‘Israeliana’ display at Israel Museum showcases country’s early memorabilia

A family’s collection in memory of their fallen son brings new area of interest to Jerusalem institution, even if it’s not considered ‘art’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israel Museum curator Sharon Weiser-Ferguson with items from the Jewish Art and Life wing, some donated by his parents in memory of Yadin Tanenbaum, who fell in the Yom Kippur War (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Israel Museum curator Sharon Weiser-Ferguson with items from the Jewish Art and Life wing, some donated by his parents in memory of Yadin Tanenbaum, who fell in the Yom Kippur War (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A newly displayed collection of “Israeliana,” made-in-Israel souvenirs and household objects, is now part of the Israel Museum’s Jewish Art and Life wing, donated in memory of Yadin Tanenbaum, who fell in battle in the Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Together, the memorabilia and Tanenbaum’s story tell part of the history of the State of Israel.

A portion of the objects — a small collection of decorative plates, Hanukkah menorahs and cigarette boxes — was donated by Tanenbaum’s parents, Rivka and Zvi, who once collected items of Zionist metalware.

They gave some 70 items to the Israel Museum in memory of their son, a promising flautist who was offered a position in the IDF orchestra but chose combat duty instead.

The showcase of Israeliana items at the Israel Museum, household curios made from metal and engraved with Zionist iconography during the early years of the state (Courtesy Elie Posner)

During the war, tank gunner Tanenbaum, 19, was stationed near the Suez Canal, where his tank was one of three at the front of the line holding off the Egyptian forces. His tank was hit, killing Tanenbaum, who was decorated posthumously with the Exemplary Conduct Medal for his courage in battle.

“They donated some of their collection to the Israel Museum to let my brother live through art,” said Ella Koren, Yadin’s sister, who was 13 when he was killed. “It was the most natural thing for them.”

Yadin Tanenbaum was 19 when he was killed defending Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Courtesy Afikim Foundation)

The Tanenbaums, longtime collectors of early Israeli metal souvenirs made in the 1950s and 60s depicting Zionist iconography including the menorah, agricultural symbols and the 12 tribes, were early adopters of Israeliana, said Koren, who has continued adding to the collection with her mother, who is now 92.

“I grew up in it,” said Koren. “You get stuck on the beauty of these things, where they came from, to learn about the artists.”

The Tanenbaums believed in the consolation of all kinds of art, whether it was music, Judaica or creative arts, said Koren.

Another memorial for their son was a piece of music by the great composer Leonard Bernstein, who was approached by the Tanenbaums after he performed in Tel Aviv in 1976. The Tanenbaums wanted to commission a work, and while Bernstein said he didn’t accept such commissions, he was deeply moved by the story of Yadin, the aspiring flautist.

He wrote “Halil,” Nocturne for Solo Flute, String Orchestra and Percussion, which was premiered in 1981 with the Israel Philharmonic. Bernstein dedicated “Halil” to the spirit of Yadin and his “fallen brothers,” he said, telling The New York Times that he wages a musical struggle between tonal and nontonal forces, “a struggle involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live.”

Composer Leonard Bernstein (far left) created a piece of music in memory of Yadin Tanenbaum, a fallen soldier in the Yom Kippur War, after hearing Yadin’s story from his bereaved parents Rivka (center) and Tzvi (right) Tanenbaum (Courtesy Ilan Bruner)

Bernstein’s music and the modern curios of early Zionist history were all part of the Tanenbaums’ efforts to commemorate their fallen son.

“My parents donated these items a long, long time ago,” said Koren. “They started this area of interest, and I continued it in order to hang on to the tradition.”

The objects, which include Hanukkah lamps engraved with agricultural images or shaped like the map of Israel, smooth stainless steel candlesticks shaped in the modern lines of the Bauhaus style, and a cigarette box decorated with copies of original Israeli coins, were part of Israel’s early statehood, and are not specifically artworks, said curator Sharon Weiser-Ferguson.

Israel Museum curator Sharon Weiser-Ferguson holding Hanukkah lamps that are part of the museums Israeliana collection (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“When they were made, they weren’t made as art,” said Weiser-Ferguson, whose department has been delving deeply into the research of these Zionist tchotchkes. “I’m sure those who made them never thought these pieces would be in a museum.”

Metalworking was an early Zionist industry, dating back to 1948 and even earlier. The Bezalel School of Art and Design, founded in 1906 by artist and painter Boris Schatz, offered workshops that produced decorative art objects in silver, leather, wood, brass, and fabric.

Artists who trained at Bezalel, such as painter Ze’ev Raban, then collaborated on pieces for the small family factories that sprung up and produced them.

An Israeliana Hanukkah lamp engraved with Maccabee and IDF soldiers, on display at the Israel Museum as part of its Jewish Art and Life wing (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Pal-Bell was one of the first metalwork companies, founded in 1939 by Hungarian artist Maurice Ascalon (born Moshe Klein). The factory was retooled to produce munitions materials in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence.

Ascalon introduced a chemical green patina to some of the metalwork, adding a deliberately aged, archaeological look. The technique was later imitated by other Israeli metal craft companies and the green-tinged metal plates and boxes were favorite purchases for tourists visiting Israel.

Silverplate and metal were popular materials because that’s what people could afford, said Weiser-Ferguson, and Israeliana came to include all kinds of objects, not necessarily ritual items. Eventually other metalwork companies expanded into ceramics and glass, and with more modern designs and less of an emphasis on Zionist iconography.

The Israel Museum’s collection, which numbers about 100 items, is primarily composed of donations, said Weiser-Ferguson. While the museum generally turns down donations of Israeliana, these were of good quality.

“If we don’t collect them now, it will be harder to gather them in 20, 30 years,” she said. “They’re pieces that are part of life; they’re not specifically art pieces.”

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