1888 – 1980
In April 1956, when Hanna Rovina was awarded the Israel Prize for Theater Arts, the judges’ comments stressed the central role she had played in the history of Hebrew theater:
In her life as an actor, Hanna Rovina embodied the development of Hebrew theater. She was a mixture of rare gifts as a woman artist, from Leah in The Dybbuk, the heroic symbol of the birth of Hebrew theater as well as the birth of the Hebrew actress, to Medea, her last role (directed by Peter Frye, premiered in November 1955). … Her path was that of an oath of loyalty to the vision of Hebrew theater.
The vengeful Medea, who murders her two children in revenge against her husband’s infidelity, was not typical of the gallery of roles Rovina filled. All the critics heaped praise on her acting and the Israel Prize judges averred that
In Medea her distinct and unique gifts as a “tragic actress”—gifts so rare in our times—were clearly revealed anew: the purity of approach, the measured design, the strong, clear cut, a courageous plunge into the depths of a pained, tempestuous soul—all this in order to understand the character, to illuminate her and give expression to her. She cast her spirit of splendor and the grace of her mercy and art over the horror (Guy, 1995).
The daughter of David and Sarah-Rivka Rubin, Hanna Rovina was born in Berezino in the region of Minsk. She had one sister, Rahel, and a brother, Zvi. Her father, a Habad hasid, was a timber merchant who set great store on educating his daughters and sent them to the “Heder ha-metukan,” headed by the Hebrew teacher Moshe Rubinchek. Hanna left her parental home upon completing her studies at the Russian municipal school. After working for two years as a nursemaid she went to Warsaw to study at the Hebrew seminary for teachers and kindergarten teachers directed by Yehiel Halperin. Completing her studies summa cum laude, she was employed to teach at the seminary’s kindergarten. In Warsaw she first met Nahum Zemach, who wanted to establish a society of Lovers of Hebrew and put on plays in that language. On the outbreak of World War I, after spending two lively years in the big city, Rovina returned home for a short while and from there set off for Baku, where she had been offered a position as a kindergarten teacher. She arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1917, after a long correspondence with Zemach, who urged her to join the studio which later became Habimah. Her career as an actress caused a rift with the world of her family. Because of his orthodoxy, her father never saw her perform. However, she maintained an ongoing correspondence with her family, who in 1925 immigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis. While Habimah was in New York, her sister informed her that her father was dying and she managed to see him before his death. In March 1945, when she returned to Tel Aviv from a tour of the Allied camps in Cairo and Italy, she received a telegram from her sister reporting their mother’s death. Rahel, who immigrated to Israel in 1948, settled with her husband and her children in the moshav Beit Herut in Samaria. The sisters had a very close relationship.
Hanna Rovina began her acting career only when she was almost thirty years old. Her first role was the old mother in The Oldest Daughter, a sketch by Shalom Asch, one of four pieces in an evening entitled Beginning Party, directed by Vachtengov (première, October 1918, Moscow). Her last role, which she performed only ten times, was the queen-mother in Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by David Levin (prèmiere, November 1976, Tel Aviv). Even in the final decades of her life, she refused to give up the stage, fighting for her right to be given a part. The dramatist and director Nissim Aloni, who created Aunt Lisa especially for her, described her stage presence in writing about her performance as King’s mother in Eddy King: “Even when she was eighty-seven, in Eddy King, she had the same stance and the same glory that nobody else possessed.” Rovina was never an actress who was “absorbed” into the dramatic character, but rather an actress who harnessed the part to explore an aspect of her own stage personality. In all her parts she gave expression to her strong individuality. In the course of six decades, she played scores of parts, including queens and mothers larger than life, which suited and embodied her public persona. Thus, for example, in the 1938/1939 season she played Isabella, the Catholic queen of Spain, in The Conversos by Max Zweig, who opposes Torquemada the Inquisitor (Aharon Meskin), dares to defend the conversos and finally kneels before him, a broken woman; the eponymous Mirele Efros, in Gordin’s play, who in her interpretation was transformed into a noble, impressive creature—“a Jewish queen,” in the words of the critics; Dolores, in Karl Czapek’s The Mother, who loses her husband and sons in war, speaks to the ghosts of the dead, cries out “Accursed War!” and hides her sole surviving son. But when the motherland is again in danger, she does not hesitate to thrust a gun into his hand and send him to the battlefront. These and many other roles fitted well into the nationalist story that was unfolding in the country. In this context, the role of the mother whose son, Danny, fell in battle, in Yigal Mossinsohn’s On the Plains of the Negev (1949) stands out in particular.
Without a doubt, the major source of her stage fame and glory was the role of Leah in The Dybbuk by S. An-Ski, directed by Vachtengov (prèmiere January 22, 1922, Warsaw). However, she was given this part only at the last moment, when Shoshana Avivit, who had initially been cast in the part, announced that she was leaving the company. From the moment Rovina appeared on stage it became impossible to separate her either from the character, from The Dybbuk or even from Habimah itself. Her white dress, her long black braid, her carefully made-up face, her blazing eyes, her deep voice, the repertoire of body movements into which Vachtengov wove motifs from the Judeo-Austrian tradition, all transformed her into an icon—a symbol of purity and sanctification that was, as it were, a combination of the Madonna and the crucified. Critics were overwhelmed by Vachtengov’s theatrical idiom and in their words of praise they related to the remarkable contribution of Leah-Rovina. Thus M. Zagorski maintained that “She is the most wonderful character in the production. An outstanding graphic sketch, without any colorful adornments, only economical use of modes of expression. In her acting: clarity, crystal transparency and the voice of the heart.”
Critic A. Kugel wrote: “The wonderful gifts of actress Rovina stand out in an exceptional manner … only a very talented and wide-awake actress could act as precisely and subtly as she does. To mingle two voices as one in the way she does is a miracle of technical maturity.” Theater people, authors and intellectuals in the European cultural centers through which Habimah wandered between 1926 and 1931 were enchanted by the powerful idiom that Vachtengov bestowed on The Dybbuk and Leah-Rovina became the artistic symbol of the performance. The excellent reviews that she reaped established her status as the star of the company and, with the addition of two further roles—the mother of the Messiah in The Eternal Jew and the Messiah in The Golem—as a national symbol. Public figures, poets and authors sang the praises of the first Hebrew actress and bestowed on her the title of “Mother of the Nation.” Her status in Habimah was undisputed and over the years she played the best female roles, including Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth, Linda, the wife of Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Laura in Strindberg’s The Father. She played Leah in The Dybbuk in every revival of the play until 1957, when Habimah participated in a festival in Paris. In contrast to the cultural significance of the revival in Israel and the accompanying emotions it aroused in both critics and audiences, the Paris reviews were catastrophic and the public “voted with its feet,” condemning the production to failure.
Rovina’s private life is a fascinating story in itself. Her first and only marriage was to Moshe Halevi (1895–1975), an actor and member of the Habimah collective. The power struggles between him and Nahum Zemach, and especially his desire to direct, finally led him in 1924 to leave Habimah and go to Erez Israel, where he founded the Ohel, which later became the Theater of Erez Israel Laborers. Rovina remained in Moscow. In the summer of 1925, more than half a year after their separation, she visited him in Erez Israel and asked him to acknowledge paternity of the child she was bearing. Halevi refused and divorced her. Rovina was thirty-seven years old when she terminated her pregnancy and returned to Moscow. During Habimah’s peregrinations the actor Ari Vershaber was her partner and they were considered an official couple. During Habimah’s tour of the United States Rovina met Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel, and his letters give some indication of the relationship between them. It is hard to determine the extent to which Weizmann’s opinion influenced Rovina, but during a severe crisis that Habimah experienced in New York (which ultimately led to a split in the company) Rovina steadfastly led those who opined that the company should set out for Erez Israel in order to fulfill the Zionist vision. During her mid-forties, Rovina met the bohemian poet Alexander Penn (1906–1972) and a great love blossomed between them. However, his love of women and alcohol led to ups and downs in their relationship and they never married. Their daughter Ilana was born on February 10, 1934. Penn and Rovina separated and Ilana hardly knew her father. Like most of the children of Hebrew actors, Ilana was raised by nursemaids and sent to a kibbutz whenever her mother traveled abroad. From the diaries that Rovina painstakingly kept, one can learn that family life was hard for her and that she found enjoyment neither in the role of mother, grandmother nor mother-in-law, but only in her role as an actress.
Throughout her career Rovina acted only with Habimah, apart from one guest performance at the Cameri Theater in Nathan Alterman’s Kinneret, Kinneret (1961). A year before her death, Habimah decided to name its large auditorium after her. While she longed to die on stage, she defeated death in many of her parts. Nissim Aloni best expressed this in The Gypsies of Jaffa, in which she played Madam Zara the Gypsy fortune-teller, a part he created especially for her. “That’s how my fate turned out. To perform magic in this bewitched world … I changed wigs, sang, danced the polka and the fox-trot. Now—when I have to perform my magic—the magic of life and death—perhaps my last trick, I’m finished, can’t do it … I am myself bewitched.” On February 4, 1980, Rovina’s coffin lay in state in the Habimah auditorium. Shimon Finkel eulogized her on behalf of “the family of actors”: “We’re saying goodbye to you, High Priestess of the Hebrew theater. You are the very symbol of national revival and of the renaissance of the Hebrew language.”
Guy, Carmit. The Queen Went by Bus: Rovina and Habimah. Tel Aviv: 1995; Shaked, Gershon. “The Face of a Generation Is Like the Face of Its Actors, or From Aharon to Amnon.” In Literature Then, Here and Now. Tel Aviv: 1993; Gur, Yisrael. Those Who Play the Beggar and the King. Jerusalem: 1997; The Israel Center for Documentation of Theater Arts. Tel Aviv University, Archival File 76.1.1.