Drawing Out Israel’s History Through Illustrations in Kids' Books

A new exhibition showcasing the work of children’s book illustrators proves illuminating about how Israel and its people have been represented (or not).

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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An illustration by Liora Grossman from Tali Kochavi’s 'On a Beautiful, Sunny Day' (2013). From the exhibition 'I Am From Here.'
An illustration by Liora Grossman from Tali Kochavi’s 'On a Beautiful, Sunny Day' (2013). From the exhibition 'I Am From Here.'Credit: Courtesy
Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

When the illustrator Liora Grossman received Tali Kochavi’s book “In A Bright, Sunny Day,” Kochavi asked her to draw the street in the story like the one in Haifa’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood where Kochavi had grown up. She wanted the drawings to be “contemporary, not outdated, and the most Israeli you can make them,” recalls Grossman. Before she began, the artist walked the length and breadth of Neve Sha’anan, taking photographs that she used as a reference for her illustrations.

One photograph contained an ordinary street sign. After completing her work, Grossman showed the illustrations to a group of elementary-school pupils, who were disturbed that the street sign also included the street’s name in Arabic. “I told them that the street was in Haifa, and that all street signs there have three languages. At first, their reaction surprised me, but only then did I realize that the children were not biased. They simply had never seen anything like that in a children’s book before. It was something new for them. I started looking into the way illustrators portray this place where we live, and what they illustrate when they do their work. After all, it’s your choice what you include in your illustrations – whether you’re conscious of it or not.”

That brief exchange led to the creation of the exhibition entitled “I Am From Here,” which opens Thursday as part of the reopening of the Wohl Library for children and youth in Tel Aviv. One of the most comprehensive and impressive exhibitions in the field, “I Am From Here” shows the place of children’s books in Israel, from 1948 to the present. Grossman probed the topic through the prism of Israeli children, its major cities, villages and spaces – nature, the street, apartments, homes, buildings, housing projects and neighborhoods.

“The most classic example here is Mira Friedmann, who, in ‘Do You Have Cola?’ by Nurit Zarhi, drew a stairwell where each door was painted in a different color, and in front of one door there was a bag of garbage with a cat sitting next to it. It was a classic Israeli stairwell,” Grossman says with a smile.

An Menachem Halberstadt illustration from Emuna Elon’s “Land of Preschool Children” (2012). Water cooler? Check. Tractor? Check. Red roofs? Check. Photo by Courtesy

About 100 illustrations from about 90 books, by 70 illustrators, are on display. Some of the illustrators whose work appears are no longer with us, such as Peretz Rushkevitz, Miriam Bartov, Friedel Stern and Zvi Malbenchik. Other illustrators represented are still with us, including Ora Eitan, Danny Kerman, Avner Katz, Michel Kichka, Noam Nadav and Yossi Abulafia.

“As I worked on the exhibition,” says Grossman, “I started paying attention to things I was illustrating, and discovered something: there are things that we don’t draw, things that we do, and we all draw the same things. For example, in children’s books published in Israel, you won’t find a drawing of an affluent home. All the values of equality and socialism are very strong. The home will always be bourgeois, not necessarily a Tel Aviv one. To draw something extreme – like a very wealthy or very poor home, or a home in a different sector, such as the ultra-Orthodox sector – are things we don’t deal in.

“Take water heaters or antennas on roofs. There aren’t antennas anymore, but we still draw them. Israeli villages always have red roofs, a water tower, a line of cypress trees and sometimes ploughed fields.

“Late in my work on the exhibition, the illustrator Michal Efrat, who is 88 years old, told me that a water tower was a symbol of strength, control over technology, an Israeli phallic symbol. The ploughed fields symbolized the idea of making the desert bloom. The red roofs are a symbol of settlement. I found out what the cypress trees symbolized later on. In the old kibbutzim, the expression ‘going to the cypresses’ meant going to the cemetery; we had acquired the land with our blood. That stencil, that mold, is Zionism.”

A classic Peretz Rushkevitz illustration from the 1951 children's book 'Israel Railways.' Photo by Courtesy

In addition, Grossman displays an illustrated dictionary of symbols of children’s books that distinguish between Israelis, Canaanites and Arabs. The Israeli is symbolized by the sabra cactus bush, tractor, truck or red train, the “tembel” hat, oranges, a guard tower (before the state was established) and a water tower (after it was established), cypresses, ploughed fields and red roofs. Canaanites were symbolized by shepherd dogs, sheep or goats, donkeys, images of Yemenites, a child playing the flute.

Without hair ribbons

A 1991 graduate of the graphic arts department at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Grossman, 47, has illustrated more than 250 children’s books. “I don’t remember the exact number. Sometimes I count them 50 at a time,” she says, smiling.

Grossman says the link between the topic of locality and the Israeli place has to do with her own life story, and the fact she immigrated to Israel with her family from Vilnius, Lithuania, aged 5. “It’s something I’ve been dealing with since I was a child, a new immigrant from Russia. It started from wanting to be an Israeli, and from ideas that I would take the ribbons out of my hair during class and stop wearing skirts and drop my Russian accent, and then I would definitely be an Israeli. But it doesn’t work that way. Everything I examined in the exhibition – what defines us visually as Israelis – are things I experienced firsthand.”

What surprising discoveries did you make?
“I thought I wouldn’t find any portrayal of a Mizrahi child, because I’m used to the narrative of exclusion of Mizrahim. Actually, there is a display of a Mizrahi child from the 1950s and ’60s, via a Yemenite child. Why Yemenite, specifically? First of all, unlike the immigrants who came from other Middle Eastern countries, Yemenites – boys and girls alike – had a noticeable appearance. Second, the image of the Yemenite was a commercial trend that did not even have to do with illustrations. Later on in my research, I discovered key holders, bottlecaps, copper paperweights and other such things that portrayed a Yemenite character.

Illustration by Doron Sohari from the 2012 book ‘My Mommy is Always in a Hurry,’ by Hadassa Yovel. Photo by Courtesy

“Yemenites became ‘action figures,’ since they were a symbol of Caananitism and connection to the land, and – this is infuriating – because the Yemenites were ‘nice.’ They ‘knew their place.’ What does that mean? It means that all the Yemenite children in illustrations were ‘cast’ in roles such as newspaper delivery workers, shoe-shiners, field workers and selling produce. That lasted until 1978, when Ora Eyal drew Miriam Ruth’s book ‘Hot Corn’ and described the ethos of the melting pot.”

What happens today?
“There’s some progress. Doron Sohari, in the book ‘My Mommy is Always in a Hurry’ by Hadassa Yovel, drew children with every skin color, which I think is wonderful. There is no specific definition of Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Arab or Jewish, but just a statement about the differences between the characters. That comes from a good perception of what’s politically correct, and personally I’m not sure it’s such a terrible thing. To me, it’s much worse when a child opens a book that shows a group of children and he is not represented.”

What do illustrators say?
“Some illustrators think the opposite: that political correctness is a concept that distorts creativity and forces itself on the pure vision of the illustrator. As a rule, we don’t draw religious children, either. I discovered that about myself as well. Is there something ‘uncool’ about drawing religious children? I don’t know. I need to take a really good look at it and think why I don’t draw religious children.”

And Arabs?
“In all the children’s books, including those from the 1950s – unless the book talks about it specifically – there’s a rural presence, but there is no Arab village. Try going on a trip to the north and finding me a landscape without an Arab village. You’re letting the child think that he lives in a country where that sector doesn’t exist. That’s really la-la land.”

Is it not obvious that it’s because of commercial considerations?
“True, it’s a move that was stopped by the publishers, too. We have no choice – we’re fighting for every child as it is. What, do you want to annoy the parents?”

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