TEL AVIV (JTA) – For years, only people with special permission could visit the temperature-controlled deposits of the Jerusalem Cinematheque to view the moving images kept in Israel’s film archives. But as a result of a massive digitization effort, anyone with an internet connection can now view the images.
“We are in the fun part where we can share this treasure with the public,” explains Noa Regev, director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Following a $ 10 million project launched in 2015 to preserve, restore and digitize its audiovisual collection, the archives can now be distributed through a website launched in Hebrew in late 2020 and added with English subtitles in October. .
Divided into two sections, the website includes a pay-on-demand category, “The Artistic View,” containing 300 Israeli feature films, and a free “Historical View” area with digitized versions of rare films; every newsreel made in Israel from 1927 to 1972; home movies; and family collections.
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“The Historical View” exposes, in mostly black and white films with a rough patina, the life of the region through elections and wars, tree plantations and advertisements for the beauty salons of the 1920s. There are also full versions of historical footage that you may have seen as blips in documentaries, like the Declaration of the State of Israel.
There’s a lot to see on the platform, which is searchable by decade, keyword, and location, with more selections going. Only about 30% of the celluloid and video material in the archives has been digitized so far; Regev estimates that within five years the full archive will be available. “People keep discovering more and more material,” she adds, guarding against the fact that as the archives keep growing, they may never be fully available online. “The most fascinating materials are those that come from someone’s boydem [Yiddish for ‘attic’], both in Israel and abroad.
Below is a shortlist of some of the materials you can see now, spanning the late 19th century to the 20th century.
Light Film of the brothers from Jaffa, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, 1896
Filmed by a representative of the pioneers of French cinema, the Lumière brothers, just one year after inventing their revolutionary device, the Cinematograph, this nine-minute clip – the region’s first video footage – opens with a train entering a station from Jaffa in 1896. The crowd in fez can’t decide where to look: the locomotive they were expecting from Jerusalem (which only comes once a day), or the strange contraption driven by a stranger. As this reel travels through Jaffa, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, it shows vendors, mustaches, and camels from 130 years ago.
Thomas Edison’s cameraman in the Holy Land, 1903
Not to be outdone in front of his French colleagues, the American inventor Thomas Edison dispatched cameraman Alfred C. Abadie to the region a few years later, in 1903, with a kinetographer. Abadie captures a main thoroughfare in Jaffa and the unnamed “busiest street” in Jerusalem. Five men with crossed arms are the center of Abadie’s lens during a section introduced by a title card that reads “Jewish Dance in Jerusalem”, hopping to music we can’t hear in the silent clip.
Purim at Tel Aviv Zoo, 1959
The archives contain charming images of Purim and the famous Tel Aviv Zoo (which once stood in the center of the city, near present-day Rabin Square), and they coincide in this 1959 short of costumed celebrations among leopard cages. This was around the time that Purim costumes were handmade originals, and here we see a child in a feathered chicken outfit comically standing near pelicans of roughly the same height, while brothers dressed as explorers drag a fake hot air balloon. This iteration of the zoo is a step ahead of its popular 1930s version, set in Rabbi Mordechai Shorenstein’s backyard (as immortalized in this 1935 clip).
Josephine Baker and other celebrities visit Israel
American stage and film stars visited Israel throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with their Lod Airport landing ceremonies recorded in newsreels. Josephine Baker, a US-born cabaret singer and activist who made her home in France, flew to El Al in 1954 to give several shows (and attempted, unsuccessfully, to adopt an Israeli child). When “White Christmas” actor Danny Kaye made a surprise visit a few years later, in 1961, he spent most of his time on the Caesarea golf course. The following year, Frank Sinatra arrived by private jet to give seven performances, the proceeds of which went to a Judeo-Arab youth center in Nazareth. And during Kirk Douglas’ visit in 1964, he met the third Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol.
The most touching of these paparazzi clips is that of Sammy Davis Jr., who came on a day-long visit in 1969 and asked to be driven straight from the airport to the Western Wall, where he wedged a handwritten wish between ancient stones.
Ancient stones are a recurring theme in records, including a Hasmonean period burial cave accidentally discovered in 1956 while preparing the foundations for an apartment building on Alfasi Street in Jerusalem. In another clip, aerial footage records the excavations atop Masada, led in 1963 by archaeologist and politician Yigael Yadin. The re-inauguration of the ancient Roman Amphitheater at Caesarea in 1961 – after a 1,700-year hiatus – was filmed to record the throng of international musicians brought in to re-inaugurate the space, including cellist Pablo Casals, who performed on a humble scene in the midst of ruins.
Carmel Market, 1969
On the flip side, some clips aren’t weighted by the gravity of ancient history, biblical empires, or legendary battles – they’re just funny. This reel of shoppers shamelessly biting pickled fish and pushing aside the limbs of slaughtered chickens in Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel market is one of them. Only women buy from the clip and they want to make sure they select the absolute best fill. What if their hands and noses touched half a dozen cream-filled pastries that they ultimately weren’t buying?
Advertisement for instant soup produced by Osem, 1960
When not pushing things in person at the market, Israeli buyers trusted TV commercials to tell them what was good. Regev says vintage archive ads are an under-explored gem, like one from Israeli maker Osem encouraging mothers to feed their little ones a broth of bouillon cubes and boiling water. (It must have made an impression – powdered soup is a staple of Israeli households to this day.) The Israeli landscape appears in other advertisements, such as the beach at Caesarea in an advertisement for Gottex’s swimwear from 1964, and a road trip to Rosh Hanikra as the premise for an advertisement for fuel efficient Heinkel scooters. PJC