Habima: Israel’s National Theater–My Very First Book

emanuel_levy_3My book, The Habima: Israel’s National Theater: Cultural Nationalism, winner of the 1980 National Jewish Book Award, launched my career as film scholar, critic, and author of nine books.


The Habima (stage in Hebrew), the first institutionalized Hebrew theater, was founded in Moscow during the 1917 Revolution by a small group of Hebrew teachers committed to Zionism.

The founding group formed a generational unit in both the biological and sociological senses of the term. Most members were born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and were in their late teens or early twenties when they formed the troupe. They were educated in the shtetl, where they received traditional Jewish education. Their restlessness, however, motivated them to flee the economic and cultural stagnation of the Jewish shtetl, where they felt stifled and without hope. The founders were the products of a profound breakup of traditional Jewish society in those years. Most members moved to large cities where they were exposed for the first time to Zionism and Russian culture.

The Habima players came of age in a period of de-stabilization, in which an intense surge of nationalism swept throughout Russia. They lived in a dynamic period that witnessed the awakening of Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language. The Jewish community was then experiencing intellectual and spiritual turmoil, as Irving Howe observed: “it was a period of extreme restlessness, feverish collective dreaming, and pretentious ideological effort.” Furthermore, the First World War, the October Revolution, and the Civil War, to mention only the most significant political events, were turning points in the members’ lives and careers.

The literary works that the actors chose for their auditions were indicative of their generational membership. Most recited “The City of Slaughter,” a poem by H. N. Bialik, the Hebrew national poet, about the l903 violent pogrom. The choice of this poem was no accident: Bialik expressed the Jewish will to live in words and rhymes of immense force and beauty. It was a period in which youth was extremely sensitive to literary influences; many young people changed their lives after reading Zionist pamphlets.

The recruitment of performers into the Habima was based on ideological and artistic considerations. The ideal members were young people, fluent in Hebrew, possessing some acting talent and, most important of all, ready to devote themselves spiritually and pragmatically to the cause. In practice, however, knowledge of Hebrew and commitment to Zionism were more important than acting skills or aspirations.

The recruitment also showed evidence of self-selection: many of the original members left their hometown despite resistance from their families. Moreover, the very move to Moscow was a miracle. The formation of the theater occurred between 1917 and 1921, during the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, when mobility was extremely limited.

The Habima’s ideology consisted of five value-oriented goals: an exclusively Hebrew theater; biblical and historical; educational in purpose; commitment to high art; and a national theater in Jerusalem. The commitment to perform exclusively in Hebrew was the central value and the chief motivation. Hebrew was not a spoken language until the nineteenth century, when it was revived, first by the Haskala (Enlightenment), then by the Zionist movement.

There was really no need for a Hebrew theater in Russia, definitely not in Moscow. Moscow lacked a large potential audience and, of the Jewish audience it had, only few spoke Hebrew. Hebrew was considered an ancient scholarly language, used by a minority of religious scholars and militant Zionists. Hebrew was not the mother tongue of the players, most of whom spoke Yiddish and/or Russian better than Hebrew. Hebrew and Zionism were, in fact, illegal in Russia, persecuted not only by the regime but also by Jewish Communists committed to Yiddish socialist theater.

The theater’s repertoire in its first decade was coherent and compatible with its ideology to present specifically Jewish plays that drew on biblical and historical-messianic themes. “The Eternal Jew” (l9l9) was based on the legend that on the day of the Temple’s destruction, the Jewish Messiah was born. It stresses the prophetic revelation, that a child born during the catastrophe would also be the savior and restorer of the Jews’ departed glory. At the end of the play, however, the Messiah disappears, forcing the Jews have to continue wandering throughout the world in search of the lost Messiah.

The Habima staged “The Golem” in l922 and “Jacob’s Dream” in l925, plays dealing with the trials and missions of the Jews–the privilege, penalty, and tragedy of being “the chosen people.” These plays describe the conflict between the Jews and their opponents as a struggle between righteous morality and physical force. But they also suggest that the suffering involved in the Jews’ religious missions is a symbol of all mankind’s innocent suffering and yearning for Redemption.

The theater presented these dramas against the backdrop of two major events in Jewish history, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Balfour Declaration, both in l9l7. The Jews saw in the Revolution the end of their (and others) oppression, the signs of Redemption. The Balfour Declaration, which gave international legitimacy to the historical rights of the Jews to build their national home in Palestine, was interpreted as a sign that perhaps the two-thousand-year Exile was about to end. The idea of freedom, both personal and political, permeated all the plays produced by the Habima in the first decade, particularly “The Dybbuk” in l922.

The group’s decision to establish a theater was not motivated by the members’ wish to become players. For the founders, the theater was what Max Weber described as a sacred calling rather than an occupation. The actors were former teachers whose commitment to the Hebrew language provided psychological motives to establish a theater, an enterprise strongly linked to language and history. The Habima serves as an example of “the role of ideas in social action,” showing the role of ideological symbols as motivational forces in actual behavior.

While in the Soviet Union, the Habima was affiliated with the acclaimed Moscow Art Theater (MAT), directed by Stanislavsky. From 1917 to 1926, the Habima functioned as one of MAT’ studios. Influenced by the MAT, the Habima’s artistic ideology stressed the following elements: the theater as a collective enterprise; repertory production; ensemble acting rather than the star system; long rehearsal period; thorough study of each play; rotation of parts among players in successive performances; and the belief that all arts and crafts (staging, acting, set design, lighting) complement each other so that the production style is a unified whole.

The Habima stood in sharp opposition to the old Yiddish theaters, especially the wandering troupes, characterized by cheap and tawdry productions, poor plays with stock characters, lack of rehearsal time, lack of a unified concept for the artistic whole, and either amateur or semi-professional actors. The Habima refused to accept veteran Yiddish players into its ranks, because they were trained in what it regarded as disreputable, amateurish methods.

Striving to achieve high artistic standards, the Habima denounced these methods, claiming that its moral mission went beyond entertainment and that the theater should present explicitly ideological plays. If the MAT functioned as a positive reference group, involving motivated assimilation of the MAT norms as a basis for self-appraisal, the old Yiddish stage served as a negative reference group, causing motivated rejection, namely, not merely non-acceptance of norms but the formation of counter-norms.

The Habima was officially a Soviet state theater, a status that provided a small yearly subsidy, and the opportunity to work with the best artists of the Russian theater. Vakhtangov served as the theater’s first artistic director. As such, he staged what became its best production to date, Anski’s “The Dybbuk.” Highly innovative, this production became a milestone in the history of modern theater, announcing the end of naturalism and the psychological methods of the Russian theater and launching the new style of expressionism. The style adhered to Vakhtangov’s notion of theatricality, according to which every play must be given distinctive form and must be interpreted from a contemporary standpoint.

The influence of Russian asceticism and puritanism on the Habima was pervasive, going beyond artistic affairs to include the notions of moral gravity, heightened self-consciousness, and unbounded idealism. The members sought to suppress their individual goals, fashion their personalities around collective ideals. In the kind of involvement demanded of its members, the Habima approximated an ideological group. Its members were expected to forego willingly all familial attachments and personal ties for the sake of the central symbol. Ideological groups require that their members obliterate completely the sphere of privacy so that the group becomes country, family, everything. The members’ young age and distance from their families intensified their commitment. The founders’ vow of celibacy–not to get married until the theater became well-established–was also meant to assure their single-minded attachment to the theater.

The Habima’s organizational credo was an outgrowth of the Bolshevik Revolution’s egalitarian spirit. Most Russian movements were collectivist, holding that man fulfills himself only by serving society. The members believed that they were responsible not only for themselves but for the entire collective, which had the exclusive right to regulate their behavior.

Adopting this model, the Habima was established as a cooperative, owned and managed by the actors. As a collective, all performers had equal rights and received equal salaries. Fraternity, equality, and the supremacy of the group over individual members were among the strongest moral and organizational foundations.

All the issues (artistic, administrative, and financial) were discussed and decided upon by a majority vote at the general assembly, the theater’s sovereign body. To prevent any individual from acquiring power, offices were held for two years and rotated among the members. If the Habima’s organizational ideology was similar to that of the kibbutz movement in Palestine, it was due to the fact that both were inspired by the same source: Russian collectivism.

The Habima left the Soviet Union in l926. After two years of extensive tours in Europe and the U.S., it settled in Palestine. Its major competitor in the pre-statehood era (until l948) was the Ohel theater, established in l925. Despite similarities in biological age and origins, the Ohel represented a different generational unit, demonstrating that biological age is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in the same cohort.

If you want to know more about the Habima and the Hebrew theater, please read my book, The Habima–Israel’s National Theater, winner of the 1980 National Jewish Book Award.