Red lithographic posters with a giant black arm sprawled across it and hewbrew writing
June 15, 2020

Discovering Family History Through A Poster

Avatar for Gabriella Kula
Gabriella Kula

Gabriella Kula is a freelance museum educator with a BA in Art History from the University of Michigan, and an MS in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education. She currently serves as an educator for school, family, adult, and access groups at Poster House, as well as The Noguchi Museum and The Jewish Museum. 

 

In July 1972, my grandparents, Bubbi and Poppi, moved all six of their sons from Long Island, New York to Jerusalem, Israel. Poppi had been a cantor at the same synagogue for nearly 20 years. He was tired of the job, and moving to Israel—also known as making aliya—was a noble way out, a praiseworthy act that would make his family part of history. A parade of cars filled with people from the community ushered them to the airport, they filled an entire section of their 747, and off they went.

photograph of 6 children around the trunk of a car

The choice wasn’t made on a whim. Poppi grew up a Zionist and even remembered Menachem Begin, one of the early prime ministers of Israel, coming to his hometown of Grudno, Poland for a meeting with Zionist activists there. From then on, making aliya was always present in his consciousness.

The family arrived at Ben Gurion, then called Lod, feeling excitement about their adventure. It was a purer time, before the contemporary ambivalence about Zionism; and for their six sons it was miraculous time— they’d journeyed to a whole new world.

The family lived in an absorption center, tried new foods and flavors, made new friends from all over the world, saw goats being herded on the mountains outside their back door, shopped with their straw baskets at the shuk where animals were shechted (slaughtered for eating) before their eyes, rode the Egged public busses along the cliffs, and learned to speak Hebrew fluently.

photograph of a family of five

Poppi got a prestigious job as the music research director at Hebrew University and became the conductor of an immigrant choir. And though it was a hard time for Bubbi, who was all but single-handedly raising six sons in an unfamiliar environment, she managed to learn some Hebrew at the ulpan, haggle at the shuk, and cook full meals on her two-burner stove. They were happy with their new life, a life even more full with culture than ever before.

The sons remember visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, seeing world class piano concerts in the main hall of Jerusalem’s Beenyanei Ha’umah, going to shows at the Rubin Academy of Music, participating in various theatrical activities at the Jerusalem Y, collecting artistic objects rich with history like menorahs and jewelry, taking copper imprinting classes, and experiencing the holiness of the Western Wall that they’d only known from biblical stories. They also toured Yad Vashem. It was there that Poppi saw his hometown listed on the memorial wall and his sons saw him cry for the first time. He said Kaddish (prayer for the dead) and told them about those who he left behind, who perished in The War.

In January 1974, Bubbi and Poppi decided to bring their family home to the United States. They had lived through the Yom Kippur War, during which Poppi drove an ambulance back and forth across the country carrying wounded soldiers; they were traumatized and unable to bear the thought of sending six sons to the army. They dreamed of peace, and performing songs on the pulpit was the best way Poppi knew how to create a better world.

So, Poppi got a position as a cantor in a synagogue in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and their next chapter—the chapter where posters come in—began.

black and white photograph of a man at a pulpit

Bubbi was queen of the arts, who sought beauty in absolutely everything. With her endless energy, she’d craft day and night. And with her detest for waste, she had the imagination to make something intriguing from anything. Each summer throughout Poppi’s tenure in the midwest, they’d take a pilgrimage to see family in New York and stop by Bezalel Art Gallery on the Lower East Side. Bubbi and Poppi found favor with Bezalel’s sales people because of their ability to communicate in Yiddish, and so it was their tradition to buy something special at Bezalel each time they visited.

One year, while Poppi was paying for a set of prints, Bubbi was rummaging through the gallery’s discard boxes. It was there that she found, and fell in love with, the HaBima poster, which the staff wrapped up for her to take home for free.

photograph of a gallery storefront window featuring jewish-themed art

Paintings on the shop’s window of Bezalel Art Gallery, Lower East Side, New York, USA, 1982
(Image: Beit Hatfutsot)

HaBima Theater was founded by Nahum Zemach in Russia in 1912. Performances were in Hebrew and revolved around the stories of the Jewish people and issues of Jewish life. As a counter-cultural institution, HaBima faced rough waters over the following two decades of political instability in the region. In 1931, the theater moved to Palestine where it found its forever home.

Bubbi’s HaBima poster is for Zaki Eretz Ahuva, which translates to Cry The Beloved Country. The show was an adaptation of a book by the same name, written by the South African author Alan Paton in 1948. It tells the story of a father’s journey from rural South Africa to the city of Johannesburg where he finds his son in prison awaiting trial for the murder of white man—a man who had ironically been an advocate for the native South African population. For the crime, the culprit is sentenced to the death penalty, and as his father waits, he meets the father of the victim. The two bond over their losses in an expression of healing and develop their own relationship from there.

Red lithographic posters with a giant black arm sprawled across it and hewbrew writing

Cry, the Beloved Country, Designer Unknown 1954.
(Image: Bidspirit)

The show was HaBima’s first foray into musical theater, and it linked the experiences of black people and Jewish people with their shared history of oppression. From our contemporary perspective, there are significant problems with the production, in which white actors played the roles of black people. There’s also irony, considering the current analogy between Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories and the South African apartheid. Nonetheless, and as fearless as Bubbi was in the face of controversy, it’s certain she did not know any of the baggage with which her poster came. All she knew was that the colors of the poster—red, black, and white—were her favorites, and the text was in Hebrew, a reminder of an important period in her family’s life.

And so the poster lived in their dining room, above their wood table. The sons recall her framing the piece at a local shop, and carefully, with ruler and pencil, measuring out where she would hang it. Bubbi was known for constantly rehanging artwork, but not this piece. It remained in its spot until Bubbi and Poppi retired to Boca Raton, Florida, when it moved to the most important room—their bedroom.

Today, the poster lives in my home beside a more recent print, Shepard Fairey’s 2017 Make Art Not War. To me they are a perfect pair, not just aesthetically for their common early 1900s Soviet style, but because together they tell the story of Bubbi and Poppi, who loved Israel, experienced pain, committed themselves to social justice, were passionate about the arts, and dreamed of a more peaceful world.

a photograph of two posters side by side

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