Asaf Harari, an Israeli graphic designer, remembers his travels to California fondly, enjoying the slightly irreverent way some Americans commemorate the country’s history. “In the United States, every gift shop sells figurines of movie stars, cartoon characters, athletes, and politicians such as President Obama,” he reminisced. It was these trips which made him wonder whether such figurines would be popular in Israel. In 2010, while studying Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he launched his design studio Piece of History. When his first figurine depicting Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, sold out in a matter of months, he knew he had something special.
Today, Piece of History produces a full line of Israeli historic action figures, including Prime Ministers Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, and Menachem Begin. The company also sells t-shirts, posters, and other pieces of Zionist and Jewish-themed collectibles. “I believe that souvenirs and collectibles are part of any country’s identity; they’re not only for tourists,” Harari said.
These collectibles are examples of an ongoing and growing movement of modern Israelis developing new, hip designs for our generation. Tired of clunky, outdated pieces, artists and designers throughout Israel are producing modern curios appropriate for hipper households. Harari describes it as a drive to “bring modern style to the historic culture of Israel, Judaism and Zionism.”
Another artist remaking the tchotchke is Australian-born Barbara Shaw, who owns her own shop on trendy Emek Refaim in Jerusalem’s German Colony. When she moved to Israel in the 1980s with her family, she bemoaned the lack of creative expression in Jewish gifts. She sees herself as “part of a new confident Israeli style that has been merging of late in all fields of design.” Her shop is filled with brightly-colored stationary, mugs, aprons and Judaica, emblazoned with English, Hebrew and Yiddish phrases. A line of neon-colored aprons can be purchased for your cool dad (abba sababa, in Hebrew), your funky Polish mother (ima polaniah giz’it), or the barbeque-er (melech hamangal – king of the grill) in your life. English choices illustrate recipes for the “best challahs,” “best potato latkes,” or “magical chicken soup.”
In a Jerusalem Post interview back in 2012, Shaw admitted, “My art is my form of Zionism. Jerusalem has a reputation as a heavy sort of place. I’m trying to lighten it up in my own way with colorful, fun, bold and zany designs. What makes me happy is seeing people laugh at the expressions on our products. It’s easy to make people cry, but not so easy to make them laugh. I love the humor.”
Harari and Shaw represent a desire for Israelis to define their Judaism and nationalism in creative, new ways. The added bonus is that we get to decorate our homes with their imaginative art.
Merav Ceren was born in Israel, grew up in Southern California, and has now returned home. She holds a BA in International Relations from UCI, where she led the re-establishment of Anteaters for Israel, and is pursuing her Masters in International Relations from Syracuse University.