The Story of the First Hebrew Animated Film

Even the creators of the short animated film “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi” didn’t think it was any good

A young Yemenite-Jewish boy wanders the streets of Tel Aviv. He tries his hand at a string of jobs, but doesn’t last long at any of them. He looks for love and finds it, but only after many trials and tribulations, including floating above 1930s Tel Aviv while clutching hold of a cluster of balloons, for example. This is the basic plot of “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi,” considered to be the first Hebrew animated film ever made.

The original Gadi ben Susi, you may recall, was one of the twelve spies Moses sent into the Land of Canaan ahead of the entry of the Israelites. He was a representative of the tribe of Manasseh, and this was the only time his name appeared in the Bible. Those familiar with the story will remember that, with the exception of Kalev ben Yefune and Joshua ben Nun, all the spies were considered sinners because they spoke critically of the land. This then is the possible allusion contained within the name of the star of our film. Was there any special intent in selecting this biblical name or was it just a random choice? We’ll let our readers decide.

Young Gadi, as noted, was apparently a newly-arrived immigrant who, based on his hair and clothes, was born in Yemen. According to the captions, his immigration to the Land of Israel transformed him into a new man and now, the time had come, after having studied Torah, for Gadi to find work. Setting out to roam the streets of little Tel Aviv, he hears a cry for help, but like Don Quixote, he misjudges the situation and ends up in trouble with the police. Next, he tries his hand at selling ice cream and roasted almonds, against a backdrop featuring iconic Tel Aviv buildings of the day, such as the famous Herzliya Gymnasia high school.

The iconic Herzliya Gymnasia high school building, as featured in the film

The style is entirely dream-like and surrealist: limbs can suddenly stretch to outrageous lengths, Gadi is swallowed up by an ice cream truck, and his future lover is able to save him from a deep well with the help of an especially flexible palm tree and, of course, the power of love. The plot is rather lacking and the characters are two-dimensional, but a twist lies in wait. We won’t give away the ending, however.

Gadi soars over Tel Aviv while clutching a bunch of balloons

A few technical details about the film: it is silent and contains no soundtrack whatsoever. The plot is advanced with the help of slides containing narrative text and dialogue.  The drawings are in black and white. It is eight minutes long and was produced in 1931. For the sake of comparison, we should bear in mind that four years earlier, another black and white animated film starring a famous mouse had captured the world’s imagination. Alas, this was not the fate of our Gadi, whose own creators would end up making fun of him.

The film was produced by the Agadati brothers, Baruch and Yitzhak, who were among the founders of the Hebrew film industry in Israel. They hired the talented poet Avigdor Hameiri to write whimsical rhymes for the project, and the artist and cartoonist Arye Navon, who was put in charge of animation. Much can be written about all of them, beginning with the fact that all three arrived in Mandatory Palestine on the famous ship Ruslan. However, we will focus here on the illustrator, whom we can safely call the first Hebrew animator in the Land of Israel.

Arye Navon, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Arye Navon was born in Ukraine and as mentioned, arrived in Palestine in 1919 with his family. He and two of his brothers, three out of a family of five siblings, became artists. Over the course of his long career, he drew caricatures for the Do’ar HaYom newspaper, as well as for Davar. In addition, he illustrated books by major authors and poets, painted portraits, designed scenery for the theater and created comic strips.

In his autobiography Bekav u-bekhtav (“In Line and Script”), published shortly before his death, Navon concisely described the process of the making of the animated film (he even mistakenly called the character “Yossi ben Gadi”): “For around ten days I sat in [Agadati’s] studio and drew many pictures. Agadati, together with his brother Yitzhak, photographed the drawings on the animation table, which was quite primitively constructed. The electric lamps that lit the illustrations were placed on top of a special structure. Yitzhak would climb to the top and adjust the light from there. Another problem was that the light attracted flies, which would land on the drawings. In the screen test, these photogenic flies looked like elephants . . . it was a pretty awful film. Walt Disney did it much better. At any rate, it was the first animated film in the country.”

Returning once again to our Gadi, this “pretty awful” film did not leave much of an impression on the Israeli film industry, and its single claim to fame is that it was indeed “the first.” It played for only a week before it disappeared into oblivion. Luckily, it can still be viewed today thanks to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.


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When the Egyptians Bombed Tel Aviv

Despite its somewhat hedonistic and detached image, the city of Tel Aviv faced its share of difficulties during the War of Independence. So what does Leonard Bernstein have to do with all this?


The Tel Aviv central bus station after the attack by the Egyptians. The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium collection, Bitmuna

If you’ve read The Other Side of the Coin (Hebrew) by Uri Avnery, you may recall the stories of a sense of bitterness which spread among Israeli soldiers in 1948. This feeling stemmed from the impression that while the soldiers were risking their lives at the various fronts, the citizens of Tel Aviv were going about their merry lives in the bustling Jewish metropolis on the Mediterranean coast. Avnery, a journalist turned activist/politician who would eventually become an icon of the Israeli left, described his feelings in blunt detail from his time on home leave. While this narrative concerning the Tel Aviv “bubble” and its reputation for hedonism remains somewhat relevant to this day, the truth is the city suffered its share of hardships during the most difficult of Israel’s wars. In the spring and summer of 1948, Tel Aviv was bombed repeatedly by the Egyptian Air Force.

The Palestine Post, May 20th, 1948

And this is where the camera suddenly freezes and our record screeches to a halt. Let’s rewind a bit and get some background: The War of Independence was already underway. Only two days after the State of Israel declared its independence, Egyptian warplanes appeared in the skies over the first Hebrew city. On May 18th, 1948, the Tel Aviv central bus station was bombed in the deadliest attack carried out by the Egyptians. These bombing runs lasted for about a month on a nearly daily basis, until June 11th. Sirens went off incessantly. An additional round of bombings began in July 1948. Simultaneously, in early June, Egyptian ships reached the waters off Tel Aviv and began shelling the city. Later on, Egyptian planes would continue to exploit the vulnerability of the nearly non-existent Israeli Air Force, conducting sorties over central Israel.

Upon hearing the sirens…pedestrians must evacuate the streets and gather in the lower floors of nearby buildings…” A poster published by the Tel Aviv municipality with guidelines in case of an attack. The Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel


Another part of this story begins some time earlier, in the days of the British Mandate, when the acclaimed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein first arrived in the Land of Israel in April 1947. This was the first time he played with the local Philharmonic Orchestra, and the maestro was immediately captivated by the charm of the small Jewish Yishuv.

It appeared Bernstein not only fell in love with the new country which was struggling to survive; he would also make a considerable contribution to the war effort. On a 60-day tour which included no less than 40 shows, Bernstein performed several times for soldiers scattered in different corners of the land. Some of you may have heard of Leonard Cohen’s special performances for Israeli soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur war, but it turns out he was not the first famous Jewish “Leonard” to do so.

Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic Orchestra perform for soldiers in Be’er Sheva, November 1948. Photo credit: Hugo Mendelson, GPO


The lack of a significant Israeli Air Force affected Bernstein’s concerts with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in the Tel Aviv area. David Sidorsky, who was then an overseas volunteer with the IDF and who would later become a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, described one of the concerts he attended. He told of how everyone who was present at the concert – including the orchestra musicians and Bernstein himself – was evacuated to a nearby bomb shelter after an Egyptian plane was identified flying over Tel Aviv.



When the plane had left the area, Bernstein continued conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. The incident repeated itself 10 or 12 times, according to Sidorsky. Every time a plane flew overhead, a siren went off and everyone headed to the shelter. Every time the ‘all-clear’ signal was given, the crowd reentered the hall and Bernstein and the musicians continued the performance. “He was determined to complete the Sixth Symphony!” said Sidorsky.



Indeed, this wasn’t the only time Bernstein’s concerts coincided with Egyptian attacks. We found evidence of at least one other concert interrupted by Egyptian planes – and there may have been more. In another incident, a crisis almost arose at a concert held in Be’er Sheva for a few thousand soldiers. The large gathering raised the Egyptians’ suspicions and they even planned to divert forces to the area, out of concern that Israel was planning an offensive in the Negev region. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President later commented on the Egyptian reaction: “After all, who would make time for a Mozart concerto in the middle of a war?” In fact, the IDF actually did carry out an attack on a different area of the Negev at the same time, with Bernstein’s concert serving as a diversion.

“The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Be’er Sheva” Davar, November 26th, 1948


An estimated 150 people were killed in the attacks on Tel Aviv. Though the city’s suffering was somewhat forgotten within the context of the ongoing war, Tel Aviv’s perseverance and ability to withstand enemy attacks contributed greatly to the Israeli victory in the war. After all, this was the location of headquarters for the IDF and the various underground organizations as well as the institutions of the young state. The war could not have been won, without the homefront doing its part.

The bombs left their impressions on the citizens of Tel Aviv. Years later, a child from the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, who had witnessed the deadly Egyptian attack on the Tel Aviv central bus station, wrote a piercing Hebrew poem, based on his painful memories: “It was at the age of three / that my youth was lost forever / on the way from preschool to the shelter // planes with their beautiful wings/ flew swiftly above me / leaving me, my face covered in dust.” This child was Hanoch Levin, who would become one of Israel’s greatest playwrights. The poem, ‘It Was at the Age of Three’ , was given a melody composed by Zohar Levy and included in Levin’s classic play ‘Queen of a Bathtub’.


This article was written with the help of the Toldot Yisrael Collection, which records the testimonies of the 1948 generation.


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“Stranger Things” in Jerusalem: Goethe and Goebbels in the Ticho Family Garden

How Else Lasker-Schüler ventured into her own alternate universe in downtown Jerusalem…

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

We may imagine the Ticho family garden in its heyday: a serene spot in the midst of a slowly expanding city, pine trees providing a sanctuary of scent and occasional shade; Patients of the famous eye doctor quietly erring across the garden path into the clinic, their companions catching a glimpse of Anna Ticho’s drawings and aquarelles; British Government officials, emigre intellectuals and local artists strolling the grounds while contemplating the state of the Mandate and of the escalating War in Europe.

Or we could delve into Else Lasker-Schüler’s version of this garden. In her play “I and I”, completed in Jerusalem in 1943, the poet conjures up a dystopic alternative to the eye doctor’s “tropical garden”. This “garden of hell” could be described as an early slapstick version of the “Upside-Down” – the parallel universe featured in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is able to move between both gardens, while Goebbels, Goering and other figures are confined to the diabolical garden. The rest of the horrific yet humorous cast consists of Faust, Mephisto, Max Reinhardt, the poet herself, a scarecrow, the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, and other historical and fictional characters from the German literary and theatre worlds or from the country’s political and military elite.

Else Lasker-Schüler, February 1919, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The play itself was written during Else Lasker-Schüler’s period of forced exile in Jerusalem, after the Swiss Authorities had refused her re-entry to the country in 1939. By 1941, when she began writing “I and I”, she was already seventy years old and a distinguished poet and painter, although now deemed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazi regime. In Jerusalem she would publish her most famous poetry volume, “My Blue Piano”, through the Tarshish Publishing House in 1943. During these years she continued to paint and worked on her third play, which was not staged during her lifetime.

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Her young admirer, the literary scholar and writer Werner Kraft, likewise a refugee from Germany since 1934, settled in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, where he wrote his major studies on Karl Kraus and Rudolf Borchardt. Mostly working from the desk at his home, he wrote a journal chronicling and reflecting upon the fate of German-Jewish refugees amidst the urban and rural communities of the yishuv. His entries on Else Lasker-Schüler from these days include a passage from July 24th, 1941, in which he fittingly depicts the courageous and outrageous imagination of Else Lasker-Schüler, which reaches its creative peak in the play “I and I”: “She speaks of Wolfgang Ephraim Goethe, divides herself into Faust and Mephisto, lets the latter claim to have saved the former from the ‘bourgeoisie’. She lets the devil capitulate in face of this world of Hitlers, has Goebbels copulate with Mrs. Martha Schwertlein, and evokes all the magic of the old, noble Germany. She breaks grammar rules, sometimes writes in verse or in a “platt” everyday language, generates associative rhymes like children or the sick, yet with an overall effect of shattering greatness” (originally quoted in Marbacher Magazin 71, 1975).

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Indeed, the play moves between past and present, Germany and Jerusalem, and even contains a play within a play. It portrays awe-inspiring literary magnets alongside the devils of their day. While Goebbels appears in the play as a diabolical pleb, the Nazi Minister had in fact impacted Else Lasker-Schüler’s personal fate, as she notes in several letters from the 1930s to friends and acquaintances. She names Goebbels as directly responsible for banning her works and inciting violence against her. These letters are scattered among the two main portions of her archive, kept at the National Library in Jerusalem and the German Literary Archive (DLA) in Marbach, Germany. Examples include letters she wrote to Emil Raas and Fritz Strich, which are kept at both archives.

In a long letter to Professor Strich from December 1934, for example, Lasker-Schüler bewails her last days in Berlin before fleeing to Zurich. She speaks particularly of Goebbels who vilified and haunted her on the radio, in newspapers and in pamphlets handed out on the street. She continues to painfully note how she was beaten in public, had stones thrown at her and was encouraged by her landlord to leave, since he no longer felt he could guarantee her safety. Upon arrival in Zurich she had no choice but to sleep six nights on a bench by the lake because none of her acquaintances were in town (letter kept at the DLA). The letter is sealed with a drawing of a female and male figure with a new moon hung above them and relates to brief descriptions of the poet’s recent trip to “The Land of the Hebrews” and the fantastical travel journal she was writing.

The fusion of fact and fiction in the above letter is repeated, albeit in heightened fashion, in “The Land of the Hebrews” and later in “I and I”. In the play, Lasker-Schüler also moves between real and imagined locations, all inhabited by historical and fictional figures from both the past and the present. The sixth act of  “I and I“ takes place in the “eye doctor’s garden” where the “princely poet” – Else Lasker-Schüler herself – converses with a well-read scarecrow who tells her of his past travels with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Hermann’s Dorothea. The poet herself claims not to read much because she disdains the sound of pages turning. Among the many characters evoked and transformed in the play, the scarecrow in the sixth act takes on a unique, transgressive position – he is on the one hand a well-read, cultured figure who in the past accompanied literary giants, yet is now kept at the end of a “tropical garden” with no food at his disposal. This we may read as a reflection of the poet’s state: on her material and intellectual isolation in exile, her banishment into this “tropical garden” of Eretz Israel where tea parties and salon conversations take place, but from where she nonetheless longs for her past life.

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

The poet’s state in the world is an ongoing topic in Else Lasker-Schüler’s writing long before her exile, yet the “banishment of the poet” becomes a real and thematic trope in her writings and painting after 1933. The National Library holds many paintings and drawings of Else Lasker-Schüler, one in fact named “The Banished Poet”. It was completed between 1935 and 1942. Lasker-Schüler added the year “1933”, probably for symbolic value, as well as lines from her first poetry volume “Styx” from 1902 from which she frequently quoted to her friend and muse Ernst Simon in Jerusalem during her years there. The painting is both thematically and aesthetically typical of Else Lasker-Schüler during these years, when she was already complaining about pains in her arm but also insisting that she “must paint”. The iconic left profile features flat pencil strokes, with depth and color added by the use of red, blue and yellow crayons.

The appearance is Oriental, of course: apart from the Egyptian profile, the wide clothes and pointy shoes also remind us of the famous 1912 photograph from Berlin in which the poet is dressed as an Oriental prince, a figure that slowly emerges during these years in prose volumes like The Nights of Tino from Baghdad (1907) or The Prince of Thebes (1914).

Else Lasker-Schüler as an Oriental prince, 1912

The melancholic and perhaps even resigned recline of the poet’s figure in the painting preempts a far more confusing and deliberately split personality in “I and I”. Here the poet does not fold in the face of evil that conquers the world, or refrain from confrontation with the Mephistos, Goebbels or Goerings. Her fate and dealings with the world continue the paradigmatic Faustian split in the attempt to confront the forces of good and bad in the world. In the eye doctor’s garden, she glimpses her very own past, as well as Germany’s, in the hollow, hungry figure of the scarecrow. The playwright thus dangles the audience intermittently between metaphysics and history, between poetry and politics, between the hellish garden of Nazi horror and the estate of a renowned Jerusalem eye doctor.


You can find Else Lasker-Schüler’s Archive at the National Library of Israel


This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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Football Under the Auspices of His Majesty

When Jewish and Arab teams faced off against footballers from the Royal Air Force...

The King’s Own Royal Regiment v. Hapoel Tel Aviv, November 21st, 1931

During the years of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel (1917-1948), thousands of British citizens including government, police and military personnel found themselves stationed in the region, living alongside its Jewish and Arab residents. Although football, (or soccer, for American readers) was played here before the British conquest, the sport received a significant push under the nation considered to be the birthplace of the game, as all three major population groups participated, each with their own football clubs competing against each other in tournament play. British, Arab and Jewish teams from this period had names such as The Paymasters, Shabab al-‘Arab and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

In 1928, the Eretz Israel Football Association was founded (at the suggestion of Egypt), and one of the conditions for its acceptance into FIFA was the inclusion of all population groups in the country. League matches were held between Arab, Jewish and British teams, and, in principle, if not always in practice, players from the three populations were even selected for an all-star national team that played against teams from other countries.

Common Ground

When thinking about the relations between population groups in  Mandatory Palestine, one tends to get the impression that a state of constant confrontation and conflict existed between Jews and Arabs. A similar image of hostility between the Jews and the British during the Mandate Period also comes to mind, mainly with regard to the struggle of Jewish groups such as the Irgun (Etzel) and Stern Gang (Lechi) against the British authorities, as well as opposition to British treatment of illegal Jewish immigrants (ma’apilim) during this period. Nonetheless, the sporting ties between Jews, Arabs and the British, as manifested in football, suggest that at least in the realm of sport, a single complex reality existed in which cooperation was the rule and not the exception. While national identity remained a key characteristic of sports in Mandatory Palestine, athletic events served as an arena for encounters between diverse communities.

This does not mean that the tension did not affect the relationships between athletes. For example, due to the protests sparked in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel) following publication of the Passfield White Paper in 1930, games between British and Jewish clubs were halted; and in 1934, in protest against the treatment to which they were subjected, the Arab teams left the Eretz Israel Football Association, establishing a short-lived parallel organization of their own. It must also be noted, though, that crowds were known to extend warm receptions to teams from other population groups. For example, a newspaper report on a game between the Muslim Club of Jaffa and Maccabi Rehovot held at the Rehovot Soccer Field in 1941, stated: “The Arab team was welcomed with friendly enthusiasm by the football fans in Rehovot.” Throughout the Mandate period, the rulings of the Association were made in the spirit of good sportsmanship and without any evident bias in favor of the Jewish teams.

A New Middle East

Football was played not only within the borders of Mandatory Palestine, but also on the international stage. Local Jewish teams were playing against clubs from Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Syria as early as 1927. No confrontations were reported in newspaper accounts of these games which were still taking place in the early 1940s.

Kicking Around during Wartime

Over time, a process of gradual separation between the Jewish football institutions and  clubs and those of the Arab and British sectors became apparent. This took place mainly during the period of WWII, when relationships with both the Arab and British teams  grew sour.

While games against “foreign” teams naturally came to an end with the departure of most of the forces and government personnel from the region at the end of the war, the decision to cease holding matches between Jewish and Arab teams was a political one taken by the Association.

A Red Card

In the 1942 League Cup games, Maccabi Haifa was scheduled to play against Greece’s Royal Hellenic Army team in the quarter-finals, but the Greeks left Mandatory Palestine prior to the game and Maccabi Haifa was automatically promoted to the next round. One of the three remaining games in the quarter-finals, between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Shabab al-‘Arab, ended with a victory for the Jewish team, which had added to its roster two players slated for conscription. As such an addition was forbidden according to the rules of the Association, Maccabi Tel Aviv was disqualified from tournament play. Nonetheless, it was not the Arab team that benefitted from this disqualification. Maccabi Haifa, which had already been automatically bumped up to the semi-finals, was now automatically placed in the final. Shabab al-‘Arab’s appeal of this decision was rejected by the Association. Following the decision, a conflict ensued between the Arab teams and the Association, leading ultimately to their renouncing membership in 1943 and establishing the Arab Sports Association in May 1944.

The story of football in Mandatory Palestine illustrates how at the personal level, as manifested in athletic encounters, hostile relations did not always prevail between the Arab population and the Jewish Yishuv, and between both of these groups and the ruling British. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jews, Arabs and others continued to meet on the football field, almost through the end of the Mandate Period. During these years, it can be seen how, gradually and unfortunately, football came to function increasingly as a tool for political struggles rather than for cooperation and coexistence.

Curated by Yoram E. Shamir and Rotem Kislev

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