Leah and Nathan Axelrod. Photo courtesy of the family

Interview by Rotem Pesachovish Paz

Naama Axelrod is the granddaughter of Israeli film pioneers, Nathan and Leah Axelrod, who had both produced, shot, and edited multiple newsreels documenting the rise and development of Jewish communities in Palestine/Israel. The collection of rare newsreels comprises 450 reels shot between 1927 – 1951. They included both Moledet and Carmel reels which, combined, paint a broad picture of the emergent Jewish communities in the land – from the days of British Mandatory rule to the nascent years of the State of Israel. Nathan Axelrod captured a mix of public figures and commonfolk, the culture and arts scene and day-to-day life – all of which make for a truly fascinating patchwork that describes the Zionist movement’s formative tumultuous years in the land. The collection has been digitised and has undergone extensive historical research at the Israeli Film Archive with the generous funding and support of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and is now available, for the first time, for viewing and scholarly purposes right here.

Naama, hi. I’m so thrilled to be doing this interview with you. Five years ago, to the day, I started researching the reel collection ahead of the Israeli Film Archive’s digitisation scheme so for me, I feel well and truly honoured to be discussing them with you today. Nathan and Leah – the Axelrods – so little is known about their lives. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

NA: Nathan and Leah had four boys: Moshe, Aaron, and Eli who are all still alive, and Yeshayahu (aka ‘Shaike’) – my dad, who is no longer with us. My father passed away just five weeks before granddad Nathan. It was hugely traumatic for the family as he was only 46 when he died of cancer. His father, Nathan, died of grief at 82, almost immediately afterwards.

Already in childhood, I grew up with the knowledge that we were part of something pretty big, long before I could even attach a name to it. When gran and granddad wanted to take me out, they’d take me with them to some kind of ceremony. And I never could quite figure out why. For example, I remember being on our school holidays and they decided to treat me to a ‘fun day out’ – we ended up in a ceremony in honour of [writer and filmmaker] Margot Klausner at the Dan Hotel. Here’s another one for you: we were celebrating gran and granddad’s golden anniversary [50 years], and someone offered them this venue in Haifa for the occasion and [late actress] Hanna Maron just rocked up at the party. They may not have been part of the ‘in crowd’, neither Nathan nor Leah, but they were both hugely respected by the ‘in crowd’

What was day-to-day life at Nathan and Leah’s home which, effectively, was also the studio, editing suite, and production house?

NA: My gran and granddad lived simple, frugal lives. Everything they did, came out of a sense of calling, and they never really saw that much money from it either. For example, when the kids were all grown up, they helped to support the family for many years before the archive was sold off to the state. Then again, on the other hand, anyone who’d ever been to their house, never wanted for anything. There were always parties and get-togethers, and it was always just such a happy, joyous place. Every weekend, we’d have Friday night dinner at the family’s Pardes Katz home or rather, somewhere between Pardes Katz and Bnei Brak, in this rundown, dilapidated villa – but it did have a roof. And on that rooftop, they’d host these soirees as if they were the richest production house in town. Gran would get in the kitchen on the Sunday and would have everything ready by Thursday night. They made you feel like they had everything. This spiritual, emotional wealth that you can’t really put into words.

Could you talk a little about Granny Leah, Nathan Axelrod’s wife?

NA: Right up to her last days, Gran was the ultimate newsreel database. People would call her up, asking where such and such footage might be found, and she would dig out of her memory not only the reel number, but sometimes the exact timecode. She died a month shy of her 98th birthday and was lucid almost all the way to the end. She made a point of always carrying sweets in her purse so that if she ever crossed paths with someone angry and upset, she would give them a sweet and they, in return, would give her a smile. She was a most accommodating, respectful woman. She would listen, first and foremost, always letting others have their say first, and it’s not as if she had the easiest life. Living in my granddad’s shadow was no picnic. Yes, he was an entrepreneur and pioneer, but he was also a difficult man. Because when you create such things out of nothing, and we’re talking capital ‘N’ nothing here, like filmmaking without running electricity – it’s your surroundings that end up paying the price. Her older children, for instance, she practically didn’t raise. The one who raised them was her mother.

Leah Axelrod at 14. Photo courtesy of the family

How did Leah and Nathan meet?

NA: Their story begins in 1927 when Leah was 14. She was a new immigrant from Brazil, could barely speak a word of Hebrew. Granddad met her here; having immigrated, himself, not long before she did. He was a Prisoner of Zion who managed to get his hands on a fake [travel] certificate through The Pioneer (‘HeHalutz’) movement which was how he was able to immigrate here “under the table”, as it were. Incidentally, we still have the piece of fabric that was sewn into his coat where it said that he was a member of the Pioneer Movement, and that he is to be allowed entry into the country. When he got here, he joined a training group in Rehovot where, in the mornings, they’d go orange picking and in the evenings, host all kinds of cultural activities. [Israeli poet] Alexander Penn was a childhood friend of his, and so when he moved here he was convinced that the country had a booming film industry. It had been his childhood dream to become a filmmaker, even though he studied ophthalmology and apothecary. Granddad Nathan was this fantasist. He truly was. A genuine fantasist.

Anyway, while he was getting his training in Rehovot, he decided to pop over to Tel Aviv and check out the Montefiore neighbourhood. This, of course, happened after he’d heard about Yerushalayim Segal, got super excited, and started planning how he’d start an entire film industry in the country with him. In the meantime, after he’d got to Montefiore and nothing was going on for a while, my gran’s mother, Batia Wexler, who – you could say was the local community’s social worker decided to throw a fundraising ball for this woman who’d contracted tuberculosis, so that she could be sent off to a convalescent home. She was looking to book a revue for the ball, and someone had mentioned to her that there’s this young lad in the valley – practically in the Ayalon [river], with all these dreams of creating a bit culture here. So she told him, “Tell him to come see me and we’ll talk.” That’s how granddad Nathan came to granny Leah’s house for the first time. According to the stories, he fell in love with her instantly and tried to court her, despite her mother’s attempts to cart him off on her cousin, as Leah was only 14 at the time.

That’s practically the [biblical] story of Rachel and Leah.

NA: Totally. And that’s exactly what he was thinking as it was going down. Eventually, Nathan and Leah were able to meet up, and they took a trip to Jerusalem which was where he proposed to her by the Western Wall. Of course, he effectively had to wait until she was 17 and a half, and only then could they get married. When she was 19, they had their eldest son, Moshe.

And when do they start collaborating on the newsreels?

NA: Granny Leah never went to school. All the local schools were co-eds and her father thought that would be a bad influence on her so he decided to home-school instead and would bring her all her workbooks from the library. Meanwhile, she’d already met granddad and at 16, she started working in production, doing the Moledet Newsreels. At first, she would only add the subtitles but later, she also branched out to editing which is what she ended up mostly doing, whereas granddad was on cinematography, production, and directorial duties. She was still editing even after the company had folded and worked at Herzliya Studios [now United Studios Israel] for many years.

How did having a business together work with starting a family?

NA: When their firstborn came along, Leah’s mum, granny Batia, the ‘bubbe’ [Yiddish for grandmother] was the one who raised him as a baby. Three years later, son no. 2, Aaron came along, and he too was also raised by ‘bubbe’ Batia. Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe. And with ‘bubbe’ now busy with all sorts, by the time their third child came along – that would be Yeshayahu, my dad – Leah, for the first time in her life, had to learn how to be a mother. She had to take the baby to one of his regular GP appointments and the nurse said to her, “Look, obviously I don’t have to explain any of this to you ‘cos you’re on your third…” and Leah was like, “To hell with that. I don’t know nothing about anything. Show me everything from scratch.

Could you describe domestic life at the home of a news cameraman in the 1930s and ‘40s?

NA: The fact is, the children are born and raised into this industry, for which they paid a hefty price. Because they’re basically sidelined. They don’t matter. So what if they’re the kids? You gotta make a film now. You have to go do a shoot now. It’s the news. You only get one take. So on the one hand, they do lead a rather charmed life but at the same time, it’s at one hell of a cost because the parents are unavailable, and the kids ends up essentially having to raise themselves.

Nathan Axelrod (on the left) at work

We found this rare footage of the Carmel Reels’ production lab in a 1936 reel. How does one manage to shoot, print, edit, copy, and deliver all the footage to the cinema in time?

NA: The newsreel had to be ready for the first Saturday showing at 6pm, so the pressure was on. What’s more is that Nathan was also a man of faith. He kept kosher and would go to shul on Saturday. But he also used to say that the car doesn’t know whether today’s Saturday or Sunday [a workday in Israel – EE], and that he has to work because that’s his job. So let’s say they’d filmed the Friday afternoon football match, all the development, editing, and sorting out all the copies – all of that would take place on the Saturday. And then, each of the kids and their grandmother would go to a different cinema in Tel Aviv to deliver their copy of the newsreel. Basically, it was a whole production, in and of itself.

And how did they know to be there with their cameras for all the major news events? Was there a telegram? A phone call? Was there even a landline?

NA: It was a fairly small country at the time, not a lot of people, and not a whole lot going on; for instance, they were getting ready to build the tower and stockade [settlements], and all the relevant parties knew that they’re about to start construction on the tower and stockades, so they’d get in touch with Nathan and tell him to head over and film. And yes, they did actually get a landline installed pretty quickly, but that was mostly to do with how well-connected Nathan was. Don’t forget they lived in Montefiore which, today, is proper Tel Aviv so yeah, they were very well-connected. For example, Ben Gurion got in touch with Nathan the day before the Declaration of Independence and told him such and such was going down the next day at this location. And Nathan goes, “I don’t have enough film.” Now we’re talking about the days after the war [of independence] had already broken out, and no supplies were getting into the country. So they agreed that Ben Gurion would give him cues for when to start and stop filming, and what all the important bits were that you had to get on camera anyway. Which is why we don’t have footage of the whole Declaration because Nathan just didn’t have enough film.

So how did he manage to get his hands on some film after all?

NA: He’d have to pull all these rabbits out of his hat because supplies were really scarce and super hard to come by, and it’s not as if anyone was paying for news content anyway. So what he did was he sold ad space. They would ask him for a quote, and he’d already worked out that he needed 50ft’s worth of film – so he would tell them he needed 500, meaning he would end up with 450ft of extra film on his hands and use that to shoot the reels. He had no money, and the newsreels weren’t bringing in much either. But he was willing to do anything to carry on making them and keep the supplies coming in.

In terms of equipment, what exactly did he have at home? What did that look like?

NA: Back then, going on a shoot meant you had lug about around 10 suitcases with you. And cameras were not small, meaning he couldn’t do it all on his own, so he always had all these assistants around him. They had a stilt house and below was a storage room where they kept all the equipment. Incidentally, that was also where the archive was. They pretty much lived on top of an explosives barrel [a reference to film which, at the time, was made of the extremely flammable material, nitrate – RP].

And were they aware of their ‘potentially explosive’ living situation?

NA: Of course they were. The ground floor had a residential unit on it, and another room which was basically where the archive was kept until everything was handed over to the state in the early eighties. They lived on the top floor. There was also a second storage room in the garden and inside was the cutting table where they would edit the newsreels.

Several generations of Axelrods visiting the Israel Film Archive, 2022

What was the atmosphere like at home?

NA: Insanely loyal and dedicated. Loyalty to the state, to the task at hand, the whole project, and this entire life’s work. All throughout, they were consistently aggrieved by the lack of praise or mentions. It hurt them. Nathan felt like his work wasn’t really respected or appreciated, even though he had won his share of awards and recognition. But deep down, he must have felt like that just wasn’t enough.

What shape do you think your gran and granddad’s work would it take if it were happening today?

NA: Both gran and granddad cared immensely about there being documentation and that Israel have a filmed, chronicled, and meaningful history. It was hugely important to them. Today, he probably would have ruled TikTok.

> Visit the Axelrod Newsreel Collection here

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