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  • The Ethics of Doing

Communicating Vessels

The Effect of Arab Pottery on Early Israeli Pottery as Seen Through the Story of the Arab Water Jugs

“The recurrent encounters with that region, which until a few weeks ago was a distant and unknown land across a hostile border, not only brought us closer to the rugged mountain landscape, cut by deep ravines and showing clear signs of great volcanic upheavals, but also piqued our interest in the fate of its inhabitants. The latter, in their flight, left behind a silent testimony to an arduous struggle of subsistence, to tillage done ‘by the sweat of their brow’, to a traditional and conservative way of life, and here and there even a glimmer of happiness and joy, shining from the gray gloom of the meager huts”.11 Yehuda Roth, A ...

Twenty years after Yehuda Roth wrote these words, I came across the Arab pottery jugs at the flea market, where I had worked for a decade. From the various Arab jugs I saw, I was particularly intrigued by the large water jugs named Hesha of Zir in Arabic. Their shape is majestic, their size impressive, many of them are adorned with ancient-looking ornaments and they are ostensibly handmade, in methods that preserve ancient traditions.

From the moment I became acquainted with these jugs, I encountered them again in the city, in the moshav and in the kibbutz, at entrances to buildings, inside homes, in courtyards and even at the center of living rooms. My urge to explore the historical background of these jugs stemmed from my actual encounter with their material, form, and identity.

These Arab water jugs are the most recent link in a millennia-old chain of local functional pottery, which has ended. They embody local values ​​of form, material, and decoration, and reflect a living succession of generations in the space of the Levant. In this paper I will trace the ethnographic sources of this particular water jug, out of a desire to “recognize the Other”, as the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) defined it. Turning the gaze to the object, which is the water jug, the centerpiece of the Arab home; knowing the history it embodies and examining the intensity of its influence on Israeli material culture is a kind of welcome that I wish to give the Other with the intention of connecting our common existence in this space.

The second part of the paper will deal with the beginnings of Israeli pottery, and in particular with two of the founders of this field in Israel: Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann and Hanna Harag-Zunz, whose body of work clearly manifests the influence of Arab pottery. The encounter between cultures as a ground for mutual enrichment is consistent with the thinking of Egyptian-born writer and essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (1917–1979), and her unique interpretation of the term “Levantine”, which originally indicates the geographical region in which we live. Although Kahanoff pointed to mutual influence, in the present paper her statements will serve as a prism for examining the influence of Arab pottery on nascent Israeli pottery.

Image 1: Water storage jugs, the estate of Trude Dothan, Eitan Gross, and the Ilana Hadani collection. Photo: Efrat Dgani, 2020

The Arab Water Jugs

Examining the value of an object – a jug of water in our case – which is a product of traditional craftsmanship, involves the environmental context of the process by which it was created. As Eran Ehrlich argues: “The object of craft, which necessarily brings up a reference to the production process, does not indicate an ethical superiority of the craft production process, but rather that the nature of the questions that craft raises, dealing with the qualities of doing, necessarily evokes the production process, and thus that process becomes a meaningful element in the discussion of the objects’ value”.22 Eran Ehrlich, ... In our case, it is the examination of a continuous history of female pottery, the traditional Arab pottery that has endured, unaltered, for generations, and the beginning of Israeli pottery, which selects what to preserve and what to change, and carries with itself the ideology and values of Zionism.

Edmund de Waal, who set out on a journey following the collection of Japanese “netsuke” figurines he inherited, writes in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes: “I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnesses. […] All this matters because my job is to make things. How objects get handles, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question”.33 Edmund de Waal, The ...

I found most of the information about the historical background of the water jugs in the extensive research work of Yigal Moshe, The Family of Black Gaza Vessels from the Ottoman Period.44 Yigal Moshe, The ... The Arabian water jugs produced during the Late Ottoman period are part of an abundance of jugs created in the region, mainly by wheels; exceptions are the large water jugs produced by women in the villages. According to some estimates, the production of the jugs began in the Early Ottoman period (early 16th century) and ended in the mid-1970s. I do not deal with the great variety of pottery products that were common throughout this period in the Land of Israel – my focus is on the specific Hesha water jug, created by the teamwork of women, similar to women in the villages of Africa, Anatolia, Kurdistan and so on.

Image 2: Right: Drawing, Dalman, 1964, VII, Abb.116: a; Left: Zir, height: 58 cm, width: 60 cm, from a private collection. Photo: Efrat Dgani

The storage jugs are named “Hesha” or “Zir” in Arabic (similar to the Hebrew word “sir”, or pot). These are extra-large jugs (their height and diameter range from 60 to 80 cm), which were created by hand in villages around the country, for the purpose of storing water and seeds. Their visual presence is powerful, and they look almost like sculptures. They radiate power and character, as Hedwig Grossman well described, and they have an inner balance and reflect a culture related to nature and the earth. There are also identical, smaller storage jars (whose average height and diameter are 45-55 cm), called “assaliya”, and they are intended for the interior of the house.

According to Yigal Moshe, information about these jugs and how they were prepared can be found, starting in the 14th century, in the testimonies of travelers, pilgrims, merchants and adventurers, and later also of diplomats and ethnographers. They described in their diaries the daily life in the country as well as the material culture, of which the pottery industry was described as an important and prominent part. They witnessed the industry and its products in the cities – Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem, Ramla, Lod, Jaffa, Nablus, Acre, Nazareth and Haifa – and in the villages: Rashiya al-Fuhar, Kafr Samir, Jaba’a, Al-Fallujah, Labad , Ya’bad, Sinjil, Beituniya, Balata, Ramallah, Al-Jib, Nahlon and Skufiye. In the cities pottery was made mainly by foot wheels, by men, while in the villages the vessels were handmade by women, as part of household chores and in group work. One of the centers for the production of large water jugs (Zir) was in the village of Sinjil in the Samaria Mountains. During the Late Ottoman period and during the British mandate, Sinjil served as an administrative center on the Judea and Samaria border and had large pottery centers. The jugs made in Sinjil were known for their decorations, and women artists from nearby villages brought their pre-made jugs for decoration in the village.

I was unable to interview Arab women pottery makers or family members due to the ban on Israeli citizens’ entrance to these villages, but I heard first-hand testimony from Rajjar Atallah from Kafr Samir.

Rajjar told me about his father, a descendant of a long dynasty of potters who came to Israel from Lebanon in 1924 and established his residence in the village of Samir, located on the shore near the lighthouse of Stella Maris in Haifa, where an excellent raw material for pottery was found – authigenic clay, created in the sea, which has a high capacity for water absorption and great flexibility, rendering it pliable for work. The magnificent pottery factory they set up had died down, and the remains of the huge kilns that operated at this important crossroads can be found there.

The Zir for storing water was placed at the water corner, at the entrance to the house, and served its occupants and guests.55 A different kind of ... A smaller jug, called a jara – an elongated, sack-like jug with two handles – was used to transport water from the well to the houses. These jugs, which were more common, were created by potters in large workshops using foot wheels. Water was drawn from the nearby well by young girls. They walked in groups, upright and barefoot, carrying the water in jaras on their heads, which were protected by a braid of palm leaves called a hawayya (a kind of agal that pads the head over a scarf). The jara was placed in the house until leaves and weeds sank to its bottom. Then its water was used to fill the jug of drinking water, the sharabe, and the rest of the water was poured from the jara into the zir, for home use. The zir’s height was up to a meter, and its volume equivalent to that of about five large jaras. The former was chained by a rope or a metal chain to a pottery or copper vessel (tkun), which served to haul up the water.66 Inside the house ... The water storage jug was the house’s center of life and therefore was of great value. Several storage jugs were kept in each house for storage, depending on the family needs.

Roth describes an ethnographic survey in which he participated following the 1967 occupation of the southern Golan Heights. The survey was funded by the Avshalom Institute and its findings are in the Eretz Israel Museum. As part of the survey, a small expedition set out to the abandoned villages in the southern Golan Heights, to examine the objects in them before they disintegrate and disappear: “At the center of the yard, usually in the shade of a lone tree, was the water corner […] built from mud mixed with stones and thatched, in which there was a nook on whose top shelf stood a large pottery vessel, containing 25-40 liters of cool drinking water”.77 Roth, p. 42. Roth documented the water corner, which was at the house’s entrance inside a closet or in an alcove made of clay, called a mastaba (in Hebrew – itztaba, or shelf). A water-drawing cup was roped to the closet or alcove, and next to it stood a vessel for drinking water.

n the researchers’ testimonies, handmade pottery is described as a distinctly female craft, which was conducted as part of an extended family setting. The girls learned the craft of pottery at the age of ten, but usually gave it up and returned to it only after the age of 30, when their children have already grown up. The women of the family shared with each other the craft of pottery, like the other skills that were part of their daily routine. The specific knowledge was kept secret within the family and passed down from generation to generation – and most of the potters kept allegiance to the family recipe for generations. Women were, therefore, a central and productive part of the family and community fabric and supported the family economy through pottery. This role conferred to them status and a sense of self-worth, endowed them with trading skills and enabled them to build a supportive female community, passing on cultural knowledge to future generations.

The jugs made for trade were transported to the cities on donkeys, up to a distance of 50 km. In his paper “Implications of Cultural Tradition: The Case of Traditional Palestinian Pottery”, Hamed J. Salem describes an encounter in the village of al-Jib with Um Hamdan, who chose pottery as a means to make a living. Her husband sold the jugs in nearby villages. He loaded the jugs on the backs of donkeys that carried them to markets sometimes 35 km away.88 Hamed J. Salem, ... Salem describes how he heard from older potters, whom he met in the villages of al-Jib and Singil, that the production of the jugs had stopped because the young women, influenced by technological innovations, were no longer interested in this hard work.99 Ibid., p. 70. According to him, the extant tradition of Palestinian pottery bears a formal, ornamental and technical resemblance to the findings of archeological research in our region, some of which date to the seventh millennium BC.1010 Ibid., p. 67. The material’s locality, which is manifest in the Arab jugs, will later carry great significance for Israeli potters as well. This value of locality forms the connection between object, person and earth. In Arab pottery, great importance was attached to the local material, and each village had its own raw material. According to Salem, if a woman from a particular village had ordered a storage jug from a neighboring village, she would have been asked sometimes to bring her own raw material for it; the housewives had to provide the potters with the soil required to make the clay, and the latter produced the desired vessels. Payment was made via barter (in exchange for wheat, for example). This distinction between different materials and different villages indicates “an expression of a broader worldview and a set of proper or improper norms”.1111 Ehrlich, p. 87. That is to say, the potter’s action is laden with the group’s ethical values, in the case of the village seeking to protect its material sources. Preserving the tradition of a specific village – which could have been reflected by minimal differences in the material’s recipe – reinforced the sense of communal belonging and emphasized its value.

Image 3: Right: Women creating pottery, Ramallah, circa 1905, Kiston View Publishing; Left: Woman making a clay jug, 1898-1946, Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington DC

The manufacture season began in late spring, when it was easy to dry the jugs and collect dry twigs and branches for burning the vessels. The raw material was made of local mud, which the women sometimes had to bring from the nearby wadi, a few hours’ walking distance. Their secret recipe incorporated various materials: sand brought from the shores of Gaza, glass fragments, potsherds from nearby archeological sites and rocks that were crushed in stone rollers. To all of these were added binders such as straw, sand and calcite. Salem describes a potters’ group numbering about twenty women, in the village of al-Jib, north of Jerusalem. Some of their products, mainly cooking pots – “kidra” (kdera in Hebrew – evidence of the influence of local Arabic on Hebrew and the cross-pollination between the languages) – were sold in neighboring villages and city markets.

The parts of the jug were named after body organs – breast, neck and ear (handle) – and their shapes retain traces of ancient vessels. The jugs were built by the coiling technique: first the base and lid were formed by flattening a ball of clay on a wooden board. After the base dried, the potter began to build up the jug on it using coils, in several stages, adding more coils only after the previous ones had dried enough to carry the weight of the coils above them without collapsing. The jug was smoothed with a wooden tool or a pottery shard, until the structure of the coils disappeared completely.

Image 4: Close-up of ornaments on top of zir jugs. Photo: Efrat Dgani, 2020

The various crafts in the process of creating the jug – the preparation of the material, the building of the jug, its decoration and the burning of the finished vessel – were divided among the women of the group. For the most part, the young women of the family were responsible for the decoration. They used a red pigment made from iron oxide extracted from red rock in the Jordan Valley and painted on the jug using a hen’s feather. Most of the vessels were decorated with geometric shapes, peacock and bird figures or embossed ornaments, which were also a trademark or a potter’s emblem.

The jugs described by Roth in the village of Skufiye were decorated with embossed clay patterns rather than paint. According to Irit Ziffer, some of the geometric and palm tree models are known from Canaanite ceramics, from the second millennium BC, and in other versions also from Mamluk ceramics.1212 Irit Ziffer, ...

Image 5: Left: Example of embossed decoration, photo: Efrat Dgani 2020; Right: An example of a jug from the Chalcolithic period, from Ruth Amiran, “The Early Ceramics of Eretz Israel”, Jerusalem: Bialik Publishing House, 1963, p. 49 (Hebrew)

The urns were burned in pits dug in the ground and filled with combustibles such as twigs, bushes, animal droppings and in later periods also old tires. The burning temperature was about 650 degrees Celsius. After the burning, about 15% of the jugs were found to be cracked, and they were mended and put to use. Over the years, the profession of jug repairmen has also developed. They wandered between villages and towns and repaired jugs that had been cracked by cladding the crack in clay and cement. They also reattached broken handles and “padded” the worn-out rims of jugs, without burning the jug again. Over the years, the “padding” and was eroded and fell off.

Image 6: Repaired water jug, with its clay handles replaced with iron. Photo: Efrat Dgani

The period of the jug manufacture came to an end in the early 20th century, with the beginning of modernization in the region, following the penetration of European culture with its technological innovations. A shortage of traditional local material has also contributed to the extinction of this culture. Material was first imported from neighboring countries, and in the early 1920s the pottery industry still existed in Acre, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ramla and Gaza, until it slowly died out.

Image 7: Women building water jugs, probably in the Ramallah area, circa the first half of the 20th century. Source: Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman, In the Footsteps of Abraham, Overlook Press, 2008 (photo: Matson Photo Agency, part of Jerusalem’s American Colony community)

On the Continuum: The Beginning of Israeli Ceramics

“The large pottery vessels in the special ‘water corners’ still contain cool drinking water, as if it was brought only a few hours ago on a donkey from the spring on the slope of the wadi […] gradually the hesitations and impediments dissolved, and we began to move step by step into a distant and foreign world, in which every detail brought us back to the biblical stories of childhood days”.1313 Roth, A Survey of ... Roth describes well the experience of the first encounter with the villages of the Southern Golan, which were an unknown country for him. The biblical association corresponds to the Zionist narrative prevalent in the 1950s, a narrative seeking to connect the sons and daughters of the young nation to the land and create an affinity and belonging to Eretz Israel. The jugs that remained in the Arab villages in those years were sold to Israeli cities, moshavim and kibbutzim, and at that stage assumed a vague identity, part archaeological, part biblical, ignoring their anthropological origin or obscuring it.

Shaya Lazarson, a retired Air Force brigadier general, says that after 1967, senior corps members and their spouses went on a trip to Nablus, where they contacted a merchant who began arriving in Ramat Hasharon on Saturdays with trucks loaded with jugs. Four decades later, Ahuva and Shaya Lazarson left Ramat Hasharon and transferred their collection of jugs to me.

Living with the jugs created in me a commitment to research, and since I do not see their preservation as an act of appropriation but an act of conservation, I chose to examine, through their existence in our Lebensraum, the way they influenced the local material culture in its formative years, as well as to introduce them into public consciousness, as an act of recognition of the “other’s” existence.

Against this background, I chose to describe the work of two of the “great mothers” of Israeli ceramics: Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann and Hanna Harag Zunz, who immigrated to Israel from Germany in the 1930s. Their work, which aims to connect with the place and seeks a local identity, exhibits the influence of Arab pottery. Their approach to the work, which can be defined as a multicultural Levantine approach, is characterized by an extraordinary recognition of the existence of a local, Arab material culture and by their perception of their work as part of the same cultural continuum, whereas other creators preferred to skip back two thousand years and place the jug on the shoulders of our biblical mother Rebecca.

Image 8: Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann, Jug, 1943, height 48 cm (the shape of the jug is reminiscent of an Arab water jug ​​of the “Hydria” type). Photo: Dalia Nav’a and Yigal Harari, MUSA – Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann, the pioneer of Israeli ceramics, was born in Germany in 1902 to an assimilated and wealthy German-Jewish family. She met Rudy Lehmann at the Berlin City School of the Arts and later they became a couple. After immigrating to Israel, in 1932, the two aspired to bridge the gap between the cultural and artistic baggage they brought with them from Europe and the Middle Eastern experience in Eretz Israel. They operated in Haifa, in the emerging ceramics industry, and in 1937 moved to Jerusalem, established a house and studio, which was a meeting place for students and artists, and developed unique teaching methods. They were “yekkes” in the full sense of the word – with an ethos of meticulous work – and saw themselves first and foremost as artists seeking to express a synthesis between matter, form, and environment. In Jerusalem, they built a wood-burning stove inspired by the stoves of the Arab potters, and allowed the fire to leave its mark on the jugs. Grossman-Lehmann’s work environment in Jerusalem, during the British Mandate, was characterized by a multicultural atmosphere: “The cultured among the English, Arabs and foreigners participated together in every cultural event of the Yishuv [the Jewish community]”, she wrote. “Out of their interest in the plastic arts and fine crafts – many of the artists and high-ranking officials among them visited our workshop, to observe the work process and choose the best works for their collections. During those years I also had to run my students’ various courses in 3-4 languages”.1414 Hedwig ...

Grossman-Lehman sought to develop an enrooted and local style for the people of Israel in the Land of Israel. According to her, “Style has been evolving for generations, and this process should not be expedited; however, we can prepare the ground and make it clear to ourselves where we stand and where we are headed”.1515 Ibid., p. 4. In contrast to the renunciation of ornaments characteristic of European culture, in Israel she adopted – under the influence of Muslim culture – a new approach to ornamentation.1616 Ibid., p. 6. In her works she used basic geometric decoration and local slipware colors in natural shades, just like the anonymous Arab potters who preceded her here. She developed an orderly theory regarding the connection between working in clay and the place in which it was created, influenced by local archeological finds and the Arab pottery common in the country.

“When I came to Israel, I realized that the ‘Arabesque’ still existed here. The arabesque is a type of ornament, which grew naturally from the worldview of Islam, and it also influenced the Jews who lived in a Muslim environment. I had to do some introspection… therefore I reinforced in them the tendency to seek personal expression based on their tradition … I hope that in my work in this field I gave those youth a foundation to develop their style in the forms and ornamentation that have their roots in Israel” (Terra Cotta, p. 4).

Grossman-Lehmann saw clay as an expression of the four elements of the world: earth, water, air and fire. In her book Terra Cotta, which is a documentation of her works alongside a description of working methods on wheels, she wrote: “Man was created from earth. Man and earth – a primordial pair. Earth is clay. The human creator – the potter. Pottery is the mother of sculpture. The jug is the abstraction of a figure, a figure of man, plant or animal. The potter’s tools are the hands and the wheel”.1717 Ibid., p. 2.

Hedvig Grossman, 1953, from the collection of the Jerusalem Print Workshop. jerusalemprintworkshop.org

The jug, for her, was a basic and primary form. For her, these ancient forms radiated power and character, harbors tension and secret, and preserves an inner balance that originates in a culture related to nature and the earth. “I drew my world of forms from my sensitivity to the mountainous landscape of our country, especially around Jerusalem, to the monochromatic palette, to the light and shade that are unique to it”.1818 Ibid., p. 4. And more: “These are works that are permeated by pure spirit and that feature the power of the vitality of the creator, who worked in allegiance to his role in society”.1919 Ibid., p. 6. She attributed to the craft of pottery the character of spiritual labor, in which a pure spirit, deeply rooted in the soul and touching the essence of life, inheres. “I’m looking for form! But form has value only if it is an expression of experience. A form for the sake of form is empty, disappointing. It may be beautiful, but it will never afford satisfaction. Give me stuttering, formless content rather than smooth form without content. I seek to find form that has fulfilled itself”.2020 Grossman-Lehmann ...

The shape of the Arab water jug, which stemmed initially from a functional, practical need, was transformed in Grossman-Lehmann’s works into a conscious conceptual image that seeks to produce a local continuum of form and material. According to archaeologist Ruth Amiran, Grossman-Lehmann can be seen as not only a ceramicist but also an archaeologist, who examines the foundations of creation in clay throughout local history.2121 Ruth Amiran, ...

In the preface to the book Creative Women: The Place of Women in the History of Israeli Art 1920-1970, Ruth Marcus mentions Hedwig Grossman in the context of the critics’ and researchers’, mostly men, treatment of clay work, like needlework and weaving, as functional, traditional craft rather than as “high art”. This prevailing perception continues the way the work of the Arab potters is perceived.

This is not how the sculptors themselves saw it, and Marcus quotes Gedula Ogen who said that she found in clay a niche available for creativity and freedom of action that allowed her, as a sculptor, to develop as she wished. Ruth Marcus further notes the lack of physical conditions for creating large-scale works and the high cost of metal castings. In this sense, the Arab potters were fortunate to work in the open space, in teams and out of social awareness.

Hedwig Grossman is noted by Ruth Marcus as someone whose contribution to the development of local art surpassed male contribution and as one who cultivated generations of original sculptors and designers who created in clay, such as Ruth Amiran, Elizabetta Cohen, Gedula Ogen and Hanna Harag Zunz, whose work also manifests the tangents between Arab and Israeli ceramics.

Image 9: Hannah Harag Zunz and Michal Alon, from the exhibition “A Kind of Dialogue”, Beit Benyamini, The Center for Contemporary Ceramics (Photo: Shai Ben Ephraim).

Hannah Harag Zunz was born in Germany in 1915. She studied arts at the Reimann School in Berlin. In 1938 she went to Teplice in what was then Czechoslovakia, one of the most renowned ceramic centers in Europe at the time, where she specialized in ceramic engineering and technology. She immigrated to Israel in 1940, and for about two years she worked in Grossman-Lehmann’s workshop in Jerusalem. At the same time, she taught at Deborah Kallen’s school in Jerusalem and founded a workshop for the manufacture of finjans and Turkish coffee cups in Beit Jala, where she worked alongside Arab potters. In her first years in Israel, she searched for local raw materials, went on a material search expedition in Jordan and was among the discoverers of the clay reservoir in Motza. In 1943 she moved to Haifa, where she worked in a local ceramics factory alongside her work in her own workshop. She taught ceramics at Oranim Seminary, and industrial ceramics at the Technion and at its campus in Tel Aviv.

Zunz created mostly jugs on the pottery wheel. Her jugs were characterized by subdues and harmonious forms, simple, flowing, and spiritual, with a perfect finish and great refinement. Unlike Grossman-Lehmann, she was deeply involved in the search for a glaze that would fit the jugs. In her work, she resurrected an ancient method, which was common in the Middle East about 2,500 years ago, for cladding ceramic utensils in terra sigillata – a delicate layer made of clay that creates sealing and gives the vessels special sheen and color without the use of glaze. At the time of the state’s establishment, she was already recognized as one of the foremost ceramicists in the country.

Gideon Efrat points to the three main factors influencing early Israeli ceramics – the Bauhaus boom in the 1920s, Eretz Israel archeology and Arab pottery – and thoroughly reviews the first potters in Israel and the connections between them.2222 Gideon Efrat, The ... Referring to Hedwig Grossman, Efrat said that carrying the heavy burden of knowledge that she brought from Europe, her story is a story of building a bridge between that knowledge and the new Middle Eastern experience here. Efrat also notes that in a review written by Grossman in the weekly Massa for an exhibition of Persian ceramics (from the collection of Harry Phillips) held at the Bezalel Museum in 1953, she emphasized that values ​​of a people’s entire culture are reflected in this people’s ceramics. Her conception of combining East and West perfectly matches the teachings of the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff, which will be detailed below.

Hedwig Grossman and Rudy Lehmann were among the founders of the Ein Hod Artists’ Village in the early 1950s, and seem to have found no ideological contradiction between an artistic affinity for local Arab material culture and living in an Arab village whose residents fled or were evicted from their homes. This view resonates in Jacqueline Kahanoff’s teaching, which allows the existence of practical Zionism alongside multicultural synergy, as an anthropological rather than historical approach.

Through the works and artistic teachings of Hedwig Grossman and Hanna Zunz, along with other contemporaneous students and ceramic artists, runs a connecting thread that forms a localized cultural chain; the chain links are different from one another, affecting one another and together create novelty. Turning the gaze to the material culture that existed at this place at the beginning of Zionism, and publicly recognizing its existence, would be the ethical act to which the thinker Kahanoff aspired.

Jacqueline Kahanoff: The Levant as a Local Multiculturalism

The activities of the first ceramicists who immigrated to Israel in the 1930s were accompanied by a search for characteristics of a material culture that could be called Israeli. The discussion about the creation of a new and authentic Hebrew style, which would suit the views of Zionism and connect the present to the historical past, was conducted on several levels – and in various frameworks, including the Zionist Congress.

As early as 1879, the French “Alliance” organization established the “Torah uMelakha” (Torah and Craft) school in Jerusalem, with the aim of teaching immigrants a skill that would help them earn a living. The artistic orientation was Oriental, influenced by local artisans, Damascus craftsmen, goldsmiths of Yemenite descent and workers in the local metal industry. In 1906, the Bezalel School was established in Jerusalem. Its director, Boris Schatz, a native of Lithuania, set himself the goal of shaping Israeli material culture according to European models. He was inspired by the spirit of the workshops of the Arts and Crafts movement that developed in Britain, but the products that came out of the institution were characterized by a combination of Western characteristics and a Levantine ornamental style. The school closed in the 1920s, and the “New Bezalel”, which opened in 1935, was run with a distinctly European attitude and most of its teachers were of German descent.2323 Gideon Efrat, ...

Throughout most of the 20th century, and especially during its first half, local art and culture exhibited a desire for Europeanness and a rejection of what was called “Levantineness”. The word “Levant” (in French – shines) originally indicates a geographical location, a nickname for countries located in the eastern Mediterranean. Over time, the term “Levantine” became a derogatory term used by Europeans for Middle Eastern backwardness. The Kahanoff, a native of Egypt, expressed the voice of those who immigrated from Arab countries, whose culture was considered peripheral, and charged the concept with a new, positive meaning: “For myself, I am a typical Levantine, in the sense that I appreciate equally what I received from my Eastern origins and what has now become my Western culture heritage. This cross-fertilization, which in Israel is named ‘Levantinization’, I see as enrichment not depletion, and from this point of view I may be allowed to try and define the complex, combined disease of the two biggest communities in Israel”.2424 Jacqueline ... In her books, Kahanoff describes the hostility she encounters during her visits to Israel by immigrants from different ethnic groups, between Eastern and Western, and between different ethnic groups within each of the groups. Her positions emerge from this observation.

Kahanoff grew up in Cairo before the Second World War, with Jewish parents – a father of Iraqi descent and a mother born in Tunis. She grew up in an affluent environment and received multicultural, cosmopolitan education. During her early visits to Israel, she was fascinated by the Arab women as well as the women who worked in agriculture and the various branches of the kibbutz economy. The diversity intrigued her, and she longed for acceptance and inclusion. “What do they think, the women of the villages, so upright and graceful in the dusty luxuriousness of their embroidered dresses, what are their hopes? They are the image of an ancient world, obstinately hanging to its existence, and it is very likely that for them, Israel symbolizes the revolutionary force of modernity – both enchanting and frightening”.2525 Kahanoff, “A ...

Kahanoff immigrated to Israel in 1954, about twenty years after her first visit. She was perceived as a European intellectual and joined the group of authors that circled Aharon Amir, editor of the Keshet magazine. Her book From East to West (published in 1978, about a year before her untimely death), was a collection of her essays, originally written in English and translated by Amir. Her social and cultural observations are even today more relevant than ever. In her critique of hegemonic Zionist culture, she exposes the disavowal of Israelis of the ethnic, geographical, and cultural space in which they live. “The Sabra, who knowingly or unknowingly, is outraged at his parents’ generation, often wants to live in an Israel that will be spiritually broader, and more tolerant, but he also inherited, in most cases, much of his parents’ old fears and prejudices regarding the ‘Levantinization’ and cultural degradation because of the immigrants. The latter was described by the Sabra as a potential threat to everything that has already been built, not as a partner in what has yet to be built”.2626 Kahanoff, “Black ...

Kahanoff, like the mothers of Israeli ceramics described above, regarded Israeli feminism as a shining light. As for the material culture, too, she expressed ideas similar to theirs: “Continuity does not mean maintaining a way of life as it is, as if it were a museum object, but renewing it, creating a new tradition while dealing with the old and breaking it, until sometimes the permanence in the way of being is rediscovered […] Even the ancient arts of the Middle East, like pottery and glass making, of which such wonderful examples are seen in the Rockefeller Museum, seem to have degenerated, leaving only an uninspired replication of ancient models”.2727 Kahanoff, “A ...

Pluralism, openness, tolerance, the integration of cultures while moving between them and the preservation of their various tones – for Kahanoff, all these were imperative for the existence of a diverse, rich, and cohesive culture. In her critique of the hegemonic discourse, which represented a secular consciousness and a European orientation, she was ahead of her time by more than half a century. Similarly exceptional in the artistic and cultural landscape of the period were artists such as Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann and Hanna Harag Zunz, who carried a load of European knowledge and culture but were also open to local Arab culture. In the words of Anat Danon Sivan, curator of Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: “The pluralistic discourse today allows for a multiplicity of voices and styles, as a kind of correction of the period that preceded it. We need the multiplicity of voices today for growth, but at times it can also be very confusing and chaotic. With respect to local art, I keep asking about these influences, recognizing this tension between the desire to assimilate within the global world, and the attempt to find a unique voice, a distinct identity with a local streak. This identity is formed while moving, constantly changing”.2828 Anat Danon Sivan ...

The question of local identity in Israeli Jewish art and culture would continue to resonate and be relevant in the global world as well. Oriental influences are very noticeable in the local culture of food and music, and creators who descended from Arab countries now wish to return to melodies that they heard at home, which the previous generation repressed when they were asked to shed the symbols of the diaspora and adopt a new Israeli identity. At the same time, the voice of Palestinian Arab culture is increasingly heard within the Israeli canon. In the process, the question of moral responsibility in the context of an encounter between cultures arises in full force.

Jacqueline Kahanoff dealt with this question through an analysis of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau: “Similarly, man’s cultural creations compete with one another. If Jacob had been born in a society in which, out of two twins, the firstborn is the ‘eldest’, he still would have had to fight for his right against his brother’s challenge. There is no absolute, automatic, inherent right to cultural inheritance: just as there is no absolute power over life, except to the extent that different species, including the human one, react successfully to the challenges that life presents. There is always struggle; but the same is true of solidarity and interdependence without which life would not be possible. This rule is what sets the boundaries of conflicts between cultural domains as well as individuals”.2929 Kahanoff, “A ... A similar position to this one – according to which cultural attitudes and positions would try to compete with one another or overcome one another, as long as they do not eliminate one another – emerges from Emmanuel Levinas’ thinking, which dealt with the question of the realization of justice and responsibility within a sovereign Jewish state arising from Jewish thinking. Now, when it has been founded on the Land of Israel, he wrote, Judaism has the opportunity to realize values and ideals of justice, morality and equality in a practical, not merely theoretical, manner:

“I perceive responsibility as responsibility for the Other, i.e., responsibility for what is not mine, or even what does not concern me; or perhaps for what does concern me, that is, what stands in front of me like a face […] Since the Other looks at me, I am responsible for him, without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me […] The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility, this moreover, whether accepted or refused, whether knowing or not knowing how to assume it, whether able or unable to do something concrete for the Other. To say: here I am. To do something for the Other. To give. To be human spirit […] the responsibility is what rests solely with me, and I cannot humanly refuse it”.3030 Emmanuel Levinas, ...

In this article I seek to turn our gaze to the objects, in this case water jugs, that represent the deserted Arab village, which was lively and vibrant in the early period of Israeli ceramics, whose founders were immigrants from Germany. This coexistence was the influential basis for the development of material Israeli culture and therefore, in the context of the Arab water jugs, such a moral approach would entail their presentation as part of the local material culture and as a very significant source of influence, without obscuring their historical Arab identity. From testimonies compiled by Noga Kadman, we learn that the fact of the Other’s existence in space and time was known to the Zionists, the founders of the state and its kibbutzim, yet, for reasons pertaining to survival, they could not allow themselves to turn their attention to less-than-existential matters. Today, when the state is 74 years old, we are able to make this correction, in small steps that will lead to living together here, side by side.

“Only a year ago, simple, primitive people lived here, cultivating their land with oxen and donkeys and plows, drinking rainwater they collected and living on figs and smuggling and mountain air” (Kibbutz Yir’on, Bulletin No. 1, July 22nd 1949).3131 In Noga Kadman, On ...

In found an example of avoiding recognition of the existence of the “other” at the water exhibition in the Man and His Work pavilion, named after Shmuel Avitsur, at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, where Arab water jugs of various types are displayed. These are accompanied by a text that includes citations from the Bible, for example: “and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Genesis, 21:19), or “And threshing floors shall be piled with grain,
And vats shall overflow with new wine and oil” (Joel, 2:24). Most explanations attached to specific jugs do not refer at all to their Arab origin – for example, “a vessel for storing water made of clay burned over low fire, the Golan Heights”; “Pottery vessels drawing water by rope”; “A jug of water with a coiled rope at the bottom for easy carrying on the head” – and, in the rare cases in which a geographical source is mentioned, the items are not dated, for example, “a clay stove and a cooking pot, handmade by a potter from the village of al-Jib in Samaria”. The way in which the jugs and objects found in Arab villages are displayed establishes, therefore, a narrative of a direct link between them and the biblical period, while ignoring the local, cultural and ethnic context in which they were created. In the book Pictures From the Land of the Bible – People, Life and Landscapes 1946-1989 (Eretz Israel Museum, curator: Eitan Eilon, 2012), which is still sold in the museum today, I found photographs from Arab village life without any mention of the names or identities of the potters or craftsmen photographed throughout the entire book (“A potter finishes a handmade cooking pot, Al-Jib, Biblical Givon, north of Jerusalem”, p. 169). The entire book repeats the same narrative, of a complete disregard for the long history of an extensive Arab culture in the Land of Israel. This narrative may have been necessary for the purpose of the constitution of a new society, with unifying identity traits and linkage to the geographical space in which it is located, but today the time has come for correction.

Image 10: A pottery zir from the first half of the 20th century; height 68 cm, diameter 60 cm, exact place of production unknown, from the Eitan Gross’ estate, private collection

n order to award these items their proper status, one must mention and characterize the Arab life and culture that existed here, as well as the historical circumstances that effected far-reaching changes in them, mark the jugs and objects with an estimated date of creation and details of the place and context in which they were created and from which they were born, and so on. Such change is required as part of a broader trend that may lead to reconciliation, in recognition of the Other and assumption of responsibility for him. It seems that this recognition, along with the understanding that perhaps there is much more in common that what separates the two sides, is already permeating Israeli society, as can be seen in the words of a member of Kibbutz Yir’on, who describes his feelings following the 1948 war: “It stabs the heart, when you stumble upon a toy or simple jewelry of women, and feel that here, dreams of people were destroyed, and you remember what you left behind”.3232 Noga Kadman, op. ...

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1. Yehuda Roth, A Survey of the Southern Golan, Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum, The Man and His Work Library, 1985, p. 5 (Hebrew).
2. Eran Ehrlich, “The Ethics of Doing”, in Thoughts on Craft, ed. Uri Bartal, Reuven Zehavi, Eran Ehrlich, Jerusalem: Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, 2015, p. 96 (Hebrew).
3. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p. 19.
4. Yigal Moshe, The Family of Black Gaza Vessels from the Ottoman Period, M.A. thesis, Ben Gurion University, 2006.
5. A different kind of jug, with a rounded bottom, was placed in the barn, sometimes in a hole dug in the ground, and used to hold the supply of oil. Such jugs were created mainly in Rashiya al-Fuhar village in Lebanon.
6. Inside the house there was no kitchen, and food preparation and cooking were done outside, on a rug, in a shaded and covered spot. The cooking vessels were made of various materials. Pottery vessels were made by women who specialized in their manufacture in the different villages, liberally designed by hand. Moreover, there were tin-plated copper vessels, wooden vessels and vessels made of pumpkin.
7. Roth, p. 42.
8. Hamed J. Salem, “Implications of Cultural Tradition: The Case of Palestinian Traditional Pottery”, in Archaeology, History, and Culture in Palestine and the Near East: Essays in Memory of Albert E. Glock, ed. Tomis Kapitan, Atlanta: Scholar Press, 1999, p. 78.
9. Ibid., p. 70.
10. Ibid., p. 67.
11. Ehrlich, p. 87.
12. Irit Ziffer, “Water Vessels in Traditional Arab Pottery”, in To the Spring: The Girl and the Jug: A Local and Multicultural Image, ed. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Exhibition Catalog, Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum, 2013, pp. 46-66 (Hebrew).
13. Roth, A Survey of the Southern Golan, pp. 5, 7.
14. Hedwig Grossman-Lehmann, Terra Cotta, Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Hasadeh, 1972, p. 10 (Hebrew).
15. Ibid., p. 4.
16. Ibid., p. 6.
17. Ibid., p. 2.
18. Ibid., p. 4.
19. Ibid., p. 6.
20. Grossman-Lehmann quoted in Helga Keller, Sculpture as Homeland, Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMe’uhad, 2005, p. 108 (Hebrew).
21. Ruth Amiran, written comments following the publication of Grossman-Lehmann’s book Terra Cotta, 1972 (Hebrew).
22. Gideon Efrat, The Beginnings of Israeli Ceramics, 1932-1962, Exhibition (eponymous) Catalog, Herzliya: Herzliya Museum, 1991 (Hebrew).
23. Gideon Efrat, “First Beginnings – Torah uMelakha”, in Zmanim, no. 103 (2008), pp. 4-13 (Hebrew).
24. Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Black on White”, in From East to West, Tel Aviv: Yariv and Hadar Publishing, 1978, p. 48 (Hebrew).
25. Kahanoff, “A Return to the East”, in From East to West, p. 70 (Hebrew).
26. Kahanoff, “Black on White”, p. 55.
27. Kahanoff, “A Return to the East”, pp. 68-69.
28. Anat Danon Sivan quoted in Naama Riba, “Raffi Lavie Was Very Charismatic. It Was Unpleasant. It Would Be Unacceptable Today”, in Haaretz, 10.2.2021 (Hebrew).
29. Kahanoff, “A Thousand and One Realities”, in From East to West, p. 206 (Hebrew).
30. Emmanuel Levinas, “Responsibility for the Other”, in Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 2017, p. 97.
31. In Noga Kadman, On the Side of the Road and the Edge of Consciousness: The Marginalization of Arab Villages That Emptied in 1948 in Israeli Discourse, Jerusalem: November Books, 2008, p. 102 (Hebrew).
32. Noga Kadman, op. cit., p. 119.
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