Israeli Childhood in Pictures

'Days of Innocence,' a new exhibition at Israel Museum, features Eva Itzkowitz's illustrations for iconic Israeli children's books.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

A little girl radiant with wonder in a star-studded dress, sitting under a smiling moon against a background of midnight blue. The thin, familiar binding of “Hannaleh’s Sabbath Dress” is part of the repertoire of childhood books of anyone who grew up or raised children here.

The book by Itzhak Schweiger-Dmi’el tells about a little girl who helps an old man who asks her to lift his bag of coals. The girl is wearing a pretty Sabbath dress, which gets soiled by the coals. But the moon shines some of its light on her and her dress glitters with stars. Today it is probably read to children accompanied by a warning. They are sworn not to respond to the requests of strangers and certainly not to follow them. But this little book retains its power. It turns out that it’s still a hit ? the most widely sold book of the veteran Ofer Publishing House, from its publication in the 1960s until today.

The secret of its attraction is undoubtedly its illustrations, especially the girl in the glittering dress that is etched in our collective memory. What 4-year-old girl can resist her? And who doesn’t also remember the grandfather with the bag of coals that the girl helps him hold? Mainly we recall the innocence of the illustrations. A vestige of a period that no longer exists. It’s possible that the children weren’t innocent at all, and that the period was not easy either, but that’s how they were portrayed in the little books and preserved in our memory.

In the Illustration Library in the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a moving exhibition has been mounted in tribute to the then-anonymous illustrator of “Hannaleh’s Sabbath Dress” and many other books published by the veteran Ofer Library. At the exhibition, titled “Days of Innocence,” the original illustrations of the artist, who was the publishing house’s illustrator, will be on display.

Her name - Eva Itzkowitz - never appeared on the covers of the books she illustrated. According to Ofer publisher Shlomo Aluf, who is in close contact with Itzkowitz to this day, that was her choice, because of her modesty. Itzkowitz is now over 90 years old, and there is justice in the fact that she is receiving this overdue recognition during her lifetime.
In her time, and afterward as well, Itzkowitz’s illustrations were not considered especially artistic. They were seen as overly realistic, saccharine, unsophisticated.

Not something to make a fuss over. They suited the books, which were the bread and butter of the children’s library in kindergartens and were not considered treasures of children’s literature. But now, at the exhibition, one can see the beauty and skill of the line and the use of color. These are very beautiful drawings. The charm that is revealed in a reexamination of the illustrations is partly because of the way they represent the spirit of the times. These illustrations also have a sense of retro, like the old American and European posters and advertisements from the 1950s, which display idyllic pictures of family life. This idyll is somewhat heartbreaking. And also somewhat disturbing, especially when, in the spirit of the pre-feminist period, the mothers are usually in the kitchen and the men are working or are brave soldiers.

In one of the books (“My Daddy,” by Yemima Sharon), you see in the distance the edge of a house with a red roof, a man who is a double of Don Draper from “Mad Men” sitting on a lounge chair in the garden, a blond boy playing at his feet. In “Daddy is a Brave Soldier,” the same Draper double is seen in an army uniform. In “My Mommy,” also by Yemima Sharon, the mother is seen in a pretty 1950s-style dress with an apron over it. She is cooking and baking cookies and also scolding a child, and he looks scared and chastened - a domestic scene that has been censored from contemporary children’s books.

Orna Granot, curator of the exhibition and director of the Illustration Library, says that the interesting aspect of the illustrations is their directness, simplicity and clarity.

They characterize books that were meant for pre-schoolers and presented simple pictures of everyday life. For example, the book “The Stalwart Clock” portrays the routine of a brother and sister from morning to evening.

These books want to paint a protected, flawless world. “There’s a degree of prettifying the reality in the books,” says Granot. “It’s similar to the Golden Books, sweet and idyllic books from the 1940s and 1950s, or Walt Disney in his early films, in which they try to create a sweet and innocent image that is etched in the memory. Supposedly simple. The background is not crowded, there are no complex compositions. It’s very different from today’s approach in children’s literature.”

‘Hurray, I’m grown up’

There is total coordination between the nature of the illustrations and the publisher’s objectives. The Ofer Library was in close contact with the Education Ministry, and because many of the publisher’s books were meant to be used as reading material in kindergarten and were created to meet the demands of the kindergarten teachers, they had to have a clear message. “In my opinion, there is beauty in their simplicity,” says Granot. “Today a children’s book works on two levels, and speaks to the adult in one language and to the child in another. It’s complex. Many books present a problem and solve it. Here all that is missing.

“When you look at the illustrations and the text and the interaction between them,” she adds, “you can see how an illustrated book reflects culture and values. It represents the ideals and the perception of childhood of the period.”

This is prominent in the book “I Work Like Dad” (by Uriel Ofek). On one page the father is seen fishing, and on the next the child is doing the same. The caption is “I also like to fish, but on the nearby beach.” “There’s an adult, there’s a child, and the child imitates the adult,” explains Granot. “In many books of the period the child is supposed to grow up and take an interest in the adult world. For example, ‘Hurray, I’m a Doctor,’ and ‘Hurray, I’m Grown Up.’ The desire to grow up is not something that is emphasized today. But it is correct in my opinion. The saying that when you grow up you’ll be like Dad, like Mom, gives the children confidence. Today we’ve lost that. There’s no attempt to create a clear and simple reality. We start from the end to the beginning, once again interpreting existing legends. We try to give the child complexity, which is also confusing sometimes.”

The trend in children’s literature has reversed itself. “Today the trend is ‘This Boy is Me.’ We encourage the child ? and the adult too ? to remain a child. Supernanny always tells the parents to bend down and speak to the children face to face. Here in the illustrations there are differences in height between the parents and the children. It’s clear that the child is dependent on the adults and the adults are the ones in authority,” says Granot.

The cooperation between Itzkowitz and the Ofer Library lasted from 1957 to 1975. The symbol of the publishing house was a fawn, a little Bambi, which is the meaning of “ofer.” On the back covers, below the list of the publisher’s books, there was an iconic image created by Itzkowitz that was etched in the memory: In the center was a little girl in a red dress and black hair with a red ribbon, reading a book that was similar to one of the publisher’s, surrounded by several children who are listening to the story - one of them in a kova tembel, the peaked cap that was typical of the era - with the fawn behind her.

But a more critical look from a multicultural perspective may reveal tension in these illustrations; there is conflict implicit in what they don’t portray. Who remains outside the idyllic picture? To judge by the fair-haired children and parents, the appearance of the houses and the external surroundings, the illustrations are not local at all. They are European rather than Israeli. They by no means reflect the varied population. There is no representation in the illustrations of dark-skinned children or adults, for example. One of the only books in which the girl has black hair is “Atara is Scatter-brained,” written by Uriel Ofek, a prominent writer at Ofer, apparently because it was written about Atara Ofek, his dark-haired daughter.

Granot says that other Ofer illustrators in other books did in fact reflect this variety, mainly in drawings of the ethnic groups illustrated by a man named Henryk Hechtkopf. She says Itzkowitz told her, “’It was important to me not to frighten children.’ She went through a war, expulsion,” says Granot. “It cannot be said of her that she didn’t know that the world is complex. But she chose to present a hermetic world in which there was a father, mother, child. As she knew from her own family.”

Without violence

Itzkowitz was born in the state of Saxony in Germany. She was a young girl at the outbreak of World War II and in 1939 she fled from Germany with her family and arrived by a circuitous route to Greece, after the British prevented them from entering Palestine. In Athens her father, a mechanical engineer, opened a business. When the Germans arrived in Greece, Greek residents informed on her father and he was taken to the camps and died there. The fair-haired mother and daughter survived under a false identity. Eva even studied in the academy in Athens during those years and drew wonderful portraits.

Later she met David Itzkowitz, a fighter in the Jewish Brigade who inspired the drawings of soldiers in her books. Eventually he built the reactor in Nahal Sorek and ran it as well. The couple had a son.

The artist lives in Ramat Gan. At the beginning of her career she worked for many publishers. She illustrated “Gan Gani” by Levin Kipnis and Yemima Tchernovitz, which includes the immortal children’s song “Uga, Uga, Uga” (“Make a Circle”). She also created a game based on the Hasamba books. But according to publisher Aluf, she felt that the publishers didn’t appreciate her and she was even forced to chase after payment for her work. “Here she was a princess,” he says.

Aluf, 76, describes himself as a refugee from Baghdad. He immigrated from Iraq at the age of 15, and after his military service started the publishing house because he believed children did not have enough original literature. He works at the publishing company in Petah Tikva to this day. “Eva and I immediately had a common language,” he says. “I was a refugee and so was she. In my childhood I was exposed to considerable violence from the neighbors and from a hostile environment of Arabs. When I started out, the children’s book market was dominated by Andersen’s fairy tales. But I felt that it wasn’t appropriate to give children fairy tales like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ which contain violence. I wanted more original, realistic drawings, where the young child would see the pictures and recognize himself.”

So why are all the children in the illustrations fair-haired? Aluf replies that Itzkowitz drew her family the most part and that he gave her freedom to create and did not interfere with her artistic choices. “She felt she was a partner to our work, to the publisher’s culture,” he says. “She didn’t get such appreciation from the other publishers.” Even after she stopped working they kept up their relationship, and in her old age he visits her regularly.

In the 1960s and 1970s the books were cheap, and the Education Ministry, Jewish Agency and Hebrew University often purchased them. The Jewish Agency bought them for Diaspora Jewish communities, the university distributed them en masse in the immigrant camps and the Education Ministry made sure they were on the shelves in the kindergartens. The transition to a thin binding, which reduced costs and made transporting the books easier, came at the request of these big clients, says Aluf. There was also a version for religious kindergartens.

On the first page there was a regular introduction, which can still be found in the books: “Dear Parents, Teachers and Kindergarten Teachers, we are happy to present you with this educational series ... edited by the leading Hebrew writers and designed to teach the young child basic concepts by means of an easy and attractive story.” It’s still easy and attractive, even today.

From “Hannaleh’s Sabbath Dress”: Familiar to anyone who grew up in IsraelCredit: Israel Museum Collection
Eva ItzkowitzCredit: Tzur Kotzer



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