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Yosl Bergner

Yosl Bergner

One of my old friends is the 90 year old Israeli artist, Yosl Bergner. His sombre studio in Tel Aviv is stuffed with 60 years of painting and the smell of turps and pigment. Yosl has a theory that informs his paintings of suitcases and kitchen utensils travelling-floating- through desert landscapes. Jews and their chattels have been forced to travel everywhere throughout history, as pogrom after pogrom in Europe, chased them to the far flung corners of the planet. They have taken with them their household goods, their refugee suitcases stuffed with all that they could carry. His biggest regret about his new adopted land, he fled Warsaw for Australia in 1937 and moved to Israel in 1951, is that Yiddish is not the national language of the Jewish state.

Yosl and his Australian wife Audrey live in Bilu Street in the heart of party city Tel Aviv. Although now in his early 90s, Yosl still paints every day, making his way to his studio next door to where he lives.

In 1986 I made a film with Yosl called, Painting the Town, it mostly dealt with Yosl's life and art in Australia where he had a profound impact on the pre World War 2 Melbourne art scene.

Yosl Bergner in his Tel Aviv studio, 1986 Yosl Bergner in his Tel Aviv studio, 1986

I decided to call on Yosl in this new film, to find out more about the Israeli love affair with hummus. Like many Israelis of his generation, Yosl is a new-comer to hummus and Middle Eastern food. As a child growing up in Poland he ate the old Yiddish food made in his mother Fanya's kitchen. So we talked a lot about the old Yiddish foods of Poland, lokshen, tzimmes and yoich or chicken soup.

the Interview

Tel Aviv, May 2011

Tell me about your uncle Moshe who was a pioneer wasn't he?

The Halutzim, the early settlers here, that my uncle was. I had an exhibition of Halutzim and flowers together. He was very romantic and that's why he got disappointed. Between illusion and reality there is a terrific space. After 11 years...

Of being here in the early days?

Yes. And I painted ideas from the early days. A lot of it based on his writings because he wrote very beautifully. And after 10 or 11 years he went back to Vienna. And it was not the same anymore. He fell in love, went to art school. He painted beautifully. And he finished up putting out his life. He made some drawings of himself which I have here in the studio. I also have his paintings. These are the early settlers. They brought the samovar from Russia. The samovar where you make tea.

Yosl Bergner

Why did you decide to paint the settlers?

Because everything that touches me I paint. Talking is not enough. I like talking. I always make the story short. Some people bury the story under words. I don't because I worry the people that are listening get bored.

This is my uncle that I painted, based on a photograph. That's my uncle up there. They dressed themselves up like...I forget words...like not just and Arab, but a Bedouin, like a hero of the desert, like what's his name that English man... Lawrence of Arabia.

What sort of things did you eat when you were growing, typical Jewish foods?

Jewish food was lokshen. Lokshen means spaghetti and spaghetti comes from Marco Polo. Marco Polo went to China and when he came back he brought spaghetti. In Yiddish you call it lokshen. Everything that you ate, you ate with lokshen. Yoich that means chicken soup with lokshen. And if not lokshen it was knaidlach. Who brought potatoes from America?

Warsaw was not exactly a ghetto. I was born in Vienna. But when I was a year old my father came to Poland, because in Poland the Yiddish culture was developing, Yiddish literature, not Hebrew, Yiddish literature. And a lot of Jews were socialists and there were unions, it was 3 and a half million Jews. Not everyone religious.

Ship Of Fools
Ship Of Fools

My father was a vegetarian. We lived on the fourth floor in a very poor district in Warsaw. We ate a lot of herring, cheap food. I went to a Yiddish school where Yiddish was the main language. We learnt Polish too, also a bit of German. My mother used to cook and we also had a maid. Polish Jews had also a maid from the country and she used to cook over an ordinary fire.

See I didn't have many toys, so I used to like being in the kitchen with the maid talking Polish. By that time I already knew Polish. And I used to paint, to draw.

My mother used to like cooking and it was very tasteful. But it used to lose the form. For example e galooptchy is cabbage filled with rice when we ate meat it was minced meat inside. But mainly being vegetarian it was rice and vegetables. And you had to sow it up, so it won't fall apart. But my mother's galooptchy were so much cotton. Sometimes you would find the cotton in your mouth. But the taste was good. She was worried it would fall apart so she would sow it up.

And a lot of spaghetti and a lot of carrots in Yiddish it's called tzimmes but they used to make it sweet. And also raw vegetables because my father was a vegetarian and my sister and me too. But I was only for 5 years and then I couldn't resist, started eating meat, very quietly so that people would know, because I was known as a vegetarian and then I opened up. I said "I have stopped being a vegetarian!" We used to also eat schnitzels, but vegetarian schnitzel. You know what is schnitzel? It's a kind of fried veal with...I forget words. The thing that you put...breadcrumbs...breadcrumbs, but with minced vegetables.

A lot of potatoes because that was the cheapest thing. But potatoes originally came from America, but who was it? We ate potatoes. A lot of potatoes. Potatoes were cheap. There was a lot of hunger, terrific hunger in Poland in those days.

I remember in...numbers are a mystery to me. I was the worst in mathematics in school. And when the teacher called me out to the blackboard, "Oh Bergner take-out the mouth organ from your pocket and play for the class". Because he knew that I always had a mouth organ in my pocket. So I started playing and all the kids started with their hands.

Yosl Bergner

Tell me more about Uncle Moshe, the pioneer?

There was the ideal, my uncle, who was a very intelligent man, very sophisticated, but naive and full of illusions. And the greatest illusion was to come to Palestine. And to build a country, but to build a country first from the soil. So they all worked in the soil. That was the ideal, to build a country, but a Jewish country. There was anti-Semitism everywhere...the idea to go to Palestine which is actually Israel, that's where the Jews came from, that was the ideal. They wanted to go to Palestine, when they came here they were disappointed because it was a wild country Arabs and Bedouins...He wanted to be a Halutz...how do you say it in English? Early settlers with an ideal to build up a culture, with a different culture, Hebrew.

I painted the poverty and the terrible life in Poland. I'll never forget that they used to take coal up to the fourth floor because we had stoves. And the coal carriers used to...I painted them, one coal carrier fell near our gate in Warsaw. And he was lying on the ground and the coal all spilled and he was crying, "That's the end of my life".

People had the ingrained idea of Palestine of building a country where there were ancestors, everything came from here.

They wanted to build a country from the ground on. The main thing was my uncle worked on the land and I painted him a lot. He was an idealist and he danced in fire...this is "The Ship of Fools" based on a painting by Brueghel. Actually what I mean was Jews going to Palestine. But I called it the ship of fools. This is my uncle. He slept on the mountain. The birds came, the birds are always my danger.

It was an illusion. It was based on a painting by Breughel. There is a ship of fools story somewhere in the bible. I don't remember. The minute I paint it out I forget the story.

That is my uncle. And there were floods and they tried to dry the floods so I painted the Halutzim the settlers, but they have an English name, idealists, drying the lakes and with birds and so on. I fantasised a bit. I wasn't here. This is an early settlement with a wild bird. From great illusion that's what came. This is my uncle, the hero. This is a settlement, they are a little bit richer and they still have a samovar from Russia, where they drink tea. I try always to paint the danger that they don't see. They have the illusion.


I was never a Zionist. But I couldn't stand anti-Semitism and there was anti-Semitism everywhere.

So what do you think about this claim by the Lebanese that hummus has been stolen?

No not stealing...influencing...you now food is an international thing. Food moves around. The Arabs are educated from childhood to hate Jews, sometimes for good reason too. But nationalism I hate. Nationalism brings wars. Maybe I am naive, but I hate...our food, our food. We used to eat hummus without mincing it. Only the beans I used to eat, we used to eat a lot of beans. Except my stomach is not so good and you know what happen (smiles). It becomes musical.

When I heard that we stole hummus...maybe they stole something too. I would never say "steal". I would be very proud, "Oh they eat the same thing as we...very good. So maybe we can sing the same songs?" Why not?

They say, "I don't hate Jews. I hate Israelis". Or "I hate Israelis. I don't hate Jews". But it's been going on for centuries, this hatred. And Jews hate each other too... whoaaa... especially the left wing ones, the socialists.

The reason I was asking about your early foods in Warsaw is because you painted all those kitchen utensils?

Yeah because I didn't have toys. I used to play in the kitchen and I played with the pots and pans. And there was a maid there that I always got on very well with talking Polish.The things of early experiences are stuck in me. So they come out for example with a painting like this. They become alive. This is always me making fun of all the other paintings...

And they're kitchen utensils?

Yeah kitchen utensils, I give them legs, I give them faces, and they hate each other, and they all hate the grater.

Do you think there'll be a time when people can eat hummus together, Palestinians and Israelis?

They already do. There are Arabs in...there are many restaurants with hummus if I go there I eat hummus in an Arab cafe. But the hatred in the Arab section is bigger. Israel is a very tiny country, if you look at a map, it's unbelievable. But they occupied and threw out a lot of Arabs. But the Arabs began wars and they were supported by Egypt...what can I say? It doesn't work. What can I say? But hummus is not the problem. Hummus unites people. I think food unites people. People say they stole our food. What do you mean, 'they stole our food'? They should be happy we like it.

Do you think there will be a day when everyone can share the same plate of hummus?

What? I didn't understand. Who will share hummus?

Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians...

Ah peace, peace, I hope. But I don't see it. Do you?

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