Hebrew repertory theater company founded in 1918 in Moscow and permanently reestablished in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. Habimah originated in the activities of Nahum Lazarevich Tsemakh (Heb., Naḥum Tsemaḥ; 1887–1939), a small-town teacher who assembled an amateur theater troupe that performed in Hebrew in Białystok, Vilna, and Warsaw from 1909 to 1914. In 1913 Tsemakh arranged for the publication of Hebrew translations of plays by Mark Arnshteyn, Osip Dymov, and Dovid Pinski. Trying to enlist the support of Zionist circles, Tsemakh had his troupe perform a Hebrew version of Dymov’s play Vechnyi strannik (The Eternal Wanderer) for the delegates to the Eleventh Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913, but without result. When World War I began, the troupe fell apart. Tsemakh, who reached Moscow along with other refugees, reconstituted his group from old and new participants. In 1916, supported by Chief Rabbi Ya‘akov Mazeh (Iakov Maze), he successfully petitioned the municipal authorities to register it under the name “Habimah Jewish Dramatic Society.” Ha-bimah means “the stage” in modern Hebrew, but bimah also designates the central podium for reading Torah in a synagogue.
Audience at first performance of Habimah, the Hebrew theater troupe, Moscow, 1918. (Central Zionist Archives)
Habimah members dreamed of creating a Jewish cultural renaissance through the revival of Hebrew; they wanted to establish a “biblical theater” as a means to a universalist vision which could reach not only Jews but the whole world. As unrealistic and aesthetically amorphous as it was, the idea of “biblical theater” put forward by this “coterie of sleep-walkers,” as the Habimah people were then called, infuriated the Central Bureau of the Evsektsiia (Jewish Section of the Communist Party), who accused the theater of being “reactionary,” “clericalist,” and “counter-revolutionary.”
But Habimah was also strongly defended by such major theatrical and literary figures as Konstantin Stanislavskii, Fedor Shaliapin, Maksim Gorky, and Aleksandr Tairov. Party leaders became involved in the dispute and adopted a resolution favorable to the theater in 1920. Despite the intervention of Lenin and a speech by Stalin at a Central Committee plenum in favor of Habimah, the struggle of party organs against the company continued until its departure from the Soviet Union in 1926. Habimah’s ability to remain in Russia for a decade after the revolution doubtless also owed something to the troupe’s extraordinary international acclaim, which was seen as beneficial to the Soviet Union.
Cover of the program for a Habimah performance of Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta, Vilna, 1916. (YIVO)
The formation of the troupe was accompanied by difficulties involving not only acting but also language and ideology. Hanna Rovina (1889–1980), the theater’s leading actress, wrote in her memoirs: “The young actors who came to the studio were typical Russian Communists, for whom Jewish nationalism was entirely alien and Hebrew completely unknown. The first thing Tsemakh had to do was explain to them the idea of Habimah and make them believe in it. He had the opposite problem with a second group of young people whom he accepted into the studio despite their lack of acting experience. He took them in because of their Jewish national views and knowledge of Hebrew. And he was successful in bonding these two groups into a unified whole” (Rovina, 1939, p. 7).
Stanislavskii not only protected the theater from attacks but also took an active part in the troupe’s professional development. He taught the apprentice actors the elements of theatrical technique and persuaded actors and directors from his Moscow Art Theater to become involved. Evgenii Vakhtangov served as the theater’s artistic director from 1917 to 1922. In the theatrical world of the 1920s, Habimah was called the “Biblical Studio” of the Moscow Art Theater.
Habimah’s Moscow premiere, which can be considered the starting point of the theater’s professional existence, took place on 12 October 1918 with an evening of one-act plays about Jewish life in Eastern Europe by Sholem Asch, Yitsḥak Katzenelson, Y. L. Peretz, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz. Later this production was canonized as Neshef be-re’shit (Evening of the Beginning).
Members of Habimah in a scene from Ha-Dibuk (The Dybbuk) by S. An-ski, Moscow, 1922. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L. M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)
The originality of the new theater, besides its language, lay in its combination of the formal achievements of contemporary Russian directorial techniques with plots taken from biblical, legendary, and folkloric material in productions such as Dovid Pinski’s Ha-Yehudi ha-nitsḥi (The Eternal Jew; 1920), H. Leyvik’s Ha-Golem (The Golem; 1925), and Richard Ber Hoffman’s Ḥalom Ya‘akov (Jacob’s Dream; 1925). Vakhtangov’s 1922 production of S. An-ski’s Ha-Dibuk (The Dybbuk) merged sacred and profane, ritualized and spontaneous, into a new theatrical synthesis. Playing before audiences that generally did not understand Hebrew, the company had to develop with particular intensity the nonverbal aspects of theatrical language, and thereby to strive for artistic universalism. Habimah’s Ha-Dibuk was one of the masterpieces of directing technique of the twentieth century and influenced theater directors throughout the world, including Peter Brook in England and Jerzy Grotowski in Poland.
In 1926 the company traveled abroad, to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, Holland, the United States, and elsewhere. Its performances were enthusiastically received by such figures as Max Reinhardt and Gordon Craig as well as Albert Einstein and Martin Buber. But in 1927 the theater split, as Tsemakh and a number of his actors remained in America. Returning to Europe, the remaining troupe split again, with some actors returning to Russia and others going to Palestine, thereby realizing a goal they had proclaimed since the company’s beginnings. Habimah eventually became the national theater of Israel. Well into her ninth decade, Hanna Rovina continued to perform the role of the maiden Leah in Ha-Dibuk.
Vladislav Ivanov, Russkie sezony teatra “Gabima” (Moscow, 1999); Emanuel Levy, The Habima: Israel’s National Theater, 1917–1977 (New York, 1979); Yitsḥak Norman, ed., The Birth of Habimah (Jerusalem, 1965); Hannah Rovina, “In the Beginning: As Told by Hannah Rovina to G. Hanoch,” Theater Art Journal of Habima Circle in Palestine (August 1939): 7, English publication of Bamah: Ketav-‘et le-omanut ha-te’atron.
RG 118, Theater, Yiddish, Collection, 1890s-1970s; RG 8, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum, Collection, ca. 1900-1939.
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson; revised by Alice Nakhimovsky and Michael C. Steinlauf