At Age 99, Israeli Photographer Is Finally Having Her Day in the Sun

After years of activity as artist, curator and collector, Dvora Schocken is having her first exhibition. She tells Haaretz about her early love of photography and the sculpture garden she curated for the Mossad

Artist, curator and art collector Dvora Schocken in Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel, June 2019
Meged Gozani

Despite her well-known surname, she is apparently not known among the general public in Israel. But an email that arrived at Haaretz's editorial offices announcing her exhibition, “A Night in New York 1985,” aroused our curiosity about Dvora Schocken – a very accomplished woman in the world of art in Israel, who at the lofty age of almost 100 is seeing her work on show for the first time.

Her anonymity notwithstanding, Schocken has achieved a great deal: A professional photographer in her own right, she established the Dvora Schocken Gallery and organized public auctions with Shaya Yariv, founder of the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv. She curated exhibitions, built sculpture gardens and amassed a respectable art collection – a substantial part of which hangs on the walls of her home. She was a founder of the Janco Dada Museum in the Ein Hod artists village outside Haifa and served on the board of directors of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art.

Schocken’s gallery was located on 59 Hovevei Zion Street in Tel Aviv. “It closed with an exhibition of Arie Aroch [in 1972],” she says, in an interview at her home in Kfar Shmaryahu. “I closed the gallery and I didn’t attend the opening of the final exhibition, due to the illness of my daughter.”

During the period she ran the gallery, Schocken also curated exhibitions in outlying areas. “In 1976 I traveled to Kiryat Shmona and curated an exhibition of a collection from the gallery there. I received a thank you letter from Dorit Sarid (the wife of the late politician and journalist Yossi Sarid), and from there I traveled to Beit She'an and organized a show at a community center.”

A work from Dvora Schocken's photographic exhibition "A Night in New York 1985," at the Tova Osman Gallery in Tel Aviv, June 2019.
Dvora Schocken

Schocken was born in Beirut in 1920. “I was born there by chance, because my father was on assignment at the time,” she explains. “When I was 3 years old we returned to Palestine. We moved to Jerusalem, with stops on the way in Safed and Tiberias. My father was a director in the Anglo-Palestine Bank.”

At the age of 14 she met Gideon Schocken; both were students at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem. Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon (the famed author whose patron was Gideon's grandfather, Zalman Schocken) was a witness at their wedding, which took place during World War II. Dvora's husband Gideon, who died in 1981, was the brother of Gershom Schocken, the father of Amos Schocken, Haaretz's current publisher.

In addition to their son Shimon (a professor of computer sciences and one of the founders of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya), Dvora and Gideon had two daughters, Yael Meron and Tamar Schocken-Topaz, who both died young from cancer.

Chance encounter

When Shimon Schocken was teaching at New York University in the mid-1980s, his mother went to visit him.

“One time I returned to the hotel at midnight and on the way I came across an interesting group,” she recalls, describing her unexpected encounter with a group of drag queens. “It was the first time I had seen such a group. It was less accepted back then. They were very nice and they let me take pictures. I used to walk around all day with a camera.”

Some of those very images are now on display until Friday, July 19, at the Tova Osman Gallery in Tel Aviv. One photo shows a smiling drag queen in a reddish wig; another, a drag queen in a platinum-blonde wig. And there’s also a picture of a muscular black New Yorker wearing only underpants.

Schocken has no answer to the question of why only now, when she’s almost 100 years old, she has found the time to exhibit her work. But she does answer the question of why her show befits our times: “Suddenly I realized that today’s atmosphere is very suitable for it,” she says. “What was different then – is accepted today. These pictures were taken 35 years ago. When I took them back then, I didn’t think of displaying them. It was just for me.”

Her love of photography began at an early age. She notes that her husband Gideon – who went on the be a general in the Israel Defense Forces – was also an amateur photographer, who had a darkroom with all the equipment and chemicals necessary for developing film. From him she learned the basics of photography and printing; as teenagers they wandered all over Jerusalem, photographing landscapes and portraits.

After high school Schocken was accepted to the studio of the famous photographer Alfred Bernheim. “After a long period of studying with and assisting Bernheim with his work, I started to produce independent works of photography,” she recalls. “Bernheim was a strict and uncompromising teacher. To my delight I was able to satisfy and meet his tough demands for quality and perfection.”

Among the impressive artwork, countless catalogs, books and other objects Schocken keeps in her home – including an official invitation to the ceremony marking the signing of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel – there is a souvenir from the Mossad: an album of pictures with the dedication: “With admiration and affection, from your friends in the office.” Now, at the age of 99, the recipient isn’t afraid to reveal the identity of the people in the “office.”

Artwork in the home of artist, curator and collector Dvora Schocken in Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel, June 2019.
Meged Gozani

“I had a friend in the Mossad,” she says. “When Shabtai Shavit, an art lover, was the chief of the Mossad, he asked that friend who could build a sculpture garden for him, and he [the friend] immediately thought of me. Shabtai called me to a meeting and was immediately impressed and asked me to create the garden.”

That’s how Schocken found herself curating the works for a sculpture garden at the offices of Israel's espionage agency: “I consulted many sculptors. At first artist Yehiel Shemi didn’t want to do it, but I explained to him that without those people [i.e., the Mossad], he would not be able to work in peace and quiet. So he donated a large sculpture. There were also sculptures by [Uri] Lifschitz and [Igael] Tumarkin.”

Schocken’s own art collection is very eclectic and includes many African works, which she found all over the world. “For example," says her son Shimon, "there’s an African sculpture that she found in a flower shop in Holland." Adds Dvora, “I asked the seller if he was selling it.”

Asked who are her favorite artists, she says, “I don’t like the word ‘most.’ When I saw something I liked I bought it. It could have been by a famous or an unknown artist." As an example, she shows us a work by an autistic artist, which she purchased at a public auction and calls “outstanding."

She smiles when asked whether there are artists' works that she would like to have as part of her collection, replying that she had never thought about that.

Alongside all the works of art there are also several objects in her living room designed by Erich Mendelsohn, a pioneer of modern architecture, who designed what is referred to as Villa Schocken in Jerusalem, the Weizmann House at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and, in the early 20th century, the Schocken family's department stores in Germany.

Schocken: “There’s a lamp here by Mendelsohn, a coffee table and chairs. His table is made from one piece."

She tells how she discovered Ukrainian-born Jan Rauchwerger and Leonid Balaklav, born in Moldavia, when they were just starting out. “It began with the fact that I came across an exhibition about Rauchwerger’s wife, Ira. She would create sculptures from socks. I have one next to the entrance of the house. I was impressed by them, and I wanted to see more and didn’t know where she lived. I did some detective work and arrived at a small apartment in Bat Yam. I saw her works and was enthusiastic, and immediately bought 12 of them. That was 40 years ago.”

Schocken adds that she first met Balaklev at the Ein Harod Museum: “There was an exhibition of Russian artists, and among the works I saw one of his that I liked. I saw promise in it, I found him and bought a lot of art from him.”

She also recalls an amusing story about a Picasso print that she had owned.

“At some point, Sotheby’s estimated the value of a similar print that we had bought for $3,000 at $250,000, and I stored the picture in a safe in the bank. Meanwhile the bank acquired many clients and I had to move the work out,” she says.

“I was worried about where the print had gone,” adds Shimon. “She said it was in a good place and told me to calm down, but I didn’t stop asking where it was. In the end she replied: ‘The head of the Mossad has it, all right?’”

A work from Dvora Schocken's photographic exhibition "A Night in New York 1985," at the Tova Osman Gallery in Tel Aviv, June 2019.
Dvora Schocken

Initially the print wasn’t sold because Schocken's daughter, who was ill at the time, asked that it not be sold. In time, however, it developed spots and was eventually sold for far less than the original estimate.

Where the Renoir went

Dvora Schocken is full of stories that she reveals slowly but surely. She talks about Villa Schocken during World War II – although, incidentally, she doesn’t like the word "villa," and prefers the word "house." Businessman and publisher Zalman Schocken, who purchased Haaretz in 1939, barely lived in the house, located in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, and moved to the United States. He had a valuable art collection that included works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne and others, and during the war years the family had to decide what to do with it.

“They wanted to smuggle the collection to South Africa, which they knew would be complicated for the Germans to reach because the seas were full of Allied submarines,” says Shimon, beginning the story.

“That’s true,” his mother continues. “The British government wanted to commandeer the house and the family didn’t agree. The excuse was that family members still lived there. I lived there with some old uncle and our eldest daughter, who was born there.

“The British continued to pressure us to turn the house over to then and if not they would seize it. My husband Gideon had the idea of making a deal. He had original ideas and he requested that in exchange for the house, they would move the collection. And that’s what happened. So I had to leave.”

A work from Dvora Schocken's exhibition "A Night in New York 1985," at the Tova Osman Gallery in Tel Aviv, June 2019.
Dvora Schocken

Ultimately, virtually all of Zalman Schocken's art collection was put up for sale in order to cover his many expenses during the war.

As for Dvora, after she was forced to leave, the house was populated by high-ranking VIPs whom the British wanted to honor, she says, adding, “I was replaced by the king of Yugoslavia."