Another Great National Tragedy

No. It is not the tragic case of our corrupt prime minister. No. It is not the tragedy of racism and hatred spewed in our parliament, the Knesset.

It is a different tragedy. The death of our National Theater, Habima, in Tel-Aviv. When I heard the news on channel 12, I wept tears of sorrow remembering the jewel in the crown of our national Hebrew culture.

It died from the disease of bankruptcy. The cause of the disease was the failure of the Ministry of Culture to provide the funds necessary to keep the thriving theatre alive.

Habima was founded in 1912 by Nachum Zemach in Bialystok, then in the Russian Empire and later in Poland (the city in which my father was at the outbreak of the 1906 horrible pogrom). It was the first all Hebrew language theatre in the world, putting on classical Yiddish and foreign plays translated into Hebrew.

Shakespeare’s plays and the works of great Norwegian and German authors were performed entirely in Hebrew. The Greek classics then became Hebrew classics.

It took several years of rehearsal before the first play was opened to the public. Zemach succeeded in convincing the greatest Russian theatrical director, Constantin Stanislavsky, to provide the proper theatrical skills to the members of the troupe.

The world-renowned Russian author, Maxim Gorki, praised the performance after its opening.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet Yiddish culture group, Yevsektsia, at suggestion of Vladimir Lenin attempted to forbid performances in Hebrew which they felt was an intrusion of Zionism into the new Soviet culture. However, in 1918 Josef Stalin intervened and allowed the Hebrew-speaking theatrical troupe to continue performing, largely due to the enthusiastic reception given to it by Russian intellectuals.

In 1926 the troupe made its first world-wide tour in the Soviet Union, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, Holland and the USA, prior to making its first appearance in Palestine.

On 29 December 1928, the troupe appeared on the Tel-Aviv stage for the first time in a performance of Shalom Aleichem’s Yiddish play “Der Oytzer”, translated into the Hebrew “Ha-Otzar” (The Treasure).

I was privileged to see a performance of it in 1969 in the Estera Kaminski Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw, Poland.

The cast consisted of all non-Jewish actors and actresses who performed in Yiddish, while the Polish audience listened through ear-phones for translation into Polish. I was only one of two in the audience who did not need to use ear-phones because we were familiar with the Yiddish language. A truly outstanding performance !

The Habima theatrical troupe settled permanently in Palestine in 1931 and its leading lady, the one-and-only queen of the Hebrew theatre, Hanna Rovina, played the role of Leah in Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk”, translated from the original Yiddish into contemporary Hebrew by the Jewish Poet-Laureate of Palestine, Chayim Nachman Bialik.

She performed that role in the play more than one thousand times ! Standing ovations and rousing cheers at the end of each performance

She was the greatest and most famous actress in Habima’s history until her death in 1980 at the age of 86, performing up to her death.

I attended my first occasion performance in July 1951. Hanna Rovina was the leading lady but I regret that I cannot remember the name of the play.

But today was for me and for millions of Hebrew-speaking Israelis a truly sad day. Bankruptcy has pained us all. Our only National Theatre is without sufficient funds to continue its 107 magnificent years of bringing world culture into a language for Hebrew-speaking theater patrons.

We must demand from the Minister of Culture to find the means to provide the funds for the continuing work of our great Habima theater. Tel-Aviv can never be the same without it.

I will contribute one thousand shekels into a Habima fund.

And I honestly hope that thousands, even millions, of culture-loving Israelis will join with me in restoring Habima to its fame and glory. We cannot… we must not… allow it to disappear. Busha v’cherpa !!! Shame on us.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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