Gerda Luft, Cultural Life in Palestine, 1944-1945, Review of Events July 1944 to July 1945,in The Palestine Yearbook,  Sophie A. Udin (Ed.), Zionist Organization of America, Volume 1, Washington, DC,    5706 – 1945 (reprinted with permission)

This is a nine-page review of Hebrew culture in Palestine,  including music, the fine arts, literature,  and the theater. The annual Palestine Year Books are available on-line, from 1945 forward, changing names in 1948-49 to the Israel Yearbook. Each volume has sterling summaries of politics, economics, living conditions, arts, Jewish demography, enumerations of the leading Jewish/Zionist organizations across the world, and short analytical assessments of the topics of the past year written by leading Zionist, American, Israeli officials, and those resident in various countries of the world. These assessments and summaries are most generally, cogent and valuable snapshots of the state of Zionist and Israel affairs domestically, with its region and the state of Jewish life throughout the world.  The Yearbooks are also available from used book outlets.  

Crossing Allenby Street, the main thoroughfare of the all Jewish town of Tel-Aviv on a Saturday evening, when everybody is taking the air and looking forward to a few

hours of entertainment, a visitor new to Palestine asked his guide how many people there were in the city. When told that it had not reached even the 200,000 mark he shook his head in astonishment, looking at the streets thronged with people and at the crowded side-walk cafes. Stopping before an advertising-board his surprise was even greater. He could make his choice among a number of concerts and theatrical performances, among entertainments of a more serious or a lighter sort. And that, of course, in addition to six or seven cinema houses with films from America, Russia and Britain. Having decided where to go, he would probably have still another surprise in store for him. Almost every hall and every performance is crowded and it is often impossible to get seats if they are not reserved in advance. The moderate sized town of Tel-Aviv may well compete with older and larger towns in every field of cultural activity.


When we try to review cultural 1ife in the Jewish sector of Palestine we must bear in mind that the Jewish community in the country today is only little more than 550,000 people, that is, equal to that of a medium sized town in America or Europe. Against this background, cultural activities appear or an extraordinarily wide scope and variety. The Hebrew press, for instance, has developed rapidly. There appear today eight dailies in the country and some fifty weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, ranging from the political field to literature, the fine arts, the

humanities, bibliography, history and professional specialties. Papers are smaller in size than before the war, due to the paper shortage, but even in wartime new dailies and

weeklies have been founded, and the development of the press is sure to continue as new immigrants acquire a working knowledge of Hebrew and thus increase the demand for newspapers and periodicals.

Cultural life in Palestine, so far as it depends on the written and spoken word, is closely bound up with the revival of the language and the efforts to develop a Jewish

Palestinian culture allied to ancient Hebrew thought and literature, but drawing its impulse from the new life of Zionist colonisation. Therefore its main features, obstacles

and achievements are to be judged by a standard all its own. We must measure books which are published not only by their artistic and literary value, but also by their capacity to enrich the spoken and written language, to coin new words in order to adjust modern Hebrew to the manyfold and varied requirements of twentieth-century life and to give expression to the new forms of settlement in the country.

Translations must play and do play a very important part in modern Jewish Palestine. A decade or two ago almost everybody in the country spoke and read at least one European language in addition to Hebrew, which was introduced into the home by the children returning from kindergartens and schools. Today a new generation is

growing up which speaks Hebrew as its mother-tongue and acquires at best a working knowledge of English and perhaps some Arabic. These young people depend for their education and their reading matter primarily on Hebrew publications. During the last two decades many of the classics of European literature have been translated into Hebrew and many of the foremost Hebrew writers have devoted their time and their knowledge to this important task. There is practically no limit to the work to be done in this field. The classic literature of the whole world should be made available to the children growing up in the country. In addition there is a growing demand for topical books, works on the humanities and sciences, as well as for modern fiction whether from America, Britain or Russia.

Text-books for the growing network of elementary and secondary schools and books for children and adolescents, provide writers and publishers with work of primary importance. Here translations play an important role. There are a number of writers who have acquired a reputation by their children’s books, inspired mainly by life in the country as it develops today.

The war and the prosperity fostered by full employment caused a notable expansion of the Hebrew book market. As all over the world, the demand for books grew in Palestine during the war and people were not only satisfied to read but were also ready to buy books. This development was especially pronounced in Palestine, because large numbers of immigrants who had not known Hebrew before, acquired a knowledge of the language and began to take an interest in Hebrew publications.

A few years ago a printing of two thousand copies of a book was considered quite an achievement in Palestine. Now four and five thousand copies are not unusual. For a

population of somewhat over half a million, part of which is still unable to read Hebrew, these figures prove a remarkable interest in books. During recent years existing publishing firms have expanded and new ones have been founded, several of them by the Labor movement. These firms developed a subscription scheme, supplying their subscribers with one book a month at a considerably reduced price. Thus a market for a fixed number of copies was ensured.

It is remarkable that the expansion of the book-trade, which can be traced in every field from fiction and poetry to Jewish and general history, economics, politics, sociology, psychology, education, etc., continues even though Hebrew books are fairly expensive today. This is partly the result of the inflation now prevalent in the country and partly ofthe paper shortage. At the same time shops are crammed with hooks imported from America and Britain, which are cheap in comparison. These, too find many buyers and readers and the interest in English literature and topical works is stimulated by the activities of the British Council in Palestine. Publishers are well aware that part of their expanding trade is due to war prosperity. Nevertheless they are confident of the future of Hebrew publishing. Jews have always been eager readers, and as deflation is expected after the war, Hebrew books will become much

cheaper and thus be able to hold their own. There will always be a demand for the Hebrew classics which are printed in new and revised editions and are to be found on almost every book-shelf. Translations will be needed on an ever increasing scale and many of the Hebrew writers in the country have already made a name for themselves.

It must be specially noted that the demand for Hebrew books is today not confined to a small group of intellectuals. The reading public includes a large part of the population

and is especially numerous in the agricultural settlements, which take great pride in collecting in their reading rooms a considerable library and pay attention to everything new that appears on the Hebrew market. It is certainly a unique feature of Jewish Palestine that its agricultural community unlike that of most other countries, is not backward but takes a lively interest in every new publication.

It is estimated that during recent years two new books have been published daily. It might be of interest to name some of the works which have been issued in Hebrew during recent years: Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Seneca’s Moral Letters, parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, selections from Rousseau’s Emile, Goethe’s Faust, selections from Heine, works by Macaulay, Tolstoi, Tchechov, Gorky. Among modern writers there were Maugham, Priestly, Greenwood, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Prakosh. Among topical hooks those by Ilja Ehrenburg, Eve Curie, John Gunther, Willkie, Quentin Reynolds, Wassilewska and others have been made available to the Hebrew public.


Among the many and diversified activities in the cultural field perhaps music holds first place. There is the Palestine Orchestra chamber-music; a number of soloists; the orchestra of the Jerusalem Broadcasting Station; a folk opera; various choirs, and the standard of many performances is fairly high. The rapid development of musical life in Palestine is due to two chief causes: Firstly the Jews brought with them a lively interest in music and many of them were accustomed to the very high standards of Central Europe. But in the other branches of art (for instance literature and the theatre) they had to overcome the obstacles of the Hebrew revival) they could “import” music, because it is international and knows no language-or to

state it differently-has a language of its own. Secondly, with the coming of Hitler Jewish musicians were squeezed out of Europe and Hubermann seized the opportunity in 1936 of founding the Palestine Orchestra which gave its first performance under the baton of Toscanini. Until the war started famous conductors and soloists visited Palestine to play with the Palestine Orchestra and the country had the good fortune of getting a big orchestra “readymade.” Since the war foreign conductors and soloists could not visit Palestine, and the orchestra continued its work under three Palestinian conductors. Its performances include classical and modern music and works by Palestinian composers. The Orchestra has visited Egypt, the Lebanon and military camps. It performs in the three towns, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa and also in the larger colonies. Among its performances is the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, for which a large choir was trained.

Chamber music plays a prominent part in musical life in Palestine, There are several quartets, duos and trios, some of them formed by members of the orchestra. The Museum of Tel-Aviv has made its special task to foster chamber music and arranges a concert every week, where the music lover can hear everything from Bach to Ravel. In Jerusalem and Haifa, too, chamber music is constantly heard.

Soloists have come from abroad, among them many pianists. A number of young local talents have appeared in recent years, such as Pninah Salzmann, who toured South Africa last year and isnow touring Australia on her way to the United States. Ella Goldstein, another young

pianist, has visited South Africa.

The latest sensation of Palestinian musical life is Sigi Weissenberg, an immigrant who recently arrived from Bulgaria. He gave several concerts in Palestine and connoisseurs of music were united in their opinion that he promises to be a pianist of international fame. The world is sure to hear more of him.

In addition to pianists there are violinists, cellists, singers, flutists and clarinetists. One of the outstanding among the latter, Gys Karten, is a Gentile from Holland who joined the Palestine Orchestra when it was founded and has remained in the country ever since.

The orchestra of the Jerusalem Broadcasting Station under Salomon has two conductors and is the only orchestra in the Near East which performs European classical music. Jewish and Arab music is played too and special attention is paid to the works of young local composers.

The folk-opera, which was founded some years ago with soloists who came from Central Europe, especially from Czechoslovakia, and with some Palestinian singers, plays classical operetta and Italian Opera. The ballet of Gertrud Kraus of Vienna has greatly contributed to the success of the opera. This year an opera, “The Watchman,” the first written by a Palestinian composer was performed.

Among the most interesting features of musical life in Palestine are the folk choruses which are fostered especially in the agricultural settlements. Folk and art choral works are sung, classical European as well as Jewish new ones and old. Last year the choruses met in the Emek for a great “Saengerfest”. A chorus of English soldiers participated. The conductors of these choral groups are specially trained and the choruses play an important part in the musical education of the settlements. There the new Palestinian songs are fostered; often they originate in them.

Another special trait of Palestinian musical life is the wide use of recorder-flutes which are played especially by children in the towns and settlements and manufactured in Alonim, one of the Kibbuzim in the Emek.

Musical Conservatories exist in the three towns and in some of the larger colonies. In addition to instrumental instruction they teach musical theory.

Palestinian composers are united in their endeavor to develop Jewish melodies often in connection with texts from the Bible. All of them are adherents of modern music. Some try to find the way to Oriental songs and pay special attention to Arab music. Lectures on music are frequent and give the public the historical and theoretical background for the understanding of classical and modern works.

Fine Arts

In the development of painting and the graphic arts the Museum in Tel-Aviv and the Bezalel-Institute in Jerusalem play an important part. For the education of the young and the development of knowledge and taste, it is of primary importance that the opportunity be provided for seeing good pictures and getting an inkling of the great achievements of the past. Here, as in so many other fields, Palestine Jewry had to start from scratch. Meir Dizengoff, the first Mayor of Tel-Aviv, rendered a great service to the community when he started to collect paintings, left his house to the town and converted it into a museum. The museum of Tel-Aviv has developed favorably and was fortunate in acquiring a considerable number of good paintings from the period of Rembrandt and Rubens to that of Liebermann and Chagall. Its tasteful exhibition hall provides a beautiful frame for the weekly chamber’ music concerts which never fail to draw an appreciative audience. Recently the museum bought the valuable collection of

Herrmann Struck comprising 1,600 drawings, etchings and woodcuts by famous artists, among them Liebermann, Israels, Chagall, Rodin, Uri, Pissaro and others.

The museum arranges three types of exhibitions. Every month an exhibition of Palestinian artists gives local painters an opportunity to show their work to the public.

Secondly, there are exhibitions of pieces selected from the graphic collection of the museum (15,000 pieces). There was, for instance, an exhibition on the technique and history of etchings, one on the landscape in etchings, one each of etchings by Goya, Daumier and Chagall. Thirdly, there are exhibitions on special themes, as e.g. French art of a given century, the wooden synagogues of Poland, the theatre until 1800, English graphic art in the past 200 years.

These exhibitions draw ever growing crowds and contribute much to the education of the public, part of which has never had an opportunity to enjoy works of art.

Travelling exhibitions are arranged forthe agricultural settlements. For this purpose excellent prints are used, of which the museum has a large collection. For every exhibition

a printed introduction is prepared. These exhibitions are also sent to military camps and lent to schools.

The museum has collected a library on art and pays special attention to arts and crafts, which promise to play an ever increasing role in the economy of Palestine.

The Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem works along the same lines; its travelling exhibits are even more developed. Jewish art plays a bigger role there than in Tel-Aviv. In the three towns there are private picture-galleries, for use by Palestinian artists.

During recent years interest in painting and the fine arts has been growing. Youth organizations and schools make use of the facilities offered by the institutions. Some exhibitions draw many thousands of visitors. For the soldiers of many nations who have come to Palestine during the war the concerts and exhibitions have often been a heaven-sent opportunity. They never expected to find in the Near East an enclave of European cultural life, which enabled

them to listen to good music, to visit art exhibitions, etc.

The Theatre

In the same way as the Hebrew book, the Hebrew theatre is closely bound up with the revival of the Hebrew language. There are today two theatres in the country “Habima,” which derives its tradition from the Russian stage and won much fame in its first tours abroad and the

“Ohel,”which was formed in Palestine and is connected with the Labor movement.  During the war the Hebrew theatre has devoted part of its repertoire to war-plays: Priestley’s Desert Highway, some Russian plays, Ernest Hemingway.  In addition modern and classical plays are performed: At present “Phedre” by Racine and a play by Shaw are in preparation.  Plays by Palestinian authors are also performed.  The two theatres play in the three towns and sometimes in the settlements.  

During the last year, the Hebrew theatre has come in for some lively criticism.  It was pointed out that there were no young talents, that the actors have become too much used to their accustomed style and do not show enough versatility, that the repertoire was not what it should be.  This criticism is fruitful.  Nobody is going to deny the great achievements of the Hebrew theatre which had to work out its way without a tradition, with a relatively small audience and in a language which is only now acquiring the resilience and elasticity of the spoken word.  On the other hand, only with the help of bold criticism can progress be made and the theatre enabled to fulfill the functions it is called upon to fulfill in the growing Jewish community.

For many years there has existed by the side of the “Habima” and “Ohel” the “Matateh,” a troup which follows the daily life of the Yishuv with light satirical comments.  Without obviously high ambition the “Matateh” has been able to make a place for itself in the artistic life of the country and furnishes the touch of humor which is so necessary and welcome in the often high-strung atmosphere of Palestine.

Looking at the cultural life in Palestine as a whole, the main impression is one of almost bewildering quantity.  There are no statistics available, but it could easily be proven that the output of books and papers, the number of lectures on almost every topic under the sun, the number of concerts of all kinds, of theatrical and operatic performances and art exhibitions is higher in relation to the population than anywhere else in the world.  This can be explained partly by the fact that supply stimulates demand.  Artists of all kinds, expelled by Hitler have flocked to Palestine since 1933.  Some of them, especially musicians, were able to continue their work here.  Others, for instance those on the stage, had to adjust themselves to the Hebrew language.  A great part of them, coming from an artistically highly developed environment brought with them high standards of performance.

All these found a public eager to listen and enjoy.  And the prosperity of recent years has contributed to the rapid development of culture life.  For a young country like Palestine, quantity, the sheer number of experiments, is of foremost importance.  The artist of international fame, the first-rate book, the painting of enduring value are the result of numberless endeavors of humbler artists who paved the way for the great talent.  Only if an opportunity is given to the many can the few succeed.

Development of cultural activities in recent years has profited by the “import” of artists.  Palestine drew many of them from the Galut.  But the treasures brought by them were circulated among a wide public and one of the most characteristic features of our cultural life today is that it is not confined to the drawing rooms of the well-to-do but draws strength from the agricultural settlements and the working population in the towns. In Kfar Giladi there is a library of 15,000 volumes.  In almost every kibutz you will find people interested in music, literature and painting.  The Hebrew University in Jerusalem succeeds in bringing its teaching activities to agricultural communities.  The heritage which the Jews brought from Europe is used here to the full.

It is of course much too early to talk of a genuine Jewish Palestinian culture.  This must grow slowly as colonization expands, children grow up, Hebrew writers develop the language, painters learn to understand and interpret the Palestinian landscape.  Sometimes people in Palestine are impatient because the Jews in Palestine do not yet reach the standards of international art, that ambitions clash with the limitation of a small country and a new-old language.  But it must not be forgotten that culture cannot be made; it must grow.  To make it grow Palestine looks to the inspiration of ancient Hebrew literature, to the changing world of American and Europe and above all, to the new life stirring in the land itself.