Ode to a Woman Who Drew the Zionist Project

With utter devotion to her mission, Friedel Stern drew the people of the new State of Israel with simplicity and insight over her career of seven decades. A new exhibition offers a chance to see how her work has stood the test of time.

"My mother used to tell me that when I was a baby, she was able to get me to stop my crying only by putting a pencil into my mouth instead of a pacifier. Today I regret she didn't let me suck a paintbrush from time to time ... Who knows? Maybe I'd have become a painter. The fact is I love colors, but I love a black line more, a single line, clean, without superfluous curlicues. Sometimes I find it exciting even to relinquish that, leave an empty space and imagine the line inside it." Thus Friedel Stern wrote in the catalog for a 1999 exhibition of her work.

The new exhibition "Friedel Stern and the Zionist Project," at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, is the first opportunity for the public to get a glimpse of previously undisplayed works from her estate. The petite woman who overflowed with humor, loved to travel and signed her works simply as "Friedel," died in October 2006, a few weeks short of her 90th birthday.

Self-portrait - courtesy - 2.2012

In her will, Stern, the only woman among the group of cartoonists active in Israel during the state's first decades, bequeathed all her works to the Cartoon Museum. A few months ago, after prolonged legal proceedings, the approximately 10,000 drawings she left finally arrived at the museum's archive in Holon.

Before her death, Stern, who had no children, also saw to the establishment of a foundation in her name, which organizes a biannual competition for humorous cartoons, with a prize of NIS 10,000 for amateurs and NIS 25,000 for professionals. A "control freak," according to people who knew her, Stern stipulated that works of hers be displayed alongside the works in the competition. And indeed this week at the Cartoon Museum they acceded to her wishes, and hung works by Friedel along with dozens of entries in the latest competition.

Anyone expecting a comprehensive and extensive exhibition celebrating the arrival of Stern's works at the museum, however, will be disappointed. Most of the museum space is devoted to entries in the competition, with only a small part turned over to exhibiting her work.

"At first we thought we'd show Friedel's self-portraits, or the drawings from her trips, but those have already been shown," says curator Yirmi Pinkus. "And then, when we started looking through the archive, we found things that were completely new to us: her flirtations with design, graphics and comics."

Among other things, the show features a selection of amusing illustrated maps Stern drew in the 1950s, when she was working at the office of the Survey of Israel; comics she drew for the press; beautiful covers for the monthly magazine Tafrit (Menu) distributed during the country's austerity period; an advertising drawing for the Delek company that appeared on a matchbox; posters; gigantic cartoons she drew for the Adloyada Purim parades in Tel Aviv during the 1950s; and one of the most wonderful series of the illustrated reports she published in the newspaper Davar, in which she masqueraded in a variety of different made-up identities, and documented her experiences.

In an article published in Davar in advance of the publication of her book "In Short: Israel" in 1959, Stern decided to interview herself. Naturally, she inquired as to where she had come up with the idea of producing an amusing book about Israel.

Mag cover - courtesy - 2.2012

"Hmm ... most probably this had to do with the fact that every time I see a new book about us, I get bored and even angry," responded Stern, to her own question. "It's always the same: the same photos showing us picking oranges and paving roads; the same sentimental captions; the same serious and pathos-filled approach. Why, I asked myself - why don't we sometimes forget the sublime ideas and why shouldn't we laugh at ourselves a bit? I felt I had to do something about this. And so I tried to show us as a tourist is liable to see us and not as we would like to look."

Explains curator Pinkus: "While other cartoonists, like Dosh and Dudu Geva, dealt with crystallizing a local identity in illustrations and cartoons, this did not interest Friedel very much. Friedel took a modernist, minimalist and international line. She didn't try to find an Israeli line, but rather presented a cosmopolitan cultural alternative. By means of the humor and modernism of her line, Friedel insists on observing the local with a cosmopolitan and secular eye."

Instead of a camera

People who knew Friedel Stern describe her as a petite, energetic woman. They say she was a tough and difficult teacher, a strict Yekke (a typical German-speaking immigrant), but incredibly funny. They say she led her own life and ran the lives of those around her high-handedly - but with a great deal of personal charm, humor, creativity and joie de vivre. They explain that she lived alone but was always surrounded by friends.

"She was the stereotype of the tough Yekke, stubborn and intolerant of opposition and other opinions. However, she was terribly funny," says Pinkus, who was a student and friend of Stern's and who is himself a comics artist, novelist and professor at Shenkar College. "She was always working with that stereotype and she defied it. She loved to tickle the limits of the taboo in her jokes. She was a sworn individualist, original and authentic. She had no patience for bullshit, and she could identify a phony in a second."

"She had an extraordinary sense of humor and eternal youth," says cartoonist and caricaturist Michel Kichka, who was a student and friend of Stern's. "To my mind she was a feminist before anyone knew that word, because in very many of the stories in which she disguised herself she was in fact testing society's attitude toward her as a woman in various professions and from various ethnic groups."

Stern - Bohm - 24,2.2012
Marcus Bohm

Adina Tzach, who was her close friend, relates that cartooning and drawing were always Stern's top priority. "I remember that once we took a bus together, and at one of the stops a man got off who had been sitting opposite us. 'Did you see how he looked? His eyes are extraordinarily close together,' she said to me and the she hurried home and sketched him. You could see she was constantly drawing in her mind. She had a lot of disguises, she loved to play and amuse people, but when it came to her real profession, cartooning - she was the most serious person in the world."

Every year Friedel Stern would take her pekalach, as she called her baggage, and travel. Alone. "She always set out on her trips abroad with a sketchbook instead of a camera," relates Kichka. "She would draw figures everywhere, and that was the special way she connected with people. When you're drawing, you can't hide behind a large lens. The people see you sitting there next to them and drawing them. And her ability to connect with people, to create a wave of good human energy around herself was amazing."

Nissim Hizkiyahu, also a student and friend of Stern's, relates that he once asked her why there weren't many female cartoonists, why the profession is so male-dominated: "She answered me that she thought it was because women don't know how to give short answers and they don't know how to be purposeful and succinct, whereas cartooning, she explained, requires brevity, distilling an idea into a few lines."

For many years, Stern lived in a one-room apartment on the roof of a building on Yehoash Street in Tel Aviv. She also kept all her work there, stored in envelopes, in cartons piled up to the ceiling.

"She was crazy about children, but her whole world was art," says Tzach. "I think she was more of an artist than a woman. That's a sort of strange definition, I know, but she devoted her whole self to art. In my opinion, she was not able to share her attention with someone else. Nor did she sell her works - she couldn't part from her drawings. Whenever she decided to give me one of them, she would draw a copy of it and give me the copy. She never gave away the original. Her drawings and her cartoons were like her children."

In a 1999 interview with the daily Maariv, Stern noted that, "I don't have a husband and children. My freedom was always most important in my life. I don't even think about what if, and why I never started a family. What do I need that for now? I've been creating all my life, I've enjoyed the fame and the travels. To this day I am active. Not bored for a moment."

holy sites cartoon - courtesy - 2.2012

Diagnoses and atlases

Friedel Stern was born in Germany in 1916. She attended art school in Leipzig and immigrated to the Land of Israel when she was 20. In short order, she registered for graphics at the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem, where she had the privilege of studying drawing with painter Mordecai Ardon. After World War II broke out, she volunteered for the British army and served as a nurse's assistant, though she had no training in the field.

"I loved that job. I especially loved to make diagnoses, but the professional nurses did not look kindly upon that, and they posted me to the officers' school in Gaza," she related to Yirmi Pinkus in an interview in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir in 2003.

In the 1950s, Stern worked as a draftswoman for the Survey of Israel, and was one of the initiators of the illustrated atlas project.

"The map, one of the most fraught and ambivalent issues in Zionist history, takes on amusing and apolitical significance with Friedel," wrote Pinkus in the exhibition catalog, about her illustrated maps. During that period Friedel met up again with Yossi Stern, who studied with her at Bezalel. He designed the Israel Defense Forces newspaper Bamahane and invited her to draw cartoons in it.

"He was already known by his name 'Stern,' so in order to avoid confusion, we decided I would sign with my forename and add a drawing of a star, which is what the German word Stern means. That's how I decided to become a professional cartoonist with a signature of my own," she related later in life.

Stern quickly became one of the most popular cartoonists in the local press. The newspapers, most notably Davar, employed her and enjoyed her witty illustrations. However, unlike her male colleagues Dosh (Kariel Gardosh), Ze'ev (Yaakov Farkash) and Shmulik Katz, Friedel refused to devote herself to political cartooning. She preferred humorous cartoons that amuse at the expense of any topic in the world except politics.

It was at Davar that Stern - whose friends say she was a wonderful stand-up comedian and had the potential to be an actress - initiated an extraordinary journalistic project: From 1955 to 1972 she published a series of illustrated reports, in each of which she described how she disguised herself as a certain persona and went out to experience the world through her eyes. "How I penetrated the Dan Hotel as a chambermaid," "I was a server at the Knesset cafeteria," "I was an immigrant from Morocco," "I was an old woman at an old age home," "I was a singer from abroad," "In the household helper market" (about her experiences as a cleaning woman) and even "How I changed sex and set out to look for pretty girls."

These illustrated reports were indeed amusing, but despite Stern's insistence on staying away from politics in her works, it is hard to ignore the social criticism implicit in them. Stern did not embark on long investigations nor did she write books heavy with social criticism, like the American Barbara Ehrenreich, but she definitely used her humor in order to point out social injustice and distorted values. Thus, for example, she was critical of the way immigrants from Morocco were received here, and her work included a description of the humiliating rite they were subjected to of being sprayed with DDT. She made jokes at the expense of locals who fawned over an unknown American singer, though she lacked any singing talent, and she described the arrogant treatment she encountered as an industrious cleaning woman.

Increasing fame

In Friedel Stern's glory years, which lasted until the mid-1970s, hers was a household name. Her work extended beyond journalism: She designed posters, drew children's books, appeared on television, taught drawing at Bezalel, had solo exhibitions and participated in group shows in Israel and abroad. She also published two books of cartoons: "In Short, Israel" (1959 ) and "Fig Leaves" (1983).

Pinkus believes that with time Stern will become thought of as more central in the group of cartoonists of the founding generation. "Other artists of her generation, like Dosh and Ze'ev, were more concentrated and focused on political cartoons, whereas she did lots of things in addition to cartoons. With time her importance will only increase, because, though political cartoons have something very right for their times, as time passes, they become irrelevant," he says.

Pinkus attributes the fading of her career and her gradual distancing from the spotlight, beginning in the 1970s, to a number of factors. "Among other things, Davar, where she worked, was waning with the years; I expect she got a bit tired of cartoons and the humor here also changed," he explains. "In the 1980s, the humor was sarcastic, macabre, very not Friedel. 'Fig Leaves' was indeed an impertinent book, in its Austro-Hungarian way, but it couldn't be compared to the boldness of Dudu Geva, for example. And then she went over to concentrating on teaching and her drawings."

When she felt she did not have many more years to live, Friedel Stern decided she would not leave things to chance or in other people's hands. "About three years before she died, I came home and found a message waiting for me on my answering machine," relates Stern's student and friend Amnon Groff.

"It was impossible to fake her Yekke accent. I called her and she said she needed my address and identification card number. 'I'm going in for open-heart surgery on Sunday, and because I'm a Yekke I have arranged a precise will with a lawyer, and I have decided I am giving you all my African masks and sculptures,' she said, 'but don't expect me to die all that fast!'"

Stern's surgery was successful and she came to an agreement with her colleagues Kichka and Hizkiyahu concerning the foundation she wanted to establish and the cartoonists' competition in her name.

"I suggested to her that we hold the competition while she was still alive but she didn't want to," relates Kichka. "She didn't want to get ovations, she just wanted to advance the field that was her life's work."

In October 2006, Stern was in the midst of preparations for her 90th birthday. "We had already planned the party," relates her friend Hannah Carmel. "We'd thought about who would be invited and we'd prepared a full program." But she lost consciousness on the street, and was pronounced dead by the time she arrived at the hospital. She was buried at Kibbutz Einat.

"Two weeks before she died," relates Hezkiyahu, "we were in France together, at a cartoon festival where they paid homage to Friedel's work. It was amazing to see how she communicated and flirted there with artists from all over the world. She was 90, but energetic and laughing. She examined every drawing, commenting that some of them had not been hung properly. She always had something to say about everything."

Hezkiyahu continues: "And then, on one of the evenings there, she said to me, 'This is it. I'm tired. I am not going to travel to any more of these festivals.' It was already late, 11:00 o'clock at night, so I said to her, 'Let's go up to the hotel room. You most probably want to rest,' but she immediately looked at me with that penetrating gaze of hers and said: 'No way! Let's go out and have some fun together!'"