The Iconic Blue Box Gets a Makeover

Contemporary Israeli artists take on the JNF pushke

By Malka Percal

Published November 10, 2006, issue of November 10, 2006.
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When Yael Golan’s mother was a girl in Uruguay, she’d drop a few coins into the Keren Kayemet box every Friday at her Jewish day school and sing a little song: “Dunam by dunam, shekel by shekel, building the land of Israel.” Recently, 35 years after immigrating to Israel, Golan’s mother sang that song again, when Golan told her she was curating an art exhibition based on the blue box.

Box on the Boulevard, an outdoor exhibit of large scale-model boxes interpreted by contemporary Israeli artists, drew a warm response on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, where 21 boxes were recently displayed. Its purpose: to raise awareness and funds to replace some 800,000 trees incinerated by Katyusha rocket fires during the recent war.

The recognition factor for the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeIsrael pushke, once a staple fixture in Zionist homes around the world, is strong. Hard-earned pennies deposited in this container helped buy land in Palestine and, later, plant trees in Israel. Today, versions of the highly collectible blue box, no longer in wide distribution, go for hundreds of dollars at online auctions.

Similarly trendy Rothschild Boulevard, in the heart of Tel Aviv’s “white city” of Bauhaus buildings, received Keren Kayemet shekels a few years back to replace its original specimen trees. Today the boulevard is bustling and beautiful, the perfect place to see outdoor art — and a sharp contrast to the burnt forests and dilapidated development towns of northern Israel. Now, Keren Kayemet is raising funds to replant some 5,000 acres of forests and recreation areas destroyed in the war and create educational programs to involve nearby communities, said Omri Boneh, director of the organization’s northern division.

Keren Kayemet decided to mount Box on the Boulevard while memories of the war were still fresh. With the opening of the Sukkot holiday — when all Israel is on vacation — freelance curator Golan had just three weeks to put together the exhibit. A select group of artists were contacted, large white vinyl models were built and a company was solicited to sponsor each box. Bank Leumi, Sony Pictures Entertainment, foodmaker Strauss-Elite, ad giant McCann Erickson and others each pledged thousands of trees, at around $5 apiece. Artists and sponsors were matched up only after the work was completed.

The artists include photographers, sculptors, painters, illustrators and designers. Some worked directly on the boxes, while others created digital images that were printed and then glued on. Golan situated comics artist Uri Fink’s box on a popular corner of Rothschild to appeal to young people who grew up with Fink’s typically Israeli characters. His box makes the point that it’s not a great idea to carve your lover’s initials into a tree.

Furniture makers Ifrach and David Ben Zvi gathered burnt branches to fill a glass vitrine marked with the names of damaged forests and parks. The upper part of a charred blue box protrudes from the vitrine, and new green leaves sprout from it.

Jewelry and clothing designer Michal Negrin created a sparkling alpine wonderland on a background photo of prewar forests, adding a stylized dove, Victorian children and bowers of roses.

Painter and sculptor Menashe Kadishman, who spectacularly represented Israel in the 1978 Venice Biennale with a flock of paint-daubed sheep, painted his signature sloe-eyed lambs; a fecund woman; a heart; a tree, and the word “peace” in many languages.

Illustrator and satirist Dani Kerman revisited cartoonlike maps of Israel. He created the images for a pair of children’s books in the 1980s, inspired by childhood memories of the blue box’s map. In one whimsical drawing, a man’s spine contorts to the angular outline of the country; in another, a mobile balances various pieces of Israel. Kerman’s constantly evolving maps evoke feelings of bewilderment.

Addressing Israel’s past is also part of its current ideological landscape. One day during the exhibition, Zochrot, a group that seeks to place plaques marking vanished Palestinian villages and cemeteries, mounted a peaceful protest. According to Zochrot’s director, Eitan Bronstein, Keren Kayemet’s northern forests cover dozens of such sites, their unmarked ruins often still visible.

The boxes head next to Haifa, hard hit in the recent war, where they’ll be displayed at the Haifa Auditorium on Har ha Carmel from November 12 through November 26. Then the artwork will be sold to raise money for Keren Kayemet’s reforestation program. Although re-growth is expected to take 50 years or longer, some native flora already can be seen sprouting from the blackened earth.

Malka Percal is a New York-based writer.

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