Hebrew Drama: Representation of Women

by Dan Urian

Amichai Pardo in Rina Yerushalmi's 1993 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, in which the director examined the concept of "being in love" by creating repetitive and simultaneous images that capture the feeling of timelessness.
Courtesy of Rina Yerushalmi.
In Brief

Prior to the 1980s, there was an almost total absence of women-related topics and women’s voices in Hebrew theater, but many talented women have fought for their voices to be heard on the Hebrew stage. Working against binary stereotypes and silent, subservient, characterizations, over the past century women have made a significant change in Hebrew theater. In the plays performed after the founding of the State, many female characters began to reflect the change in values that Israeli society was experiencing. This change brought about an increase in the number of women characters depicted on stage, and their roles became more authentic, strong, and meaningful. Now, active women playwrights whose plays are presented in mainstage and fringe theaters have a significant impact on Hebrew theater.


Since its beginnings in the 1920s, Hebrew theater has been perceived by its audiences as a “high” cultural activity, and the topics it chooses to present have often prompted public controversy and debate. However, what has generally been ignored is the fact that prior to the 1980s there was an almost total absence of women-related topics and women’s voices in Hebrew theater.

Until the 1980s, female characters in Israeli drama were created by male playwrights, from a male perspective and in accordance with the playwrights’ ability or inability to empathize with women’s experience. As a result, female characters suffered from the same sort of stereotyping that Hebrew drama, like Hebrew literature in general, reserved for “the Other.” Most of the stereotypes were binary, with few positive attributes and many negative ones that reflected popular prejudices and preconceptions. Nevertheless, because of their important societal role as mothers who gave birth to pioneers and later as the mothers of soldiers, women were not necessarily depicted at the positive-negative extreme that tended to characterize other stereotypes in Hebrew culture, such as Arabs or Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi and religious Jews. The women are often silent, subservient figures whose male creators express some degree of admiration for the roles they play. In his survey of Hebrew plays written during the period of renewal which were never staged and which in general tended toward schematic characterization (including plays by Judah Loeb Landau (1866–1942), Yaakov Cahan (1881–1960), and Mattityahu Shoham (1893–1937), Gershon Shaked notes that the female characters are all extreme: either “schemers” (including the dangerously seductive femme fatale) or weak, pleading, pathetic creatures. Queen Jezebel in Mattityahu Shoham’s Tyre and Jerusalem (1933) is an archetype of the cruel, scheming woman who threatens death to all who fail to bow down to her. In contrast, Sarah in Shoham’s Make No Iron Gods for Yourself (1937) is a pathetic character who nevertheless displays elements of the schemer in successfully plotting the expulsion of Hagar (Shaked, 1970: 207–254).

Male-Dominated Early Zionist Years

A male-dominated world view prevailed among the founding generations of Zionism. The tasks and challenges presented in Zionist plays of the time primarily relate to ownership of the land, working it and defending it from marauding Arabs (Urian, 2002). David Biale asserts that as long as Zionism was perceived as an ideology that was producing the new “masculine” Jew, who stood in contrast to the supposedly feminine helplessness of the Lit. (Greek) "dispersion." The Jewish community, and its areas of residence, outside Erez Israel.Diaspora, women had a difficult time in establishing their equality in the renewed Hebrew society (Biale, 1994: 246). Indeed, the plays of the Yishuv [settlement] period, of which only a few were actually staged, show men as responsible for making the desert bloom and defending the settlements from Arab aggression. Women are depicted as mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters: they are loved, they cook, do the laundry, and only rarely help with work on the land, which at the time was considered sacred labor. When there is a clash with Arabs, it is the men who go out to fight, while the women remain in the settlement with the children. Their role is to encourage their sons or husbands in carrying out the missions of pioneering and defense. In Watchmen (1937) by Ever Hadani (1899–1972), one female character is young, naive and light-headed, while the other is older and aspires to liberating women from the burden of housework so that they can be free to engage only in educating the children. The participation of women in defense is presented solely by the act of hiding weapons under their dresses. In This Earth by Aharon Ashman (1896–1981), staged by Habimah in 1942, the men are workers or settlers while the women launder and clean. The action includes a plague that breaks out among the settlers due to water pollution. The role of Hannah, the play’s female protagonist, is to support, listen and help, and visit the sick. The other women characters have similar roles.

Early Twentieth Century

While actresses held a place of honor in the theater, it was men who determined the repertoire and assigned the roles. If an actress “deviated” from the roles of mother and silent, submissive wife, she was reprimanded. This was the case with Hanna Rovina, who was mostly assigned maternal roles, including that of the mother of the Messiah. In 1932, when Rovina played the role of a prostitute in Periferia (Outskirts of the City) by Frantisek Langer (1888–1965), leaders of the Jewish community had nothing but harsh criticism. Thus, Menahem Ussishkin (1863–1941) refused to aid Habimah when it was in dire financial straits. “It is not in my purview,” the then-president of the Jewish National Fund claimed. “These funds belong to the entire Jewish people, and I do not believe that I must hand over money to a theater that puts on plays about prostitutes.” (Gai, 1995: 179–180)

“At the peak of its strength, during the War of Independence, the Palmah had over six thousand enlisted personnel of whom about one thousand were women” (Elad, 2000: 216). In plays of that period, a woman who participated in combat was usually a “mirror” for male heroism. Two plays characteristic of the period are He Walked in the Fields by Moshe Shamir (b. 1921), which was staged by the Cameri Theater in 1948, and In the Negev Aravah by Yigal Mossinsohn (1917–1994), which Habimah staged in 1949. In both, as also in other plays, a son is sent to the front as a sacrificial act. Just as the Biblical narrative of the Binding of Isaac relates not to Sarah but only to Abraham, so too in these plays it is the men who sacrifice and are sacrificed while the women remain behind, passive, fearful, weeping and suffering. One of them, Shosh in In the Negev Aravah, serves as a self-effacing voice to justify the rough behavior of the Hebrew male warrior, saying: “You need to armor-plate your heart—or it will split asunder. … We don’t want to sink so far that we see the abyss, for Uzi and Uri have become young killers of men even before they have caressed a young girl’s hair.” Zvi silences her: “Shosh, come, let’s not talk anymore. … And give me your hand, Shosh. I always said you’re a sweetie.” (Mossinsohn 1989: 20)

Post-1948 Performances

In the plays performed after the founding of the State, many female characters embody the change in values that Israeli society was experiencing. They are blamed for the collapse of the pioneering ideals, since it was their selfishness that was perceived as having a bad influence on the men, who had previously dedicated all their energy to the Zionist enterprise. Hedva and I (1954), a novel by Aharon Megged (b. 1920), tells the story of Shlomik, who leaves his Negev A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutz because his wife and family have made life miserable for him. He tries to start a new life in Tel Aviv. The novel’s mythical pattern is “the expulsion from Eden: the woman seduces the man into leaving the kibbutz paradise and the man listens to her, but for the rest of his life he longs to return to the lost realm of happiness” (Shaked, 1993, 306–307). The stage version of Megged’s play ends happily, with Shlomik and Hedva returning to their kibbutz, where they are touched by the large crowd (represented by the audience) that has come to welcome them back.

Similar, and more extreme, are the characterizations of women in the plays by Hanoch Levin (1943–1999), which are frequently caricatures of the monstrous, domineering, materialistic Jewish mother, as exemplified by Chalamansea, the mother in Hefetz. She drives the plot, affecting everyone around her. She decides who will be invited to her daughter’s wedding, abuses and humiliates her distant relative Hefetz, abandons her husband to live with her married daughter, and has no qualms about returning to him when her daughter throws her out. The “Levin woman” hoards, overeats and stuffs her body, which is her property and the weapon she uses to control the man she wishes to acquire. Her body is the source of her motherhood and also her weapon in the battle of the sexes. Chalamansea is characterized by near-total egotism. She is indifferent to everything except her own comfort and the welfare of her close relatives, of whom she takes great care because they are her possessions. She unhesitatingly tramples on any person whom she considers insufficiently important, abandoning alliances and loyalties without batting an eyelash. “You’re no longer of any use,” she tells her husband when she leaves him to live with her daughter.

Narratives of Israeli Women

Until the 1990s, there were comparatively few works by women playwrights that dealt with the Israeli woman. A few fringe works sought to represent the “authentic” opinion of women either on events in which men were active, such as war, or on “social” topics such as family conflicts or battered women. All these plays present women as inferior or harmed by the superiority of men, who employ direct or indirect violence against them. In 1981, Nola Chilton’s play, Battered Women, raised the subject of violence for the first time in a production staged on the fringe of the theatrical establishment, at the Tel Aviv University theater, in collaboration with the Theater Group. The choice of topic was unusual for its time. Chilton wanted to document the fate of women who, of their own free will, “imprison” themselves in shelters for battered women. The actresses, who were mostly of Ashkenazic background, befriended women in the shelters, most of whom were of Mizrahi origin, and based the play on their real-life stories.

Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the subject of battered women still remained on the fringe, as staged for example in the Jaffa community theater. This time, the battered women, almost all of them Mizrahi, are themselves the speakers. “I still haven’t told anyone the half of what I’ve suffered. Why should I open it up? Who will close it? The hurt will still be there,” says one of the women in A Plague Not Written in the Bible (Lev-Alagem, 2000).

In the 1980s, new feminist consciousness and activism, especially with regard to inequality in representation, violence against women and sexual harassment, filtered through to the theater in various ways, contributing also to a change in the way in which women were depicted. Since the beginning of the 1980s, women playwrights have tried to change what had become the usual manner of depiction, challenging the stereotypical male presentation of woman as either scheming or pitiful or a combination of the two. Among the strategies they employed, either singly or in combination, were the “re-writing” of women’s role in Jewish and Israeli myth, deliberate depiction of “strong” women, and the organization of theatrical narrative around images of women.

Rewriting Women in Jewish and Israeli Myths

Among productions that sought to rewrite women’s place in Jewish and Israeli myth were A Woman of the Earth (1981) by Yael Feiler (b. 1953), which presents the story of Lilith, the first woman, who according to legend was, like Adam, created from the earth. The play consists of Biblical verses, stories, and sayings from Jewish tradition. According to legends from The Alphabet of Ben Sira (c. ninth century ce), Lilith was God’s first attempt to create a partner for Adam. A rebel, she was banished because she would not agree to lie beneath Adam or settle for less than equal rights. In her place, Eve was created, but Lilith remained in the world, giving birth to demons.Yael Feiler, whose play consists of Biblical verses, stories, and sayings from Jewish tradition, feels a kinship with the character of Lilith:

My aim was … to show how … the Bible’s negative attitude toward woman … is inseparable from its condemnation of sexuality. In A Woman of the Earth, I tried to illuminate three aspects of this same condemnation: 1. To show that Lilith is a construction, a negative model for women, and that those attributes for which she is known are still used for the same purpose. 2. To show that a woman’s body and her sexuality are frightening to men and that many religious laws and practices have grown out of that fear. 3. To show that God and Adam, the male, have similar unholy motives for their actions towards women, and that God and Adam are actually the same character (Feiler, 1997).

Pioneering Women Settle on Gravel (1981), by Esther Izbitsky (1948–1994), was one of the first feminist plays on the Hebrew stage. In her play, Izbitsky examines the myth of the Zionist national-social revolution from the perspective of the women who took part in it. Most of the play is composed of documentary excerpts such as the following: “When Mania Shochat was nineteen, she saw a hot-air balloon for the first time. … The balloon stood in the middle of the field and the organizers announced that anyone who wanted to could go up in it. Suddenly, the desire to rise above the earth awakened in Mania. Because only men were permitted to go up, she asked one of the young men with her to lend her his clothing. And thus, disguised as a man, she got into the basket.”

As an antithesis to the depiction of women of the First Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyah (1882–1903) as passive or silent, the playwright-director instructed the actresses to work without pause: from crushing gravel to kneading dough, the feverish and physically exhausting performance of hard work revealed to the audience the difficult and thankless lives of these anonymous women. In a kind of caricature that expressed women’s anger at male-dominated history of the early yishuv, the production presented the men as wooden heads on metal poles, in the likeness of major Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), Joseph Hayyim Brenner (1881–1921), Aharon David Gordon (1856–1922) and Joseph Trumpeldor (1880–1920). Pioneer Women Settle on Gravel appears to have been ahead of its time, since it closed after only five performances. Audiences walked out on it, with one woman in the audience commenting that “It is sacrilegious to show women who contributed to the State and the people in such a way.” (Davar, 1981)

The “fringe” quality of women’s theater is also apparent in dramatic structure. Repertory theater tends toward coherence, selecting narratives that have a beginning, middle and end. It also inclines towards spectacle and visual effects: well-developed stages, sophisticated scenery, varied lighting, numerous costumes and props. Women’s theater, which creates its identity out of opposition to mainstream patriarchy, tends to opt for different characteristics: episodic form and “poor” theater—characteristics whose “defamiliarization” effect helps to emphasize—even to the point of defiance—their creators’ world view, which deviates from convention. In The Story of Beruriah (1982), for example, the experimental-theater form serves the demand for a “new [feminine] Judaism.” The Jerusalem Theatre Group, which presented the play, has been active since 1982, basing its work primarily on Jewish sources. Its Jewish identity derives from the personal life of each of its women participants: Gavriella Lev (b. 1948), Ruth Wieder (b. 1954), and Aliza Elion-Israeli (b. 1948) embody the Jewish tradition both in their work and in their lives (Urian, 2000: 59–80).

Sarah, 1993

Another performance by the Jerusalem Theater Group, Sarah (1993), is structured as a havruta (partner-study) session, with the audience’s seats arranged around the performance area. Texts about the matriarch Sarah are projected onto the wall near the audience, who experience and study together with the actresses. In the course of the performance, the various midrashim on Sarah’s life are scrutinized, shifting the emphasis from the heroic Abraham to the almost totally obscured character of his wife. With the aid of masks and slides, the viewer becomes acquainted with her multi-faceted character. The director, Serge Ouaknine, divided the dialogue between three Sarahs, respectively archaic, mythical and contemporary. Then, three Sarahs stand onstage: the Sarah of the Bible, the Sarah of the Talmud and the contemporary Sarah. In the course of the production, the actresses move from the Biblical text to the Talmudic and midrashic period and then to modern women’s experience in Israel. They search for what is common to all three: women’s status in Judaism.

The sense of tension that accompanies the study in Sarah emanates from the contradiction that has no solution, many clear expressions of which can be found in the text, such as an emphasis on duality in all the components of both structure and content, which express the sharp divide between man and woman. The play occasionally evokes the illusion that it is attempting to solve the problem from a feminist perspective, within the framework of existing The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah; but this is only an intermediate strategy enabling the playmakers to progress in a radical direction. However, it does serve as a case study from the female point of view, questioning the spirit and authority of the harsh male halakhah. The play aims at revealing another halakhah and a different Judaism, in which not only is there a place for woman, but in which the feminine spirit guides the way of life (Urian, 1999: 98–104).

Women Playwrights

Alongside these pioneering efforts, women playwrights have also begun to gain a place in mainstream theater, slowly changing the depiction of women. The most outstanding among them are Miriam Kainy (b. 1942), Shulamith Lapid, Rina Yerushalmi and Edna Mazya (b. 1950). From the outset of her career, Miriam Kainy designed a different image for her female characters. In the “latency” phase of her work, she challenged the centrality of the Israeli man in the theatrical narrative, introducing the Arab male as a potent rival to the Jewish-Israeli male (who suffers from impotence). Alona and Ayala, respectively in Kainy’s plays The Return (1973, 1975) and Like A Bullet in the Head (1981), prefer the Arab to the Jew. The choice of an Arab is not coincidental, but rather a demonstrative act, since the Arab man is the polar opposite of the Jewish-Israeli male on the map of Jewish-Israeli culture (Urian, 1997). In retrospect, Kainy herself “confesses”:

When I appear to be dealing with Jewish-Arab problems, with male problems, I’m really playing underneath with the … female problem. Because if I bring this issue to the surface, I’m lost. I won’t have an audience. (Finnegan, 1995: 81).

Even if the playwright did not intend it, Like A Bullet in the Head emasculates the Jewish-Israeli man, allowing a love story to take place between a Jewish-Israeli woman and an Arab man. Unlike the weak Jew, the Arab man is handsome and virile (“He’s all muscle, his entire body, not an ounce of fat. … People say they have large dicks”), and also intellectually impressive. The character of an Arab man as portrayed by a militant feminist playwright is not coincidental and perhaps even an indication of the diminishing status of the Jewish-Israeli man in Israeli culture, paralleling the ascension of the Jewish-Israeli woman.

Two other plays present women who have been written out of male history: Babatha by Miriam Kainy, staged in 1987 by Habimah, and The Maid of Ludomir by Yossefa Even-Shoshan (b. 1965), staged in 1996 at Jerusalem’s Khan Theatre, with the subtitle “The story of Hannah Rachel Werbermacher, the Maid of Ludomir, who wanted the soul of a man.” Hannah Rachel was a historical figure (1892–1915) who openly claimed the right to study Manuscript scroll of the Pentateuch used in public worship.Sefer Torah and Talmud, which in her time was permitted only to men. She breaks her engagement, fearing that married life will frustrate her desire to study, and gives up family life, which the male narrative has perceived as woman’s main goal.

Babatha returns the audience to Judea, sixty-two years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and the outbreak of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans (132–135 ce). The play is based on thirty-five authentic documents discovered by archaeologist Yigael Yadin (1917–1984), which describe Babatha’s struggle against the male monopoly over her life and, no less important, over her property. When Babatha is widowed, she is forced to appoint guardians for her son despite the fact that she is his sole support. The guardians steal her property, all the while claiming to represent her son’s interests. Since there is not a single man whom she can trust, she decides to protect the property, which she had acquired through her own hard work. In contrast to the male narrative, in which the woman plays a passive role, these two playwrights have created an alternative female narrative in which the women are active, take charge of their own lives and confront the reality that seeks to restrict them.

Rina Yerushalmi and the Itim Ensemble

Other attempts to change the depiction of women include the dramatized Biblical works of Rina Yerushalmi and the Itim Ensemble. Yerushalmi works from the perspective of dramatic research: “The director must allow the material outside the director’s person to dictate the type of theater. Otherwise the same sort of theater will always be created. Each play, or the subject it deals with, dictates a different type of theater.” (Perlstein, 1999: 26) In Yerushalmi’s Biblical commentary, female characters gain uniqueness and dramatic interpretation: “Thus, for example, in He Spoke and He Went (1996), a woman reiterates the story of Jephthah’s daughter in a constantly accelerating rhythm, with music that grows steadily louder. She moves from the position of the storyteller who transmits the written text to that of a storyteller who becomes more and more involved, from different perspectives, until her imagined identification with Jephthah’s daughter herself, who uses the harsh written text to utter her cry in a hair-raising crescendo” (ibid.).

Like other woman playwrights before her, Rina Yerushalmi presents the character of Sarah, turning the story of Isaac’s birth, presented in the Bible from Abraham’s point of view, into the story of Sarah. The woman tells about the angels’ visit and Sarah’s pregnancy in old age, expressing the labor pains and birth pangs with both her body and her voice. This moving picture is slowly transformed into the Binding of Isaac, also told from the mother’s perspective. “It is directed to the audience and to Israeli society at large, to emphasize that it is not only the father who sacrifices his son, but that there is also a mother and wife in this story, as in the other stories.” (Lahavi, 1999: 72)

Deconstructionism and Postmodernism

Deconstructionism and postmodernism also help the feminine voice to be heard in theater. An important part of the theoretical and practical work of Hélène Cixous (b. 1937), the French poet, playwright, and essayist, relates to deconstruction, which serves her as a strategy in demolishing the myths that support the patriarchal system and in abrogating their “natural” status. Following a similar path to Cixous, Orly Castel-Bloom, in her play A Night at the Mall, staged by the Haifa Municipal Theater in 1994, destroys the Hebrew and Zionist myths that constructed the female image. Deconstructionism and postmodernism merge in her work. “In her surrealistic way, with her insane black humor,” she offers “a new kind of pessimistic utopia—to free ourselves of the tyranny of our dreams” (Gurevitz, 1997: 303), including the dream of the silent, passive woman or the nightmare of the schemer. In their stead comes the new “pioneer” woman who is stronger than the man, who is now played as a caricature of the pioneer-masculine-religious-Zionist ethos. The play’s protagonists, Koni and Avigoshen, are a married couple who combine two traumas: the past evacuation of territory and the possibility of a future one. Former residents of Yamit (a settlement on the northern shore of Sinai, ten kilometers south of Rafah, which was returned to Egypt in April 1982), they now live in Elon Moreh (an urban settlement five kilometers east of Nablus) and are trapped for one bizarre night in a shopping mall, the sanctum of hedonistic, secular culture. Castel-Bloom employs the character of Koni to present everything that she considers extreme and deserving of mockery in the settler ideology, especially the ethos of building, which sanctifies the physical sprawl of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Koni wants to travel to Yamit to find the last hammer that built the city and fornicate with it; for her, it is the symbol of pioneerism. Married life, even for religious people, is no longer an obstacle for a frustrated woman whose routine stifles her, and she adopts a male ethos in order to free herself of it.

Edna Mazya (b. 1950) is an extremely successful playwright and director. Among her plays are Games in the Back Yard (1993), The Rebels (1998), and Herod (2000). In some ways, Mazya returns to the stereotypical depictions of women encountered during the period of settlement. In Herod, for example, we meet two women: Mariamme the Hasmonean, a kind of “pleader,” and Cleopatra, the schemer. However, Mazia succeeds in telling the story of Herod from the perspective of the women involved, who are not only depicted as strong and characterized in detail, but are also accorded “equal time” with the men.


Now, two decades into the twenty-first century, a significant change appears to be taking place in the way in which women are presented in Hebrew theater. The number of active women playwrights whose plays are presented in mainstage and fringe theaters has grown considerably, occasionally equaling the number of ongoing productions of plays written by men. This change has in turn brought about an increase in the number of women characters depicted on the stage, as well as a change in their roles in the plot and the amount of dialogue allotted to them. Women (both playwrights and characters) no longer deal only with confrontations with the masculine world, but with their own perspective as women and with the nature of their lives.

Director Ofira Henig describes the present phase as follows: “The real revolution, for me, is that women have something to say, and not just about the classic conflict between career and family. We do not speak from the womb, but from the head. I would call it a post-feminist revolution” (Shohat, 2001). One example of this revolution is the adaptation of Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata by Anat Gov as Lysistrata 2000. Moving the conflict from Sparta and Athens to the Middle East, Gov exposes the foolishness of men, all of them ridiculous and childish, in contrast with the insight and initiative of the women, who try in every way possible, even by denying the men sex, to bring peace and prevent war.

Lysistrata: I am a woman, true, but I’ve a mind.

What I have to say, I shall tell both sides in this war:

War is for barbarians. …

Whence comes this need to enlarge territory all the time?

Haven’t your wives ever told you size doesn’t matter?

How is it that one murder makes a person a murderer, while he gets a medal for a thousand?

Why do we need to control someone else to feel big?

Why do we need to hate someone else

in order to love ourselves?

(Gov, 2001: 62–63)

These words reflect a perceptible trend in Israeli society: women are more active than men in the various peace movements, and one group, originally called Four Mothers, is even credited with having brought about the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000.


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How to cite this page

Urian, Dan. "Hebrew Drama: Representation of Women." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 17, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hebrew-drama-representation-of-women>.