In the era before sophisticated movie theaters, television, and the internet, another center existed where the people of the community could express themselves: the beit ha’am (Hebrew for the people’s house), where high culture could be imbibed alongside pop culture amid debates over the burning issues of the day. In their heyday, they were the heart of the kibbutz, moshav, and urban neighborhood.
> by Maya Kolsky
They stand in the heart of kibbutzim and moshavim throughout Israel: huge edifices built with the best materials that the local population could afford and designed by the best architects in the country. Today most are white elephants whose locked doors and boarded-up windows are rarely breached. Some still are used as backdrops for weddings or special events, but many have been declared dangerous structures and sealed. They are batei ha’am, Hebrew for the people’s houses. More than 200 of them are scattered around the country, relics of the time before the global village, when community was based on geography and ideology.
“Ideology is the key word,” explains Dr. Esther Garbiner, who lectures at the faculty of architecture at Tel Aviv University.
She and Dr. Edina Meril-Meir have been researching the history of these buildings and are about to publish a book on the subject.
“The houses of the people were founded as an outcome of the industrial revolution,” Garbiner asserts. “The industrial revolution, first in England and later in Europe, brought with it a series of social and cultural institutions, which were designed to help the growing number of urban workers, the proletariat. One of them was the people’s house.”
This institution was established and operated philanthropically at first, but “towards the end of the nineteenth century, local authorities took responsibility for their operation and upkeep,” she says, adding, “They were seen as an alternative to the local pub or church, a vehicle to fight alcoholism and ignorance. They served as a place where the working class could enjoy the privileges that were previously the sole prerogative of the upper classes and spend time drinking coffee, attending theater performances, listening to concerts, and obtaining a higher education. Some people’s houses also rented out rooms and ran a canteen at affordable prices, gave legal aid, and operated bathrooms and showers in an era when running water in the home was still a rarity.
“Jewish people’s houses came into existence towards the end of the nineteenth century and more so in the beginning of the twentieth century. From the beginning, the people’s house had a political agenda: it was a socialist-oriented institution. The Jewish people’s houses also had an additional aim: this was where Zionist circles could gather, organize, operate, educate, and teach Hebrew, especially in the houses that were built in Eastern Europe. During the second decade of the twentieth century, the people’s house concept spread throughout Europe, the United States, and South America.”
The first noteworthy people’s house was the Maison du People, which Victor Horta built in 1899 in Brussels. John Julius Norwich described him as “undoubtedly the key European art nouveau architect.” Horta’s building was a novel integration of steel, bricks, and glass. It included classrooms, an auditorium, offices, a cafeteria, and meeting rooms. Toynbee Hall in London’s East End was similar. Founded in 1884 and still operating today, it was the first university settlement house of the worldwide movement by the same name. Toynbee Hall had a reformist social agenda: it strove to get the rich and poor to live more closely together in an interdependent community.
“The ideas of equality, general education, and socialism meshed with the general aspirations of Zionism: to create a new Jew, with a new conception of personal physique, a positive attitude to manual labor, and a general education,” Garbiner says. “When these ideas reached the budding Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, people’s houses soon came into being in the First Aliyah towns, such as Rishon Lezion and Rehovot, and later on in the kibbutzim and moshavim.”
Some of the foremost architects who arrived in the country in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Richard Kaufmann, had studied with German architects for whom the people’s house was a central feature of their teachings. The institution was a symbol of progress in social and architectural theory in Europe and was vastly strengthened in the Land of Israel when the architects of the international style (Bauhaus) arrived in the country. From the end of the nineteenth century, people’s houses were built in nearly all Jewish settlements in the country.
The people’s houses in the cities and rural settlements were similar in function, but the motives for their construction differed, as did the timing and financing. In some places, the initiative came from the local population, in others from Zionist organizations. Sometimes a people’s house was already part of the initial plan of the settlement and was slated to be built in the central part of the moshav or kibbutz. The people’s houses generally were most prominent at moshavim. In the towns and cities, they were usually constructed to serve a specific neighborhood.
At the kibbutz, the dining room initially filled the functions of the people’s house. But very quickly, this was found not to suffice, as “a dining room where people eat cannot also serve as a place of culture,” Garbiner says. In the kibbutz, the people’s house was usually called beit hatarbut, Hebrew for the house of culture, even though in the protocols of kibbutz meetings and debates it is referred to as beit ha’am, the people’s house. Many times, the people’s house was named in honor of a movement or a donor or in memory of a person.
The Best We Can Build
There are over 200 people’s houses in Israel. They served as the initial cultural venues of the Zionist movement, Garbiner says. They were the finest building that the community could afford since they were seen as the ultimate representation of each community’s cultural capabilities. Some settlements asked the technical department of the Zionist Organization to design their people’s house, while others approached the leading architects in the country. As a result, many of these structures are the work of the foremost architects of their day, such as Kaufmann, Ariyeh Sharon, Al Mansfield, and David Reznik, among others.
The early people’s houses, like those in Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, and Nes Ziona, were examples of European ornamentalism, the post-modern architectural style that was the initial reaction in Europe against modernism. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, following the arrival of modernist European architects in the Land of Israel, people’s houses appeared in Bauhaus, international, eclectic, and later brutalist style. One example of these modernist structures was built in Haifa’s Tel Amal neighborhood. Designed by Benjamin Ural, the building was constructed in stages between 1939 and 1949. It had clean lines, rows of windows, and rounded verandahs with awnings – all typical features of the international style that was prevalent during the pre-state days. When the building was no longer filling its original role, it was converted into a cinema, becoming one of the many movie houses in Haifa. It later was divided up for different uses and today houses two synagogues.
Even though their architectural styles are different, these buildings all represented the community, Garbiner says. They were built on the highest ground of the settlement, designed to be landmarks, and constructed with the best materials that the community could afford. As they were built from the end of the nineteenth century up until the 1970s, their different styles simply reflect the development of architecture in the Land of Israel.
One characteristic common to all the buildings was multi-functionality. The building could host intimate gatherings and large theater performances, concerts, and screening of movies. When a building has so many conflicting functions, one usually ends up becoming dominant, but this multi-functionality generally characterized the people’s houses. Some also hosted sport activities, with facilities such as a basketball court, which was connected to the image of the new Jew. The other concepts of the Zionist movement also were represented in the building: plastic arts, the conquest of labor, the building of the land, socialism, a new self-image, self-defense, and secularism.
Israel’s First People’s Houses
Identifying the first people’s house constructed in Israel is complicated. The first structure that was declared a people’s house was built in 1898 in Rishon Lezion. However, some claim that the first to function as a people’s house was the administration building, known in Hebrew as Beit Hapkidot (Clerks’ House), built in 1883 in Zichron Ya’akov. The building in Zichron actually functioned as a city hall. It was magnificently designed and housed the administrators of baron Edmond de Rothschild, who provided funds not only for the building, but for the whole settlement. It had a large central hall, known as the salon, with floors of Italian marble and large stained-glass windows. It was open to the public and used for receptions, parties, theater performances, and screening of silent movies. In 1903, the salon hosted a gathering of all the different parties and movements in the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in a bid to select a central leadership. The attempt failed, but the gathering did manage to voice an effective opposition to the Uganda Plan and to give women the right to vote.
Despite the Zichron building’s impressive history, it is customary to claim that the first people’s house in the country was the one in Rishon Lezion, which Rothschild also funded. Barukh Pepirmeister designed it in a neoclassical style with a five-meter-high central hall, a gallery, and a wooden stage. It became the cultural, social, and political center of the bustling new Jewish settlement and hosted dignitaries such as Theodor Herzl, Albert Einstein, and Jemal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria. To this day, the edifice serves as a venue for cultural and art events, ceremonial meetings of the city council, and public meetings and events.
The people’s house in nearby Rehovot still is a cultural center. When it was erected in 1913, it was considered one of the most magnificent buildings in the country. In the 1930s, a hall for theater performances, concerts, and movie screening was built adjacent to it. Rehovot was established by immigrants of the First Aliyah, who were less socialist and more religious. As a result, its people’s house existed in harmony, side by side, with its synagogue. The building’s manifest stipulates, “the people’s house will be turned over to the Rehovot committee under the following conditions: it will be used to serve the public… and will be closed during holidays and Sabbaths during times of prayer. At other times, it will be open for lectures, but not for political meetings.”
The synagogue and the people’s house were diametrically opposed, Garbiner asserts, emphasizing that the people’s house was a secular, non-religious center. The public that went to one generally did not go to the other – and anyone who did so, went clandestinely. The people’s house does operate like a synagogue, supplying functions that have many religious elements in them; the opposite is also true. The Jewish people’s houses in Europe and later in the Land of Israel also were different from those built to serve the general public. The first European people’s houses served a public that did not know how to read and write; those in the Land of Israel were built to serve as a place of culture since there were no other alternatives at the time. They were meant to be a place for music, concerts, plays, and debating. In the initial phase, they also became a place where Hebrew was taught and a general education could be obtained. While the synagogue was a place of tradition, a spiritual center, and a venue for religious festivals and readings from the Bible, the people’s house was imbued with a modern spirit of socialism and secularism, something which had no other place but the people’s house.
The tension between the new secular waves of immigration to Israel, the administration set up by Rothschild to manage the new settlements, and the older generation of settlers also was evident in the friction around the new people’s houses.
“A new people’s house has recently been built in Rehovot,” the newspaper of the Hapoel Hazair organization reported in 1913. “It was built by the Carmel Company and funded by Mr. Gluskin, with the sum of 25,000 franks…. The building is not to be administrated by the people of the community, but by a committee…. [Not many people came to the opening ceremony in] the hall that could accommodate the entire community. Very few of the farmers came. The ultra-Orthodox did not come as the idea was anathema to them. Only the young women of the settlement showed up and a few of the young workers, the halutzim.”
The Rehovot people’s house would be a battleground for years between the socialist workers and the capitalist farm owners. On May 1, 1931, the local council forbade the representatives of the Rehovot workers council to hold the May 1 ceremony in the people’s house.
“This year, as before, the Rehovot workers council has approached the local council for permission to celebrate international workers day at the people’s house,” the daily workers newspaper Davar reported. “And this year, as before, the local council tried to dictate to the workers how to conduct the festivities, with the main condition being that the red flag would not be flown in the building.
“The response of the Rehovot workers council was: We don’t think that it is the duty of the local council to censor the political views and symbols of the residents. The workers do not need anybody to approve their national affinities and will not agree to the council being its chaperon. We demand that the council cancel its decision and let us use the people’s house as we see fit since it is the property of the entire community and all of its members are entitled to use it,” Davar reported, adding, “The council decided not to respond, deeming the letter from the workers a chutzpah.”
The people’s house in Jerusalem relocated repeatedly until finally settling into a home of its own. In the early years, it wandered between Hanevi’im, Havatzlet, and Prague streets. When World War I broke out, the Ottoman authorities had it closed down. After the war, it returned to Hanevi’im Street, but was closed again when the Arab riots of 1929 broke out. In the 1950s, it wandered between movie houses in the city. In the 1940s, the Jewish National Fund bought a large plot on Bezalel Street in order to build the Jerusalem people’s house on it. Construction was delayed when the War of Independence broke out. In 1955, the rights to the building were transferred to the Jerusalem Municipality, which commissioned architect David Reznik to finish the building. The building was finally completed in 1961 and as its inaugural event hosted the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In the 1980s, the building was refurbished and named the Gerard Behar Center in honor of the donor’s son. Every year, over 250,000 people use the building, which hosts 1,200 activities and performances a year.
The Tel Aviv people’s house came into being in 1925 at the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Shalom Aleichem streets. It was not an actual building, but a sand dune surrounded by a fence, where concerts and lectures were held. Later a wooden shack was built on the site and theater performances by Habimah and concerts by violinist Yasha Hefetz took place there. The shack was demolished in 1959 and the El Al office building, the first modern office building in Tel Aviv, was built on the site.
Occupy Rothschild People’s House
The history of the Tel Aviv people’s house illustrates an important point: the institution is a cultural and social idea more than a physical structure. In 2011, a new people’s house came into being in Tel Aviv at 69 Rothschild Boulevard. It was not designed by an architect for this purpose; it had no library, movie hall, or theater. It was an abandoned Bauhaus building. The first floor housed a gallery and the upper floors were empty. On July 14, 2011, Daphni Leef set up a tent on the northeastern side of the boulevard and ignited the demonstrations of the summer of 2011. A few weeks after Leef arrived, half the boulevard was covered with tents; they extended all the way to the abandoned building at number 69.
When the Tel Aviv municipality began to evacuate the tents, some of the activists tried to occupy the abandoned building.
“The owner did not want to be seen as someone who evacuates activists,” says lawyer Yifat Solel, one of the members of Beit Ha’am.
The owner of the property agreed to let the activists use the building for at least 10 months. The building turned into a platform for group meetings, debates, and activities for the next six months. Thousands of people a month visited the building, taking part in the dozens of daily activities held in this ad-hoc people’s building. Activities were run by a committee and the building soon became known as Beit Ha’am, the people’s house. In February 2013, the owner of the property asked the committee to evacuate it and this was done peacefully. The protests of summer of 2011 were over, the protesters returned to their homes, and the people’s house ceased to exist.
The Kibbutz and Moshav Experience
The history of the people’s houses at kibbutzim and moshavim is intertwined with that of the Zionist movement. Beit Hershel at Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley is an example of this. Now almost abandoned, it is one of the largest of these buildings ever erected. Once or twice a year, some sort of graduation ceremony is held in it, but that is all. It is named after Hershel (Zvi) Pinsky, one of the founders of the kibbutz and a survivor of the Pinsk massacre, in which 35 Jewish youths attending a Zionist convention were murdered by the Polish military. While on his way back to the kibbutz from Haifa one stormy, rainy night in January 1935, Pinsky drowned trying to cross a riverbed that had turned into a raging torrent. (The riverbed is known as Nahal Zvi in his memory.) The members of the kibbutz and the kibbutz movement, in which Pinsky had played a central role, called upon the public to donate funds to build a memorial to him. They raised 1,000 pounds, a large sum in those days, that were invested in building a people’s house at the kibbutz that had been his home.
“A building for the gathering of the people, on weekdays and holidays, in days of joy and remembrance. A tabernacle in the camp of the working brothers and sisters,” the text on the building’s foundation stone reads.
Architect Johanan Ratner was given the task of designing the building. Apart from being an architect, Ratner was the secret head of the general command of the Haganah and the person who came up with the idea of the tower-and-stockade settlements that were set up overnight in a way that afforded defense from Arab attacks and an immediate presence on the land. The Zionist ethos radiated from every feature of the building he designed for Kibbutz Gvat. It is a huge fortress-like structure with slender windows that resemble loopholes, which is fitting for a building erected in the Jezreel Valley during the 1937 Arab revolt and which apart from its official use, also offered protection against marauding Arab bands.
For many years, Hershel House served as the cultural center for the whole region. It had a large auditorium, reading and music rooms, and a library, as well as a secret weapons cache under the central stage. The major theater troupes of the land, Habimah and Ha’ohel, graced its stage, while the rooms behind the stage served as the living quarters for the local Palmah commanders.
The people’s house at Kibbutz Yagur is an example from a later period. Designed in the 1960s by architect Shlomo Gilad, the huge structure boasts a 1,400-square-meter auditorium, an undulating, exposed cement façade, and a 20-meter-wide stage. The multipurpose auditorium had a series of wide steps that descended gently towards the stage. Rows of seats were arranged on the steps for most events, but during special events, such as the famous kibbutz Passover seder, the seats were replaced with tables and benches. The seder at Kibbutz Yagur was legendary; kibbutz members prepared for months for this powerful communal event. Children and adult choirs practiced spring and Passover songs, a special kibbutz hagadah was printed each year, and the children of the kibbutz prepared performances illustrating the different parts of the Passover story. The emphasis was not on religious themes, but on the exodus from slavery to freedom and the settling and farming of the land. Until the 1980s, 1,500 people attended the seder at Yagur every year. In the 1980s, the kibbutz movement lost its special place in the ethos of Israel and the number of participants plummeted. The seder relocated to the dining hall. Today the people’s house at Yagur is used mainly for large concert performances for the entire region.
At Moshav Herut, members still celebrate festivals together, but the celebration has moved from inside the people’s house to the plaza in front of it. The interior of the building that once was the moshav’s cultural heart is derelict today. The members of Moshav Herut arrived in Israel in the 1930s. They mainly were middle-class German emigrants. When the community celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, the members decided that it was time to build a people’s house.
“For 25 years, we made sure that the cows and mules had a place of residence,” one member remarked at the inauguration. “The time has come that our cultural needs also have a home.”
Built in 1959, the building was designed by Andrei Litersdorf and Iliya Belzitzman, two of the most prominent architects of the labor movement in Israel. They designed the 1,500-square-meter building to look unassuming and homey. It was built of precast bricks and simple plaster and had an inner courtyard. In the basement, a library was set up for the use of the moshav members.
Once complete, it hosted all the moshav’s social and cultural activities, from dances to movie screenings to public events. In the 1990s, the building was abandoned and declared dangerous when its ceiling began to crumble.
The People’s House is Dead, Long Live the Community Center
“The culture of the moshav has to grow from the inside, from the earth of the moshav,” a member of Moshav Kfar Warburg wrote in its fiftieth anniversary book.
The Passman People’s House of Kfar Warburg was built in the 1950s and served as a cultural center for the settlements in the south. The large building included a library, club room, activity rooms, and dressing rooms for actors, ticket booths, and a large auditorium. Every week, the Passman People’s House hosted a different theatrical performance by one of the leading theater troupes in the county – until the advent of television in Israel in the late 1960s killed the people’s house.
“The people’s house came into being because of ideology,” Garbiner declares, “and when this ideology became irrelevant, so did the building that served it.
“The people’s house is a place of gathering that was born of the need to be together. It was the place where people could enjoy things that were inaccessible elsewhere. It was the only place that had a radio, the only place with newspapers in a variety of languages, and a library. It was a place where there was always a hot beverage or a cold drink, and where there was always someone to talk to. In the early days of television, it was also the only place that had a television screen.
“However, when you have a TV set in every home, when individualism grows to be all important and replaces the communal ideology, there is no longer a need for a people’s house. Cultural institutions still exist, but not a people’s house. There are theaters, concert halls, universities, and colleges, but the place where people gather to listen to music together, engage in conversation with friends, host a dance just for the community, or stage a political debate – a place like this is not needed anymore.”
As the people’s houses declined, the community center came into being. It is a different kind of institution. It is organized, focused, and official. It provides after-school activities for children and activities for the elderly. It might have a place to do homework, maybe even a library, but lacks the ideology of the people’s house.
The People’s House versus the Synagogue
The people’s house was a western idea. It came to Israel together with the influx of emigrants from Europe and did not flourish in the communities established in Israel by Jewish emigrants from North Africa or the Moslem countries. Even though the Jewish Agency usually built people’s houses in the center of these settlements, they were a foreign implant from above that these communities did not need or desire. The synagogue was their focal point and while the Jewish Agency tried to breathe life into the people’s houses, by offering Hebrew lessons or other courses there, for example, they generally closed after a few years.
“For Jews that came from the west, with strong secular and anti-religious feelings, you had to be religious or secular. Civilized or uncivilized. You could not be both. This dichotomy did not exist for Jewish communities that came from Islamic countries. You could be religious and secular. But in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, the days of the major waves of immigration from the Arabic-speaking countries, being religious was considered irrational,” says Itamar Toby, an activist on behalf of Jews from Mizrahi backgrounds.
“In order to be cultured, you had to be secularized,” he says, “and the venue for that was the people’s house.”
On the other hand, the synagogue was the place where the community was formed and maintained, he says. It is a place of family and communal ties, where members help one another find jobs as well as help each other fulfill more spiritual needs.
“Faith was one of the factors that allowed Jewish communities in the Arabic-speaking world to survive – and the synagogue was where this happened. The synagogue was where you could enjoy a meeting with friends, have a good meal, and pray together,” Toby says.
In development towns whose residents are mainly of Moroccan and Tunisian descent, he adds, tradition and synagogue still are very important and the concept of the people’s house simply did not appeal to the residents.
The Return of the People’s House
The people’s house of Moshav Aseret, between Ashdod and Gedera, stood abandoned and derelict for 30 years. Aseret is the largest of the settlements that make up the Gderot Regional Council and is a cultural center of sorts for the six agricultural communities surrounding it. The Israel Lands Authority, which owns nearly all the land in Israel, recently allowed the moshav to sell parcels of land in the heart of the moshav as building plots. The returns from this sale made it possible to rehabilitate its people’s house.
“The older members of the moshav want to allow their children and grandchildren to taste their childhood memories of the moshav,” Keshet Rosenblum, wrote in the Ha’aretz daily newspaper.
The goal of rebuilding the people’s house was to create a venue for culture in the heart of the moshav that would serve the community. However, some see this as an attempt of privileged moshav members to withdraw from the poorer communities around them – settlements and towns that were established later and were not given the same advantages as the earlier settlers. Furthermore, those that received land to develop, water rights, and other assets happen to be Ashkenazi in this case, while those that did not happen to be Mizrahi. As a result, the rehabilitation of the people’s house in Aseret, with the generous funding afforded it by the state, opens old wounds for many.
Today people’s houses basically are historic and nostalgic sites, raising the question of whether there actually is a need for them. In the modern world, where interaction via a computer screen is increasingly common, places that foster face-to-face interaction and a sense of community based on geography are growing rare. But, perhaps the time is ripe for people’s houses to make a comeback and allow people to interact with their neighbors on a personal level, without pop-up ads and a myriad of electronic distractions.