"Here the Tree Won’t Wear a Cape of Snow"

Bella Shaier

 

To Hebrew Version

I.

Once, when I saw that the photo album at my parents’ house was overflowing and the triangular picture holders were torn, I bought them a new album. Every time I got to my parents’ place, I tried to arrange the pictures in chronological order. Every time, I found more interesting things to do, and the project fell by the wayside. “Don’t waste your time on this,” my father said to me, “I’ll do it. I have time, I’m retired.” And on one of my visits he showed me the results of his work. It was a beautiful arrangement that would never have occurred to me. He had arranged the album by family: our family, the families of the aunts Sonia and Rosa and Lia, the families of close friends, each had their own pages. Within each family, he also arranged the pictures chronologically – with room for future pictures – but that was the secondary organizational method. I loved my father's arrangement. The stories – the stories of the families – had been plucked from the indifferent flow of time, placed above it, and prevailed over it. 

How intimate is the private photo album. Everyone has their own pictures, and trips, and an Aunt Sonia of their own, everyone has their own method of arranging, or not arranging, their pictures. Because even when there is no album at all, only a messy bag bursting with pictures, or a box, it is a private collection of a personal character.

The depth of the personal dimension of each such collection is matched by the breadth of the step that Anna Yam took when she chose hundreds of photographs from these hotbeds of privacy and constructed a collection to serve as the basis for the exhibition. And the result is a wonder. Her action crosses a double dividing line – one between the personal and the public, and the other between the individual and the group – and yet she manages to remain on both sides of it. As one stands in front of each picture one can still sense the womb of the private album that it emerged from to enter the collection, and yet an overview reveals that Anna Yam is telling a story, and the collection is in effect a new album that she has put together – one that grapples with issues of identity, immigration, memory, and choice.

 

II.

Emigration is a dramatic act. Every aspect of the familiar – buildings, streets, people, language, climate – serves as a kind of protective layer. Even if the familiar isn’t to your liking, or it doesn’t like you – you’re used to it, it allows you to run on auto-pilot, and you feel at home with it. And at home, as the Russian saying goes, “even the walls can nourish.” Emigration rips you out of the familiar. It can be an act you have long dreamed of and explicitly chosen, or something that you were obliged to do for political, economic, social, or family reasons, or simply because you just went with the flow. You may or may not like the country you arrive at – and it may welcome you, or not.  Either way, at the new place, at least initially, you are a foreign entity.

Photos from Anna Yam’s collection: a young woman in short jeans and blue T-shirt within a pink-green thicket of a magnificent oleander bush; she touches one of its branches. Another woman is standing in pale-blue shorts and white T-shirt in front of a dark-pink bougainvillea, and touching one of its flowers. An elderly woman – her hair, blouse, and cardigan all white – stands next to a purple lantana bush, her hand touching a leaf of the tree beside her. A couple near an agave plant. Another couple next to aloe blooms and a giant cactus, with the woman pointing to the cactus. A man and two women in black leather jackets, in front of a dark bougainvillea whose purple-green branches extend in every direction. A smiling couple kneels on a path in a citrus grove, its trees sprinkled with pomelos, as the woman touches one of them, and the man, in a pomelo-colored tracksuit, holds one in his hand. A man in a white shirt and beige trousers in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, standing on the stump of one of its trunks. A couple entirely engulfed within the branches of a flowering oleander. A man in a baseball cap and white shirt standing in a thicket in front of a cypress tree. A man in a black baseball cap kneeling in a field, gazing at a cluster of purple irises.

The desire to be photographed next to flowers and plants is understandable – they are beautiful. There is also a curiosity about the local vegetation. The joy of discovery. Admiration. Perhaps the desire to send the pictures to someone you left behind. But beyond that, there is something else: you are the foreign entity, the plants are not. They have long been rooted here. When you touch their leaves or fruits and immerse yourself in their branches, you decrease your foreignness, take root, begin to fit in.

The same applies to the many pictures taken in front of landscapes – at observation points, at the Dead Sea, in the desert. They reveal a sense of wonder at the scenery, but more besides. One becomes somewhat melded into the scenery one is being photographed in – merging with it, turning the unfamiliar into something familiar. Trying to blend in. 

 

III.

But do you always, and unequivocally, want to assimilate? And if you do, will you succeed? The Israeli poet Lea Goldberg answered this in her inimitable way in her poem, Pine (here in Rachel Tzvia Back’s translation):

Here I will not hear the voice of the cuckoo.
Here the tree will not wear a cape of snow.
But it is here in the shade of these pines
my whole childhood reawakens.

The chime of the needles: Once upon a time –
I called the snow-space homeland,
and the green ice at the river's edge –
was the poem's grammar in a foreign place.

Perhaps only migrating birds know –
suspended between earth and sky –
the heartache of two homelands.

With you, I was transplanted twice;
with you, pine trees, I grew –
roots in two disparate landscapes.

 

 

IV.

Immigration is not only a transition from one landscape to another, but from one country to another, as well. 

For the immigrants from the USSR, Israel is a hybrid: Western in terms of its regime and way of life, but geographically part of the East. This duality is well-evidenced in the photo collection. 

A man stands in front of a stall with a profusion of nuts and dried fruit at the open-air market. A family (or two, because one of the husbands is taking the photograph) at a supermarket with a shopping cart, between shelves laden with merchandise. A couple next to a car, its trunk open and packed with groceries. The abundance of Western goods is a worthy subject for photography after the constant shortage in the Soviet Union, where even if you had money, there was nothing to buy.

At the same time, this is the East, with all its exotic charms. A young man is photographed next to a bunch of bananas. A man gazes intently at a pot of cacti, one of which is in bloom. Similar reactions are apparent in the letters of a young man who has arrived in Israel by himself and is on a kibbutz for a period of adjustment and Hebrew language study. He describes the breakfast menu at the kibbutz to his parents in the Soviet Union – tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, olives, soft white cheese, raspberry jam or strawberry jam, two eggs, avocado on bread, and half a slice of lemon on top – with the wide-eyed wonder of someone accustomed to the empty stores in the Soviet Union and its endless lines, and also as one who is unaccustomed to the warm country, which has vegetables of all kinds throughout the year. And the West is not only about abundance, but about a healthy lifestyle, as well, which has yet to reach the Soviet Union. Here one does not eat butter, he writes to his parents, but margarine – and you, too, should not eat too much butter, it’s not healthy. 

The West is also a certain building style. Many photographs are taken against the backdrop of offices, the University of Haifa building, the Shekem building. Once again, an expression of the desire to document a person’s assimilation into the landscape – in its urban version.

Occasionally, there is startling beauty in the photographs, as in the one of a young woman in a pink blouse photographed in front of a glass-clad office building of the same color. A case of randomly created symbolism – a merging of colors, pink being the color of hope – but its incorporation in the collection is presumably not by chance. 

Over time, the immigrants will become accustomed to being here, begin to notice flaws and understand that the local West is only Western in relation to the Soviet Union. They will occasionally aspire to reach the real West – the United States – as the writer of enthusiastic letters from the kibbutz ultimately did, recounts Anna Yam. But in the meantime, in the period documented in the collection, Israel is for them a bountiful West planted smack-dab in the climate of the East. 

Inside the home, however, not everything that is characteristic of Israel was automatically adopted. In a few photographs we see three or even four generations sitting together in the living room. What is the story there? Are some of them guests at the apartment, or do they all live there, as a strict economizing measure forced upon them by the immigration? Or is this, besides considerations of frugality, a hangover from the acute housing shortage that they experienced in the USSR?

The apartments in the photographs are composite entities: perforated shutters and terrazzo tiles that are so typical of Israel, combined with Russian-Soviet furniture that had been packed in Moscow or Riga, placed in crates and brought to Israel. The upholstery is mostly brown, or beige. Some of the carpets are hung on walls – a telltale sign of a “Russian” house that has not yet fully assimilated.

 

V.

The photographs collected from family albums almost always project optimism. Most are very aesthetic. Their colorfulness is pleasing to the eye, and occasionally they feature a perfect matching of colors: a red car corresponds to a red coat worn by one of those standing beside it; the fuchsia-pink color of the tracksuit of one woman (Yam’s mother) matching that of a similar tracksuit worn by another (her aunt) in the same picture. Strong Mediterranean sunlight floods many of the pictures. Only occasionally do we see other kinds of pictures: a young man digging a sewage pit; shirtless men in a factory, performing hard physical work; a woman examining herself in the mirror, pensively, in a dim room; a man in a tank top and shorts lying sprawled on a couch, asleep; a young man at a trailer site such as served as temporary abodes at the time, holding up a sign with the number of the trailer. But these are the exceptions. Such struggles of assimilation, the grayness of daily life, are only sporadically evident in the collection. 

Why is that?

Perhaps because it is the honeymoon period between the immigrants and Israel, a period of great enthusiasm and hopes. Perhaps because whoever poses in front of a camera wants to look their best. Perhaps the photographers and their subjects wanted to project an optimistic picture of the reality of their lives, to fix themselves in their own consciousness as the ones who made it, who did the right thing by emigrating, who had made the right choice. Perhaps they also wanted to project this to those whom they would mail the photographs to. To create a memory that would show their lives in the best light, and fulfill the human need to create a satisfying life story. All these answers are possibly true, and in all likelihood also vary from one case to the next. 

For her part, Anna Yam, too, made certain choices as she composed the collection. For example, many of the photographs produce series: a series of landscape photographs, of office buildings, of cars, landscape photographs framed by a window, photographs next to vegetation, flowers in crystal vases, multi-generational families in a single apartment. This is one of her ways of straddling both sides of the line: an individual photograph may characterize a single person or family, but a series portrays an entire immigration (for example, the crystal vases are a hallmark of a “Russian” house). Her decision to include pictures of people photographing someone or something is also significant, as is the fact that she herself and her family appear in some of them. Yam’s gaze is complex: she is the artist, but also part of this immigration; she assembled the collection, but is also photographed in it. In her gaze, thoughts about the construction of an identity are intertwined with an examination of the nature of the medium of photography. Her gaze reveals a mixture of affection for her subjects and a certain wryness.

In addition to the thematic series, there are several mini-series within the collection – a person or a family who appear in several photographs. The people we saw in the supermarket with the grocery cart also appear – in partial formation, since the photographing husband and the photographed one have switched places – at the exit, next to a car whose trunk is open. The man examining a cactus plant on a windowsill also appears in an interior shot, wearing a blue shirt against a floral red wall tapestry. A family at its home is gazing either at a television set or at a small fir tree behind it, and in another picture they are next to a car full of groceries. These series give the collection a film-like quality, render it a linear medium, and draw the viewer inward – but stop short of revealing everything. After all, holding something back is the essence of temptation. 

Yam’s collection is a three-dimensional album. Even when there is no mini-series, the third dimension is the story that you surmise in every picture – unique and different from any other story. This collection does not allow the observer to pass it by indifferently and superficially, and sparks the urge to gaze at each photograph again and again.