Hebrew Moving Drawings – Exploring the Early Days of Israeli Animation

Edited by Gilat Parag
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Movie Clips


Animation starts off on a blank page on which, with a stroke of ink, an entire world is made. A cast of characters is born. Or rather, a representation of them in the form of a dialogue between fantasy and reality. Meanwhile, here on the land beyond the page, a new state and identity are also born; a creation in which dreams, fantasy, and reality are equally intertwined. A conversation, therefore, begins – between the creation on the page, whether it be animated or a different form of art, and the one on land; an exchange which echoes and embodies a worldview, and is an integral part in the latter’s shaping and moulding.

This collection offers a deep dive into Israeli animation’s historical timeline which it does, primarily, by exploring the evolution of the figure of the ‘Israeli’ in it, and their representation; how they are portrayed, and the ways in which they have grown and evolved since the early 1930s to the early nineties – the timeline spanning the birth and early days of animation in the land.

Draining the Swamps

The pioneering days of local animation were rather drawn out, with the earliest works already popping up in the late 1920s; a time when vast majority of animated content was comprised of adverts, PR, and comms films. The first indie animated short that we know of was titled The Adventures of Gadi Ben Sossi – a 1931 black and white film whose creators had classified as a ‘drawvie’ [a loose translation of the Hebrew portmanteau of ‘moving drawing’] – a name they had coined for the budding genre. At the time of its making, Mickey Mouse had already made his talkie debut, Betty Boop was Charlestoning away on the big screen whilst in Europe, the most marvellous puppet animation films were being made.

In 1962, filmmaker Yoram Gross made Joseph the Dreamer – the Middle East’s first ever animated feature film which went on to win multiple international awards. However, it would be another five decades until the next animated feature, Waltz with Bashir, came along and hailed the dawning of the golden age of Israeli animation.

Why was Israeli animation such a late bloomer? Making animation takes time. It requires funding, the know-how, right equipment, and of course – an audience. Prior to the advent (and take off) of digital animation, sorting out the camera and animation suite was quite the pricey affair, and what scraps of animation that were commissioned at the time were being made in studios using equipment predominantly geared towards live action-filmmaking. Without an audience or financial feasibility like in the US, let alone any substantial funding from public money pots like in Europe and Canada, local filmmakers with dreams of making animation had to remain just that – dreamers – creators who had to make ends meet channelling their creative energies elsewhere, whilst making animation for themselves, on their own free time, against all odds. These creatives all went against the grain, also in the sense of the period’s prevalent artistic sensibilities that looked down on animation as an inferior art, no different to graphic novels and illustrating. And so, the field was further denied any piece of the funding pie, whilst also being excluded from art school curriculums to the point that its only legitimate purpose appeared to be for advertising and children’s content. Back in those days, creators of animation were mostly self-taught savants who essentially made their own work tools.

The establishing of the Israeli public television broadcasting service and its offshoot, the educational television service in the 1970s gave a home to a handful of short, animated content in the shape of programmes such as pioneering satire sketch show Head Clearing (‘nikui rosh’), the local version of Sesame Street, and of course the opening sequence of timeless Israeli children’s television classic, Lovely Butterfly (‘parpar nechmad’). That said, in the grand scheme of things, Israeli animation was still struggling to break out of the confinements of its peripheral status.

And whilst a number of animators who were active in Israel in the 1970s and ‘80s did not make it into this collection, their names nonetheless bear mentioning: there was Dudu Shalita who started out at Ein Gedi Studios before moving to Beit Shemesh; Rony Oren, whose plasticine characters Israeli children know and love to this day; Studio PitchiPoy that has been around, nonstop, since the 1980s and has only recently left its residence in Jaffa; and Albert Hanan Kaminski, who has made a number of longer animated films, going back and forth between Israel and Europe.

Then came the nineties, when the tide turned in the form of several bodies who banded together to give animated content its long overdue boost: commercial broadcasting and [the then-just launched] cable TV, complete with budgets galore and a range of audiences, all expecting designated content such as the Children’s Channel and soon thereafter, the country’s first ever original adult animated sitcom, M.K. 22. Of course, there was also the advent of the internet and specifically, YouTube, which provided all of us here in our small, secluded enclave with a precious gateway to a world of new knowledge and international audiences. At the same time, new and exclusive animation departments were set up in academic institutions such as The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and a range of other colleges across the country, whilst animation software were becoming the most accessible they had ever been. With all these elements at play, the stage was set for Israel’s second animated feature film – director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. Interestingly, it was Folman who had previously only ever directed live action content, who finally broke through the ‘animated glass ceiling’, as it were, thrusting it into the world of moviemaking with a film that would announce the start of an exciting, new chapter for Israeli animation.

Recent years have seen an exponential growth of both commercial and artistic animation in Israel. The animator community has grown tenfold, becoming fully professional and even unionising, whilst pushing animation from the ground up to excel and scale new heights of success. Film funds soon followed in the filmmakers’ footsteps and began to recognise the value of funded animated content, whilst the quality of local animation has been steadily drawing big budgets and high-profile collaborations with a variety of international companies and filmmakers. The vast, complex world of contemporary Israeli animation probably deserves its own separate collection, if not several, but for the time being – let us travel back to the rough and rugged wilderness of yore.

Animating the Sabra

The first ever animated work in the land was done by Jewish immigrants from Europe who had used it to create a novel Hebrew world in Palestine. This world, set on creating an identity altogether separate from the diaspora one, drew on the Bible and a romanticised version of the Orient for inspiration. And indeed, these sources of inspiration are prominent in a lot of art coming from Bezalel [academy] in which the land appears bathed in soft, warm light, as if it were a direct extension of ancient biblical vistas which could not be further from the ghosts of the diaspora. This cohesive image of the land, like time itself, changes and evolves continuously, until it inevitably crashes down to reality and eventually dissolves into what can best be described as ‘identity stew.’

Animation, I have been told, is the most escapist of all media. A deep dive into this film collection, one can only hope, will reveal an alternative point of view: a place where dreamers, against all odds, managed to make films that reflect and represent their reality and lived experiences – a reality of dreamers.

You are now all invited to delve deep into the archives and watch this collection of short films and one that is longer – from adverts to PR, comms, and arthouse films from 1928 to 1994.

Movie clips

Chemical Fertiliser Advert

A mix of Film, Stop Motion Animation and Captions – Unknown Creators – 1928 (Estimated Date)

The first adverts in the land made a point of appealing to Hebrew viewers’ Zionist / pioneering sensibilities. The advert starts off with a vision from the Book of Amos (“And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel…they will plant vineyards”) after which it promises the wise farmer that Onion Fertiliser “shall sweeten the fruit of the tree.” Like most animations at the time, this one was made by cinematographers using the stop motion technique which involves the moving of inanimate objects. The advert is comprised of several animated sequences, some of which even feature a genuinely interesting animation set in terms of artistic design, including background footage of the orchard trees, created from a photo print that had been cut and placed in a 3D space, and the farmer’s puppet.

The addition of the puppet to the filmed set essentially voids the viewer’s suspension of disbelief whereby they have implicitly agreed to treat the imagery in the advert as reality, whilst the farmer’s movements aren’t especially convincing, nor do they generate much of a storyline, or add any essential information. Was this bit of animation added so as to illustrate the realisation of the Zionist vision of breathing life into the wilderness, or was more footage needed – perhaps some scenes between which the captions could have come in? Who’s to say? However, when all is said and done, the biblical pathos, coupled with the archival footage and the nascent animation sequences do indeed sweeten the fruit of the tree, giving it the loveliest of odours.

The Adventures of Gadi Ben Sossi

Drawing and animation by Arieh Navon – Written by Avigdor Hame’iri – Produced by the Agadati Bros. – 1931

One of the more recurring motifs in the local Jewish art of the 1920s and ‘30s is the image of the ‘Yemeni’ who, in the early days of Zionism was a symbol of ancient, rooted Hebrew identity which also happened to be one of the sources inspiration for the model of the “new man” Zionist pioneers were set on creating in the land. This pioneering spirit also features in caricaturist, Arieh Navon’s 1931 film, The Adventures of Gadi Ben Sossi. The film which, by all accounts, seems to be the first ever non-advert animated movie made in the land, chronicles protagonist, Gadi’s curious adventures in a nascent Tel Aviv.

Navon’s primary line of work was illustrating political caricatures. This film, it would seem, was made as a comic relief of sorts; in the same manner that Navon would later approach Uri Muri – the children’s comic strip column he launched in 1936. Uri Muri starts off as a new immigrant and later, evolves into a ‘Sabra’ [the common term used to describe native Israelis.] However, contrary to Uri, Gadi is the epitome of rootedness and the connection with that biblical pre-exile Jew. He represents Eastern European Zionism’s romanticised view of the Orient that was also every bit as dominant in the literature and art coming out of Bezalel [academy] at the time. The protagonist’s name, Gadi Ben Sossi, is a nod to one of the spies Moses had sent to ancient Israel to survey the land.

However, a rather ironic gap exists between Gadi and Tel Aviv; one between heroism and reality, the bible and the oh-so banal present, and the reverence of the biblical figure vs. the outright dismissal of the tradition represented by the ‘Yemeni.’ There is a gap in the narrative, and a discernible gap in the European’s view of tradition vs. modernity.

Uri Muri, the first boy to have been dubbed a Sabra, and the star of Navon’s comic strip which he cocreated with celebrated children’s author, Leah Goldberg, is a mischievous young boy who goes off on many adventures that blend together reality and fantasy. Uri’s naiveté is viewed as endearing on account of his young age and extraordinary ability to transform dreams intro reality. Whereas in Gadi Ben Sossi’s case, watching the film from a contemporary point of view does make one rather uncomfortable over the thoroughly patronising (if not mocking) representation of the character in what is an awkward combination of a romanticised view of the past, along with all the stock stereotypes of the “primitive” man and the dreamworld… we’ll let you watch and be the judge.

Courtesy of Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

Hava Nagila

Animation by Yoram Gross – Dolls by Yeshayahu Edery – 1955

Yoram Gross, the creator of this film, is one of Israel’s most important and influential animation pioneers, regardless of how little time he ended up living and working there. Gross arrived in Israel after World War II. In the 1950s and ‘60s, whilst working as a cinematographer on a variety of arthouse shorts made using all manners of techniques, he went on to make the very first animated film in the Middle East. His shooting table, quite literally became the bedrock of all future animation studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (more about him and his body of work later in this collection.)

Gross’s work stands out as different to all other animated content made in Israel’s earliest years. In his films, Gross revisits the Jewish shtetl and touches upon the memory of the Holocaust – both themes that were all but taboo in the majority of Israeli art at the time. This enchanting, animated film whose characters are all aluminium foil dolls, follows a Jewish wedding in which the music smashes up all the dishes and the Klezmers go flying through the air in a scene reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s paintings. And for a brief, fleeting moment, the Jewish Polish shtetl is alive again.

Gross, who had moved to Israel from Poland after the war, never abandoned the culture he grew up in; a fact evident in this film where memory and commemoration are both dominant themes. Gross would continue to pay homage to his childhood and youth in his later body of work – especially in the character that became most synonymous with him – Blinky Bill, the protagonist of the hit animated programme he created in Australia. In his films, Hebrewism and Israelism are but one of several layers that comprise one’s identity, and at no point are they meant to erase the past. In this manner, Gross’s work emerges as widely different to the dominant artistic trends of the time; especially in the 1950s when artists sought to sever Israelism from any and all ties to the diaspora, and the Holocaust in particular.

Courtesy of Yoram Gross family.

Yemenite Fantasy

Directed and animated by Yoram and Alina Gross – Voiceover narration by Saadya Damari – 1950s

This plotless art film captures Gross’s artistic curiosity in the way that it employs several techniques: shooting using different light exposures, drawing directly on film, frame by frame, and also chemical manipulations of the film, pre and post-shooting, that create stain-like effects that seem to dance uninhibitedly to the music.

It seems that for Gross, traditional music serves as the backdrop for abstract, free-style animation. Now, were we not familiar with his other works and sources of inspiration for his animation, the works of [Scottish-Canadian animator] Norman McLaren, one might have suspected that Gross had indulged in “primitive” animation here. However, the fact remains that Gross’s animation was in fact very much contemporary, abstract, and in line with all the leading trends coming from the forefront of animation, Canadian film studios, and the abstract movements that dominated Israeli art of the period. In this film, Yoram Gross explores Yemeni culture from a different point of view to what he had presented in The Adventures of Gadi Ben Sossi. Ultimately, Yemenite Fantasy is a collaboration between creators and a sharing of cultures as opposed to an outsider’s point of view looking in.

Courtesy of Yoram Gross family.

Joseph the Dreamer

 Created by Yoram and Alina Gross – Screenplay by Natan Gross – Characters and set by John Byle – 1962

In 1962, Joseph the Dreamer, the Middle East’s first ever feature length animated film was released, featuring an all-puppet cast. The film was a low budget production by international industry standards but certainly on the pricey side in Israeli terms. it was shown at countless cinemas across the country and went on to win the Cannes Film Festival’s top animation honours. Joseph the Dreamer would remain Israel’s only animated feature film until its successor, Waltz with Bashir, came along over half a century later.

Joseph the Dreamer follows the biblical tale of Joseph and his siblings using (mostly) metal and wood puppets, and some special camera effects. The film was shot in a tin shack on the sands of Bat Yam [just outside Tel Aviv] by a small crew comprised of spouses Yoram and Alina Gross, and John Byle. In stark contrast to the flimsiness of the set and the animation’s limited range of motion, the soundtrack more than holds its own, featuring the voice talents of the finest Israeli actors of the time, as well as an original orchestral score.

Gross too, like his protagonist, was a dreamer. As such, making a feature-length animated film required a great deal of time, effort, and financial investment. And whilst Joseph the Dreamer was a success, it also left its creators in quite a financial bind. Later on, Gross went on to make several ‘easy-breezy’ films in an effort to repay some debts before eventually selling off everything he owned and emigrating to Australia to realise his dream in a foreign land – just like Joseph.

Gross’s shooting table and animation camera went to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem where they became the foundations of the animation department run by Yitzhak (Isaac) Yoresh. In Australia, Gross, along with his second wife, Sandra, founded Yoram Gross Film Studios. Now in his new adoptive home, Gross was enjoying artistic and financial success, in no small part thanks to Blinky Bill – an original animated series he created, at the centre of which is a koala bear by the same name, and whose character was inspired by Gross’s life and adventures as a child in the forests during World War II.

Courtesy of Yoram Gross family.

Welcome the Tourists

Joseph Bau – The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Most likely early 1960s

Details about the production of this film are scarce, however it does appear to have been made in the early 1960s as it shares its name with a government PR campaign of the time. Whether this was a commissioned film or an independent project of Bau’s is anyone’s guess. At the time, Bau was mostly making adverts, but also films with a personal statement.

Joseph Bau was one of the pioneers of Israeli animation, and possibly the first to have drawn, directed, animated, and literally built the camera with which he made his films. All in all, Bau was a highly creative individual. On the website dedicated to his memory, he is described as an animator, illustrator, painter, graphic designer, confidant, linguist, author, poet, publisher, and social justice warrior. Born in Krakow, Poland in 1920, art was the thing that got Bau through the war and camps. He spent five years in ghettos and forced labour camps where his impeccably forged certificates saved the lives of around 400 Jews. After the war, Bau moved to Israel and set up a studio in Tel Aviv where he made captions, credits, and caricatures for many films, wrote books in Hebrew and Polish, and further pursued his certificate-forging craft – this time for Mossad.

Bau was also an animation pioneer in Israel where he made a number of short PR and comms films, all boasting a minimalist graphic style in line with the European trends of the day. This film, much like the whole campaign, holds a critical mirror to the ‘Sabra’s’ face (and personality) through a tourist’s point of view. All the informal, freewheeling, “don’t worry about it!” Israelisms are all portrayed through the taxi driver who cons the unsuspecting tourist. That said, at the same time the campaign also appeals to the “famous Israeli warmth and solidarity” by urging the locals to be welcoming and kind to tourists. Tel Aviv and Jaffa each play their part as the star attractions – Jaffa for its past and history, and Tel Aviv for its cutting-edge modernity.

Courtesy of Joseph Bau family.

Shooting Israeli Animated Feature Joseph the Dreamer

Carmel Herzliya Reels – 1961

Shooting Joseph the Dreamer in a tin shack rental in the Bat Yam wilderness outside Tel Aviv, in itself, feels like a pioneering act of Zionism. Indeed, a whole lot of sweat and toil went into the Middle East’s first ever animated feature which, amongst other things, also spawned a Hebrew linguistic novelty: in an interview, ahead of the film’s release, Yoram Gross was trying to come up with the Hebrew equivalent of ‘animation’ [commonly known as ‘animatzia’ in Hebrew – EE] and thus a new word, ‘hanfashah’ [from the Hebrew word ‘nefesh’, meaning spirit / psyche] was born. The term was promptly adopted and mainstreamed. In the footage, we see Alina Gross with the dolls on set; Yoram Gross behind the camera, and John Byle who designed the set, the dolls, and the film poster.

The animated characters boast a simple design, with very minimal changes to their facial expressions and bodies. The heads of the main characters were made out of rubber casts which were later filled with plaster so as to stop them caving in, and any altering of their facial expressions. Joseph, the main protagonist, had several heads made for him that would change by age and according to the desired facial expressions. As for the other dolls, all acting had to be confined to neck and body movements. The drama itself was bolstered by the camera angles, lighting, and soundtrack. John Byle got to keep all the dolls from the film which he later donated to the Israeli Cartoon Museum Archives in Holon, just outside Tel Aviv.

Courtesy of United Studios of Israel.

We Came to this Land

Directed by Yitzhak (Isaac) and Avigail Yoresh – Animation by Butch – Voiceover narration by Yaron London – commissioned by the Histadrut’s (Israeli Trade Union) Centre for Culture and Education – 1973

In the 1950s, Dosh (illustrator Kariel Gardosh’s nom de plume) created the character of Srulik – the quintessential Sabra as envisioned by the European immigrant. Srulik is the antithesis to the antisemitic caricatures of yore – standing tall, working the land, and of course – quickly putting on his army uniform when necessary. That same collegial spirit can be seen in all commissioned trade union PR films of the 1970s in which the ideal Hebrew man is portrayed as part of a collective. This short film features a historical recap (the trade union’s version) of the establishing of the State of Israel: from its beginnings as a thorny land of wilderness inhabited by Arabs and sleepy, old-world Jews to the arrival of the hoe-donning, accordion-wearing Jewish Russian pioneers who breathed life into the wilderness, got Malaria, founded the Histadrut, and eventually earned the ‘holy grail’ – the tembel hat (which affectionally translates to ‘dummy’s hat’), an iconic Israeli national symbol.

Animator Yitzhak (Isaac) Yoresh established the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s animation department. The equipment, primarily the shooting table, was purchased from Yoram Gross just before his move to Australia. This department, whose students were mostly from the graphics track was the first place in Israel where one could properly study animation. Some of its alumni include creators such as Yossi Abulafia, Yohanan Lakicevic, and Rony Oren, as well as animator Gil Alkabetz – all of whom had worked on the likes of trailblazing 1970s satire skit programme, Head Clearing (‘nikui rosh’), and other Israeli public television productions.

Courtesy of The Lavon Institute.

Also on Weekdays

Yoresh Film Studios, commissioned by the Histadrut Centre for Culture and Education and the Hapoel Centre – 1971

This PR film, highlighting the range of sporting activities sponsored by the Hapoel Centre, appeals to “the great grandson of the heroic Samson, King David, or the Maccabees,” whose body has atrophied throughout two-thousand years of exile. Now “that we have a state,” one must prioritise Itzik, Moishe, or Yaakov’s health. So, get off your chairs and not just for your own sakes, because sport is a Zionist act that will build a healthier nation!

Yitzhak (Isaac) Yoresh is a designer and animator. His works have a designer’s fingerprints all over them: they follow a style and aesthetic very much in line with the posters of his time – boasting a minimalist graphic approach and using paper cutouts instead of illustrated lines.

Courtesy of Lavon Institute.

The Samsons

Dudu Geva and Noam Meshulam – Commissioned by Telad Broadcasting for Channel 2 – 1994

When you trade in your cactus thorns for feathers – that is probably the best way of describing animated series, The Samsons, which was made in the earliest days of Channel 2 (Israel’s first ever commercial TV network) as a series of short interstitials slotted between the broadcaster, Telad’s original programming. Noam Meshulam directed those shorts at PitchiPoy Studios, based on Dudu Geva’s original drawings and storylines which followed an Israeli family, The Samsons (a localised take on The Simpsons) and The Duck – the series protagonist who also happens to be the Samsons’ dinner. This was the Duck’s first ever TV appearance after 10 years of featuring on weekly local Jerusalem paper, Kol Ha’ir (trans. ‘the whole city’), and in various comic strip features Geva used to have on (long-defunct daily paper) Hadashot (trans. ‘news’).

“Feeling like any minute now you’re about to be knifed in the back is very much an Israeli state of mind – both psychologically and socially,” Geva once remarked in an interview (most likely for daily publication, Maariv, in 1994) discussing the character of the duck. For many, Geva’s style is highly representative of an Israeli aesthetic, also in terms of the visual aspect.

The skimpy visual language, much like the frugality of material in Israeli art of the time was highly intentional. Geva chose not to eclipse the message with the visuals and what is more, he was a bona fide expert in sloppy illustrating – almost down to the sketch level. His narratives were about life itself and as such, steered clear of any ideologies and current affairs – even when he was doing daily newspaper caricatures. Instead, they explored tales of existential struggles, loneliness, love, and seduction.

The Duck, Geva’s alter ego represents the weak man who is the also the perennial victim (there’s that Holocaustic echo again…) – like in the series of caricatures where he finds himself prostrate on the butcher’s worktop, and even on The Samsons – in those moments of imminent slaughter, he finds a way of showing up in his fullest, truest form: bursting with joie de vivre and absolutely loving it as he hurls all these accusations at his executioner.

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