A photographer’s studio is a fascinating place. You may see photos of the photographer’s relatives, friends from the neighborhood, maybe some public officials, or even a prime minister. Look at the pictures carefully; you are looking at history.
Abraham Soskin was a photographer. He was born in Russia in 1881 and made aliyah in 1905. He opened his first studio in the German Colony of Jaffa; later, in 1913, his opened his well-known studio on 24 Herzl Street, Tel Aviv. Over a long career spanning six decades, he photographed individuals and families, prominent figures, public buildings, events, and even the growth of the Jewish Yishuv for the purposes of marketing Zionism in Eretz Yisrael to the rest of the world. At a time when cell phones and social media were ideas as inconceivable as landing on the moon, his life and work represent an incredible accomplishment.
Even the houses in Tel Aviv, where he lived and worked, are special and reflect history, or specifically, architectural trends of the time. His studio was in a building inspired by eclectic architectural styles. His house reflected the International Style in architecture.
Let me take you back 100 years to that famous studio on 24 Herzl Street. What do we find there? Pictures of families. Pictures of adults, children, and babies. Children on tricycles; children on wooden horses; children holding and playing violins. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Brides and grooms. A slice of everyday life during those times.
There are pictures men in various military uniforms. Members of Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization. People dressed up for Purim. Photos featuring different faces of people from across the country. Pictures of celebrated figures, leaders of the Yishuv. For instance, Yehoshua Hankin, the great redeemer of land in Eretz Yisrael, and his wife Olga, who was a midwife. Chaim Weizmann, and SZalmhazar, and Yitzchak Ben Zvi, who would all go on to become future presidents of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister; Pinchas Rothenberg, a Russian-born engineer and businessman who brought electricity to Eretz Yisrael; Arthur Ruppin, the head of the Israel office of the World Zionist Organization; the list goes on and on.
Imagine the figures could come to life and speak, like the portraits on the walls of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories. Would Aaron Aaronsohn, Jewish agronomist and botanist, talk about how he discovered emmer, the “mother of all wheat”? Or would he be eager to tell the story of Nili, the Jewish espionage network he founded to gather intelligence for the British during World War I to undermine Turkish rule and free Eretz Yisrael from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire? Would Avshalom Feinberg, also a member of Nili, finally provide details of how he was killed in the desert on his way to Egypt? Perhaps Israel Shochat, a leading founder of Hashomer, would describe the operations of the famous organization that protected the Yishuv’s agricultural settlements and was a precursor to the Haganah. Perhaps Chaim Nachman Bialik, a pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry and one of the most important figures in Tel Aviv’s cultural scene in the 1920’s would recite In the City of Slaughter. Would author Yosef Haim Brenner explain the terror he felt in the last moment of his life, as he was being beaten to death by an angry Arab mob in 1921 in Beit Yizkar (Yiskar Farm)? Would Meir Dizengoff talk about the glass factory he opened in Tantura in 1892, and of his work during World War I to raise money to prevent the starvation of Jews of the Yishuv? Or would he outline his vision for Tel Aviv, the city to which he devoted so many important years of his life?
Like flies on a wall, we could be witnesses, not only to history but to the innermost thoughts and feelings of the leaders, writers, philosophers, teachers, and businessmen who lived through those legendary years.
More than a hundred years ago, someone took a stroll on the sand dunes somewhere north of Jaffa. He would have spotted a group of people huddled together, and maybe he would have recognized the Zionist activist Akiva Aryeh Weiss in the center of the circle. He may have watched as Weiss pulled shells out of a hat and called out the numbers of plots of land. He may have known that he was witnessing history, but maybe he just thought it was an interesting shot. Though not invited to do so, he set up his camera and immortalized one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the State of Israel: the draw for the plots of the planned neighborhood of Ahuzat Bayit that would become Tel Aviv. There it is: history captured by Soskin’s camera and handed down to future generations.
What would have happened had Soskin not passed by at that moment? Without his rich archives of photos, how much more would researchers and history lovers have had to to piece together with the help of their imaginations? How could historians and conservators preserve historic buildings with accuracy? How “real” would history be for us without the unique photos of Abraham Soskin and others who documented life with the simple cameras of the time?
Thank you, Avraham Soskin, for your legacy.