Avant-guard: Who Protects the Art We Love to Look At?

They stand or sit in exhibition halls, usually in silence, observing visitors. Lea Golda Holterman photographed the guards at the Tel Aviv Museum and discovered what they think about art, work and life in Israel.

Irena Belarussov

Age: 52; married + 2  
The work: “Portrait of a Family with Six Children,” by Hendrick Noorderwiel (1656)


One of my daughters lives in Canada and the other lives in Israel. I have one grandson and another is on the way. I love Israel very much; I’ve been here for 22 years. We arrived when the girls were little, without knowing the language, with few possessions. I had to start from scratch, with not even enough time to attend an ulpan, since I had to work at two jobs, as did my husband. So I learned Hebrew on my own. Today I can read and speak freely, which is great.

At first I thought people here were strange, but suddenly I discovered that people actually had warm hearts and like helping each other. Now I feel like an Israeli. One of my daughters married an Israeli. I’m a musician by profession, playing the accordion. You can make a good living as an accordionist in Russia, but when I got here, I realized that was not the case, so I worked at whatever job I could find.

I still hold two jobs, one of them at a snack shop in a hospital. My job at the museum is a labor of love – it arouses a feeling of elation. I feel surrounded by art, but even more than that, I love seeing the people who come here. Working here gives me strength and a feeling of being at the center of things. This is one of the best museums in Israel, and I can always watch when an exhibition is being set up, as well as listening to lectures about the shows. It expands my horizons.

The work: It’s interesting that in classical art, the context and messages are clear, strong and recognized, but they take me to very personal realms. The figures are so animated and visceral. On one hand they are realistic, while on the other, they are enlarged and exaggerated. This is exactly what allows me entry into certain personal, emotional spaces.

Ella Freiman

Age: 58; married + 1 + dog and cat
The work: “Cell No. 6,” by Absalon (1991)

Life is full of surprises. I never thought I would end up living in Israel. I’m happy to be living here and to be working at the museum, where I’ve been for the last five years. Compared to other jobs, I often feel as if I’m in a dream here, surrounded by art. Art is my profession. Last summer I broke my hand, so I can’t play my instrument like I used to. When I’m here at the museum, I feel that it is like a continuation to the environment I grew up with. I believe in love and in life; life is interesting and full of surprises. It’s not one’s profession that makes us human beings, but love, friends and the small things our daily lives are filled with.

Here in Israel I feel I got a second chance in life, and I now realize that this is my true home, despite everything that’s going on. Like everyone else, I have some dreams that were fulfilled and others that were not, but I feel I’m realizing my potential. I have my own orderly life: I’ve made it so that I’m surrounded by beauty, not only here at the museum but as a way of life.

The work: This particular one doesn’t excite me as a work of art but more as a part of the space it occupies. Its positioning and its very presence evokes a sense of alienation, but also of curiosity. It’s interesting to look inside myself, but also to see how people respond in many ways to the esthetics of the piece, which is what elicits internal relevance. It’s not necessarily the work itself.

Rahamim Eretz-Hakodesh

Age: 68; married + 4
The work: “Cosmic in Composition,” from a series called “Multiplane(s),” by Eva Kafri (2014)

If Iran’s relations with the world were better, I would have stayed there. There are open spaces there, scenery, beauty, open air and good people – even the gentiles were good to us, ever since the days of Mordecai and Esther. I immigrated here in 1958. I have four children and 12 grandchildren.

Until pretty recently, I had my own produce store, but I got tired of it and quit. I wanted to work at a museum; it’s an enjoyable place. I’ve been working here for the past six years. I enjoy the exhibits, the halls. This space and the galleries I guard soothe me; they allow me to enter a different mode of thought and emotion.

I observe religious traditions and believe in God, but I have less respect for so-called learned men. They say this land is holy but I find it difficult to feel it. There are many wars here and people who hate Israel, as well as so much disquiet. Who determines how one relates to something that is sacred? Scholars? Politicians? Rabbis?

The work: I feel that it is mainly a thing of beauty, with no particular message. It’s colorful and attracts people. Beauty itself expands people’s minds. The piece evokes emotional inspiration. We have to accept whatever the museum decides to display.


Leonid Berstein

Age: 68; married + 1
The work: “Unfiltered,” by Yair Peretz (2013)

I live with my wife. My daughter decided to live abroad, which causes me great pain. Even though I’m married and love my wife very much, I feel lonely without my daughter and grandchildren at my side. I’m happy I found this job at the museum. Before that I worked as an air force engineer; that was my profession before I immigrated to this country. I was lucky to find work in my profession, many immigrants weren’t so fortunate. However, when I reached retirement age, I was told I had to leave, so I thought to myself: “Great, I’m retired, so I can do all the things I never had time for earlier.”
 
But then I discovered that I couldn’t live without working. Days followed each other and it felt as if the walls in my apartment were closing in on me. I felt that I was losing my routine and whatever was keeping me high-functioning.

I started searching for a nice job in a relaxed atmosphere, and joined the museum. I like my job here – it’s quiet and you gradually get used to it – it’s like doing meditation for a few hours a day. It involves [exposure to] modern and classical art; it’s interesting to see what young people devote themselves to these days. In the past one, couldn’t express oneself with such freedom.

The work: I like this painting not because of its message, which I think is unclear, but because of its color and the emotions it elicits in me. It also evokes memories and makes me feel a part of chaotic humankind.

Rita Voloshin

Age: A real woman never discloses her age; divorced + 1
Work: “Reflections, Mirrors of Reality E22 (After Jan Breughel the Elder),” by Ori Gersht (2014)

When I arrived in Israel from Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1994, I couldn’t get work in my profession as an accountant. I worked as a checkout cashier and that was very difficult. People are uptight and nervous when they are wasting their money, but when they come to look at art they behave differently. I wanted to work at a museum, since I was looking for an aesthetic and calm environment, and here I’m surrounded by paintings. I’ve been working here for three years, while living with my mother.

I don’t understand modern art that well – I was raised on classical art. My favorite style is Impressionism. There is a strong sense of romanticism in it and the aesthetics of it appeal to me. Monet is my favorite painter, and I also love Kandinsky.

It’s hard to explain and may sound a little silly, but working in a museum, surrounded by all this beauty, removed from the noise and bustle of life, is very relaxing. I don’t feel like I’m fighting daily battles – I feel like I’m in a respectful and cultured environment. There is understanding and respect between the people I work with, some of whom come from the same background. There is no pressure, which makes me feel safe.

The work: The explosion of flowers is like the stormy emotions of love and beauty. These are romantic and utopian sentiments that I find it easy to connect to, and through which I can dream. I love observing these paintings; it’s not that they have some message, but they trigger emotions and the subconscious. One has to know how to be beside art in order to allow it to work its charms on you.

Maya Kalbovsky

Age: 64; married + 2
Work: “I Will Dress You in a Gown of Concrete and Cement,” by Michael Halak (2014)

For me, reaching Israel was like arriving in my real home. Israel is like God for me, like life itself. In Russia, I always used to hear that I was foreign since I was Jewish. For years I lived with my husband on military bases. I’m a military nurse by profession. The Russian regime was harsh and it was difficult being considered an outsider. Here I belong, one among many others. Dealing with Hebrew is difficult, but I believe that had I stayed in Russia, I would no longer be alive today.

Here, when I felt unwell and went to a hospital, they saved my life. The attitude is one of caring. Every person is valued, life has the supreme value. In fact, coming here in 1999 was like being reborn. Life in Israel is good and enjoyable. I know that any young Israeli hearing these words would think that I’m living in euphoria, but I’m only relating my own life experience. As in every home and country, life here has its benefits and disadvantages, but the freedom and people’s warmth here are priceless.

Working at the museum is relaxing and enjoyable. I’m surrounded by culture, and at the end of the day I return to Israeli reality, which for me includes my family and four grandchildren, who are sabras – born in Israel – and this is an excellent combination for me.

The work: It’s amusing to transform the strongest image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [the concrete separation barrier] into an innocent symbol that doesn’t transmit the awfulness. It’s as if anyone who is familiar with the wall and feels it, and even someone who doesn’t experience it as a representation of a wall – the grayness, even if one doesn’t get the connotation, projects a certain sadness and emptiness. It evokes thoughts of the tension between anxiety and security, feelings of urgency that provoke a sort of mindless disregard when countering the sorrow, just as a wall and what it represents does to some people’s feelings.

Text and photos:  Lea Golda Holterman