad and India, she and her daughter moved to Manhattan.

Harris was supposed to bring her paintings, a few hundred of which she left behind, with him by ship. But three months later, Had Gadya received a telegram from him, telling her to get on with her life on her own. When Harris arrived in New York, it turned out he had left the paintings in Egypt. World War II broke out and there was no way to save them.

To make a living, Had Gadya began painting watercolors for hotel lobbies. The young, promising artist was poor. She painted on commission and mainly created batiks, a physically demanding craft. However, she never considered these works of art, and continued to seek other creative outlets. She mounted a number of shows in the United States and Israel, always seeking a breakthrough, and sometimes seemed on the verge of one. But history does not recall those who almost make it.

In the 1950s, she got married for the third time, to a penniless illustrator of children's books. She left him a few years later and returned to Israel, first living in Ein Karem in Jerusalem, and then moving to the artists' quarter in Safed, where she became friends with artists Lea Nikel and Hava Levy. In her latter years, she lived with her elder daughter in Tel Aviv, Shulamit Abulafia Cifroni (who died this year).

In the 1970s, in Safed, Had Gadya began painting large abstracts, full of color and squares. In one, beyond the geometric patterns, as if behind a transparent curtain, a woman can be seen holding a baby, reminiscent of the Madonna and child. "She felt she was being liberated and reaching her destination as an artist," Joelson says.

"Another year is behind us and I cannot say I have been very productive," Had Gadya wrote to her daughter Ora in 1971. "I hope I will finish the painting and that I have not taken too much on myself. It is a very ambitious painting. The idea is the expansion of the universe. I build like someone who is building a cathedral. I only hope I will succeed."

She worked from morning to evening. Lea Nikel and her husband Sam would drop by to visit, for meals. "Lea would come into the studio and tell my mother: 'That's really beautiful, don't touch it, you don't need anything more,'" Joelson recalls.

Nikel's daughter, Ziva Hanan, remembers Had Gadya as "a woman of laughter." Joelson adds: "There were always people in her home, and she was always at the center, but inside she was hiding loneliness and sadness."

On her own, Had Gadya gradually renovated her house in Safed, which had been in ruins, transforming it into a spectacular home with a wild garden in the front. But she could hardly stand the cold weather. "I can say to you that the atmosphere in my house is a nightmare. It is the coldest winter ever in Safed," she wrote to her daughter in the 1970s.

"I cannot describe to you the sensation when you enter a cold room and light the stove, and it costs you more than 100 liras a month to heat it. And you go into the bathroom where there's a centimeter and a half of water on the floor and then you go to the wet studio. I'm sick of working so hard; all the money goes into this lousy house. The only bright star in this cloudy sky is that I am selling so well that I don't have to borrow. But I need to set money aside in case I get sick. Now I don't have silk for the batiks and I'm in a panic. There is no good silk here and I hope you'll get me some in New York.