Edna Nahshon: Dolled Up An exhibit in Tel Aviv surveys the changes in Israeli history, and the nation’s self-perception, through the once-popular medium of decorative dolls

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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EXHIBITIONS

Source: Tablet, 7-15-11

A figure of two members of a youth movement sitting on a tree trunk, made in the 1950s.From the Yaron Gayer collection; photos courtesy Eretz Israel Museum

To those who grew up in the pre-television Israel of the 1950s and 1960s—the country’s first broadcast came in 1966—the physical world that lay beyond our narrow territorial confines, its colors, smells, and textures, was often imagined via small personal collections of souvenirs: coins, stamps, cards, matchboxes, empty cologne bottles, napkins, and other potential discards. Modest thematized collections of trivial bric-a-brac went beyond kids’ stuff; grown-ups were equally engaged, showcasing in their modest living-rooms carefully assembled displays of small objects acquired in far-off lands like salt shakers and miniature liquor bottles. The curatorial emphasis was mostly on variety, not aesthetics, the decorative trophies endowing the household with social prestige and marking the collector as diligent and intelligent.

Dolls in national costumes were a particular favorite. These 4-to-7-inch figures were not meant to be played with, and when we children were given permission to hold them—one at a time, and only after our hands were inspected for cleanliness—we were forewarned to handle them carefully, and we felt privileged and trustworthy. Fingering the delicate lace mantilla of the Spanish doll, the tiny dirndl skirt of the Swiss, the gold flecks on the Mexican’s sombrero, or the shiny black boots of the Russian was an unmatched pleasure, a flight of fancy to faraway regions of the imagination, to rivers and mountains and steppes, to languages and sounds, to songs and dances that were as exotic to us as the Orient had been to the European imagination. Yet a measure of local patriotism was never absent from these homey international extravaganzas—every collection I remember included an Israeli doll, usually of a typical sabra in khaki shorts or a Yemenite Jew with long sidelocks in an elaborate ethnic garb, thus asserting our own national identity and our proud membership in the family of nations.

These displays seemed to disappear as I grew older. I never gave them a second thought. The local dolls I sometime glimpsed in store windows now struck me as crass trinkets of the tourist industry, much like the wooden camels with which they often shared space on the same shelves.

A Land and Its Dolls,” a captivating exhibition that opened in May at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, brought back these memories.

Shelly Shenhav-Keller, the anthropologist who curated the exhibition, assembled more than 200 dolls from museums, organizations, and private collectors—some of them non-Israelis who, as tourists, had bought the dolls as mementos of their visit. As souvenirs go, these dolls encapsulate their period’s essential notion of Israeliness, and thus, says Shenhav-Keller, they express important aspects of the construction of Israeli identity and societal values, ranging from the early uniformity of the melting-pot ideal to the multiethnic and multicultural spirit of more recent years.

All the dolls displayed in the exhibition were produced in Israel, first by individual artists and craftspeople and later, as demand grew, by local workshops. The earliest dolls in the exhibition—a middle-eastern man and woman—were created by Rivka Stark-Avivi (1895-1979) in 1919. The most recent ones are from the 1980s: Local production of Israeli souvenir dolls came to an end in the 1990s, when there was little demand for them mostly due to the sharp reduction in tourism caused by the first Intifada. Dolls of a more recent vintage are bound to be made in China….READ MORE

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