Israeli Nature - A Collection in Memory of my Mother, Nechama Rivlin

Edited by Anat Rivlin
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Movie Clips


For my mother, the late Nechama Rivlin, Jerusalem’s cinematheque was no less than a cultural house of worship. For decades, she found sanctuary within its walls from the trappings of daily life. Its cinemas offered my mother a portal to other places where she gave herself to the dreams and narratives of people from all over the world, taking in a wealth of cultural knowledge, laughing out loud and letting herself be moved to tears.

She was the one who taught me the language of the arts and in particular, the language of film. She showed me how, sat in one’s seat in that dark theatre, one can surrender oneself completely to those moving images, the changing soundtrack, and all that dialogue – even on the occasions when there was so little of it – and indeed, amongst others, she would take me to see these films where shots were as long and drawn out as the silences. In those films that we saw together, we gained insights into the vast complexity of our world and its spellbinding beauty, and oh how we loved re-enacting, verbatim, scenes that particularly moved us. Therefore, I was beyond delighted to oblige when I was approached by the cinematheque’s Israeli Film Archive and given the opportunity to dedicate a collection to her memory.

In this collection, I chose to set my sights on another great passion of my mother’s – her love of nature and the land. Nechama enjoyed collecting beautiful things and as a whole, had famously exquisite taste. Nature was one common thread that ran through many of her collections. One such example was leaves that she would dry between the pages of thick, weighty book – those that she later remembered to take out, she would either frame by size, turn into a bookmark, or add into a picture which she then hung in the children’s – and later, grandchildren’s bedrooms. Then there were the flowers she would hang upside down so that they did not lose their shape, seeds she would thread on a string which then dangled from an assortment of hooks she had screwed into the walls. Even in her cooking, she would regularly forage herbs from the forest nearby, or the garden she had planted on the balcony in our home; whatever failed to make it into the pan, she would dry and add to her many seeded strings. After she passed, sitting in the kitchen and looking at all the herbs hanging from walls, I realised just how truly we were all surrounded by every single thing of beauty she had deemed lovely and worthy of collecting from her surroundings.

Everything that she considered beautiful in nature, she would point out to us: “Look how lovely that yellow peak [of bloom] is,”; “Come quick! The honeysucker is drinking sugar water”; “Let’s count backwards until the sun is all gone behind that mountain”; “Shh, don’t move… here comes a partridge family – they say they’re good luck, you know.”

Her love of nature ran true and deep, whilst her connection with the land went all the way back to her childhood in Herut – an agricultural village in central Israel, founded by her parents after they had both immigrated from Ukraine as members of the Zionist Youth Movement. In winter, after we’d had some heavy rain, I remember her turning our attention to the potent smell of the wet soil. Then from summertime, I have a memory of her cupping dried clumps of earth desperately vying for some water and respite from the sweltering Israeli dry season.

She also knew how to scare (or rather, caution) us witless from the impending future. “I won’t be here when you’re all stepping in plastic,” she would mutter under her breath if we failed to reuse a disposable bottle, or whenever we brought home some pointless plastic tat we picked up at the local shopping centre’s haberdashery.

When my father was elected President of Israel, my mother seized the opportunity and platform she now had as First Lady to highlight a variety of issues and causes which she was passionate about, and believed were worthy of championing in the Israeli public sphere. She was a regular at almost every nature conservation-themed event. Speaking at the Zalul Environmental Association’s awards ceremony, she said that “in a country as tiny as ours where the sea stretches across its whole length, and mountains tower to the east where rivers flow, we could have been a veritable paradise. Thanks to all of you, some of the rivers have indeed been rehabilitated and restored, but there is still much work to be done.”

Trawling through the archives, I found images and footage that tell the most tantalising tale of Israeli nature, and the seismic impact that the country’s rapid development over the last century has had on it. Some of the footage indeed captures those Edenic vistas my mother was referring to – rivers and streams flowing through undisturbed nature, where human interference is all but nonexistent.

Gradually, as the years roll by, man’s presence and impact become that much more discernible. Fresh drinking water is captured in footage of small and teenage Bedouin girls carrying vases from the local watering hole on their heads, all the way to the grazing fields. Further footage shows the craft of mat-making by the rivers – from collecting the canes from the riverbank to boating them over to the village and having them woven by the local women. There is also footage of malaria patients being tested at a makeshift clinic by Lake Hula; a predicament that would ultimately result in the draining of the lake. These days, water is steadily being reintroduced to what used to be Lake Hula, whilst a careful recovery and rehabilitation process of all natural habitats damaged in the great draining is also underway.

I have unearthed footage of Israel’s national watermain being built – showing how the water was barraged in the Degania Dam before being pumped through pipes and mains to all parts of the country; a novelty that had a detrimental effect on the Jordan River flow and the Dead Sea water levels whose southern region consequently dried up. These days, restoring the water to the Jordan River is proving rather difficult as it would ultimately result in the flooding of crop fields and local communities built along the now-drained route.

Additional footage shows a random assortment of tents pitched along the Sea of Galilee shore and later, the rise and development of the tower and stockade Jewish settlements. In these clips, we see people going by foot from place to place along narrow trails in open fields. Longer journeys, that involved carrying heavier loads, were taken by donkey or horse. The footage also clocks the arrival of motorcars; at first just the odd one, here and there – and then, gradually more and more. It almost beggars belief that once upon a time, just a single motor vehicle would pass through the valley once a week.

The following collection invites you to take in and explore the development journey that Israel has been on. In many ways, the country and its people managed to pull off the unthinkable and in a mere 100-year span, were able to erect modern cities alongside agricultural communities, based on globally-acquired knowledge. Having said that, one simply cannot turn a blind eye to this Zionist feat’s failure to consider the importance of nature conservation, and that the rich diversity of local flora and fauna are also every bit as much part of this land’s heritage.

The massive growth in the earth’s population, coupled with an accelerated process of vast development have inflicted and continue to inflict untold damage on the planet’s ecosystems. Thousands of flora and fauna species go extinct daily. As part of current nature conservation efforts, the various bodies involved (along with the diehard zealots) are putting tremendous efforts towards restoring and reintroducing into nature a variety of species that vanished under imposing concrete slabs as roads were built, and cities rose from the ground.

After her death, two schemes focusing on the reintroduction of endangered species into nature were dedicated to my mother memory. The former is based in Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens where members of the public are encouraged to purchase small bags full of native plant seeds for them to plant in the soil – whether it be in their gardens or potted plants on their balconies. The other scheme takes us to the Endangered Species Sanctuary Park in the Kfar Hayarok youth village, where teens are actively reintroducing into nature previously dominant but long vanished native flora and fauna.

I now offer my own contribution in honour and celebration of my mother – an Israeli Film Archive collection of local nature through the years.

Please note that every clip included in this collection is accompanied by a short introductory text below.

Movie clips

The Jordan Valley Area, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea

The footage is taken from Palestina – an extraordinary film shot in 1920 by a group of pilgrims who were visiting the land (director unknown). The clip features scenes from the Jordan River, Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea. The landscape untouched and undisturbed, no construction in sight, and an overall sense that man (for the time being) was still the one ruled by the forces of nature as opposed to the other way around. A herd of goats in the desert, a car broken down midstream where the water is too deep to allow safe passage and a mini bridge has yet to be built. People leaning into the watering hole to fill up their vases with freshwater, and so on. it is positively mind-blowing to then realise the sheer extent of the changes these places have seen after a hundred years of human settlement.

Springtime in Galilee

A breath-takingly beautiful nature film, regaling viewers with 14min of the land in the days before mass migration and industrial scale development. Shot in colour, the film captures white and yellow peak blooms; carpets of lupine and anemone – both of which are considered native species; water cascading down the mountain; waterfalls; a water-run flourmill; livestock in the valleys; people walking along trails that have yet to be smothered by asphalt, free-grazing in the meadow, a man drinking freshwater out of a river, people damming a brook, horse-riding, etc. For viewers, these scenes may well seem alien and otherworldly. The film also features the local settlements: budding Jewish communities with red-thatched rooftops, people riding donkeys, trees planted along the roads, sloped terraced planes for farming; the white city of Safed; washing hanging in the valley – blowing in the wind, etc.And finally, scenes of everyday life on the banks of the Sea of Galilee: tents, wooden fishing boats, nets, women weaving mats out of canes, fishermen pulling fish out of the water, farmers working the land, a motorcar stuttering along, en route to the village, a bridge over the river, horse-mounted individuals waving their work tools in the air, young calves, Hebrew lessons, dancing, and accordion playing.

The Yarkon River is Polluted

Pollution floods the Yarkon River: near-apocalyptic footage showing the state of the Yarkon River in a time when toxic sewage and waste were regularly pumped into its waters. The narrator, with all the required pathos, explains the river and its surroundings’ catastrophic state, caused directly by the people who live and holiday along its banks: the stench, rubbish, pollution, and swathes of dead fish. Footage of the Yarkon over the years allows one to explore the changes endured by this river which flows through the heart of the country, in a region where open spaces are indeed becoming few and far between. That being said, there is an element of comfort to watching this film, bearing in mind the Yarkon’s current condition: large parts of the river have now been rehabilitated, the public has returned to relax and luxuriate on its banks, whilst local councils are investing in developing and improving its surroundings – however, bathing in its waters remains very hazardous indeed.

Ancient Sycamore Saved From Felling

Saving an ancient sycamore from felling. A clip featuring all the elements that enable conservation vs. development – an ancient tree for conservation alongside an archaeological dig. Nowadays, as part of local and regional development, some truly lovely collaborations have emerged between developers, contractors, tree conservationists, and those who unearth the traditional structures that exist along the country’s every water supply source.

The Green Escape

Yet another film depicting the impact of manmade pollution as part of mass urban development: air pollution, visual pollution, waste, unscrapped vehicles, fly-tipped rubbish, and also pollution in the Jordan River – the footage also shows sewage water flowing in the Daughters of Jacob Bridge area, and animal carcasses lying by the riverbanks.

Folk dance conference in Kibbutz Dalia

My mother used to frequent Kibbutz Dalia’s folk dancing conference that was always held in the most spectacular structure: the ancient amphitheatre in the outskirts of the kibbutz which, itself is located in the heart of the Ramot Menashe region. Heart-warming footage of the festival’s earliest days which, nowadays, is held in the northern city of Karmiel.

Commercial for Bryers Nursery in North Tel Aviv

A Breier Garden Centre ad – a first-of-its-kind Hebrew flora cooperative: evening primrose, crocus, poppy, sea daffodil, and lily of the valley. The film describes the locals’ affinity for the native flora, coupled with a learned explanation about the Hebrew passion for flora that was abandoned in exile. Now that we are returned to our homeland, so is our affection for the Hebrew flower. Ahead of Passover, flower sales tend to skyrocket.

Advertisement for Gottex Swimwear

A 1960s advert for Gottex swimwear: models posing on a photoshoot at the Tel Aviv seaside, donning all the latest swimwear silhouettes. An opportunity for a nostalgic glimpse of Israeli high fashion – not to mention the undisturbed beaches along the sea strip which, back then, was already in the midst of a property development boom which goes on to this day.

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