The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

Features thousands of biographic and thematic essays on Jewish women around the world. Learn more

Hebrew Theater: Yishuv to the Present

by Dan Urian
Last updated June 23, 2021

A scene from Va-Yomer/Va-Yelech, with Neta Yeshchin (L) and Noam Ben-Azar (R).
Courtesy of Rina Yerushalmi.
In Brief

Of all the theatrical professions, only actresses—such as Lisa (Leah) Varon, Rivka Pfeffer, Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, Hanna Rovina, and Hanna Meron—were truly partners in the enterprise of reviving Hebrew culture in the early twentieth century.  Only in the 1980s did women writers and directors begin to work in Israeli theater; important figures include Shulamit Bat-Dori, Lea Goldberg, Miriam Kainy, Shulamit Lapid, Nola Chilton, and Rina Yerushalmi. In the last few decades of the twentieth century and the first few decades of the twenty first, however, women playwrights and directors have taken on increasingly prominent roles, notably Anat Gov and Edna Mazya.

From its beginnings early in the twentieth century, Hebrew theater was the province of men. With the exception of a few trailblazers such as Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, who translated and produced plays, it was not until the 1980s that women writers and directors began to work in the Israeli theater. Of all the theatrical professions, only actresses had truly been partners in the enterprise of reviving Hebrew culture. It is therefore appropriate to begin with several of the most important of these and to go from there to playwrights and directors.

Actresses

Lisa Varon was the first Hebrew “star.” A native of Jerusalem, Lisa (Leah) moved with her parents to Cairo, where she participated in Jewish theater performed by Jewish immigrants from Russia, learning Yiddish in order to do so. Returning to Jaffa, she began to participate in performances put on by the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage. Despite the fact that she did not know Hebrew, she was extremely successful. Menahem Gnessin (1882–1952), one of the pioneers of Hebrew theater, wrote in her praise: “This is the first actress on the stage of the Land of Israel to demonstrate real acting.” However, he perceived her Eastern origins as a hindrance, referring to her as “a primitive actress who had never in her life seen real theater” (Gnessin, 1946: 55). Author Joseph Hayyim Brenner (1881–1921) also admired Varon’s acting (“A young Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi woman about twenty years old has been discovered here in Jaffa. She has, without doubt, great dramatic talent”), but he too had reservations about her lack of Hebrew: “Miss Varon does not know Hebrew and never received any Hebrew education—and as one to whom the Hebrew world is completely foreign, she is lost to us” (H.B. Zalel [Brenner], 1910). Indeed, Varon left Palestine in 1912, first studying acting in Switzerland and afterwards unsuccessfully trying her luck as an actress in the United States. She returned to Israel only at the end of the 1970s (Arnon, 1990: 9–10).

Another actress, Rivka Pfeffer, was called “the first Hebrew actress” by the historian of Hebrew theater Gabriel Talpir (Talpir, 1963–1964: 15). Pfeffer immigrated with the Second Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah. At the age of fourteen, she played the part of a boy in a play by Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) performed by the Lovers of Theater in Jaffa. In 1906 she joined the Lovers of the Hebrew Stage and participated in most of the troupe’s productions. In 1921 she left to study acting at the Max Reinhardt school in Berlin, and in 1924 she joined the Erez Israel Theater, taking part in most of its productions. Pfeffer earned good reviews, especially for her excellent Hebrew, which was fluent and natural. This was important, since the major mission of the Hebrew theater was to revive the Hebrew language through its use on stage. One reviewer wrote of her portrayal of Dorine in Moliere’s Tartuffe: “‘Dorine’ (Rivka Pfeffer) performed her role outstandingly, with the greatest success. Her speaking ability enriched the whole play. She spoke naturally, and her role was the most difficult of all. ... The language comes naturally to her. Her style of speech is fluent and she is well able to play the role of the servant-matchmaker” (Heimann, 1914).

The first outstanding woman in the history of Hebrew theater was Miriam Bernstein-Cohen (1895–1991), a native of Russia who initially came to Palestine in 1907 with her family. She studied in Jabneel and at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasia before returning in 1910 to Kishinev with her family. In 1913, she began to study medicine at the university of Kharkov but decided that she preferred acting and the theater. Over her parents’ objections and with the help of Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1920), who was a friend of the family as well as a Hebrew elocution teacher, she studied theater and acting in Kharkov and Kiev. In 1918 she took an acting course in Moscow taught by Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) and also performed in Soviet theater. In 1921 she returned to Palestine and gave a successful performance at The Hebrew Theatre as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. One newspaper reviewer took great pride in “our Hebrew Nora, a shaper of the Hebrew stage in our country, and so we call to her with all our hearts: Well done!” (Kohansky, 1974: 54). Bernstein-Cohen was also a director as well as the first Jewish theater manager, a task she performed for many years with great success.

During the later Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuvperiod and after the founding of the State, a number of outstanding actresses made a major impression in the theater, leaving other contemporary actresses in the shade. The fashion of the “great actresses” continued until the 1970s. The most famous of these was Hanna Rovina, an actress who left her mark over a long period, first in the Hebrew and later in the Israeli theater. More than any other actor or actress, Rovina was identified with the Hebrew theater and her name became almost synonymous with that of Habimah. Like the other actors who had founded Habimah in Moscow, Rovina was part of a group that sanctified the theater. Professor Gershon Shaked wrote of her: “The audience who came to see Hanna Rovina projected onto her personality characteristics that existed beyond the specific role she was playing: in her youth, she was a symbol of the young aristocratic woman, in her maturity the eternal mother. In 1932, when Rovina played the role of a prostitute in Periferie (Outskirts of the City, 1925) by Frantisek Langer (1888–1965), she became such an aristocratic whore that the playwright would not have recognized her” (Shaked, 1989).

As a star of the Hebrew theater, Rovina played a variety of parts, including Leah (1922) in The Dybbuk by S. An-Ski (1863–1920) and the mother of the Messiah (1923) in The Eternal Jew by David Pinsky (1872–1959). She continued to play maternal roles throughout her career.I In 1939, she played three such maternal roles: in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Mirele Efros by Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), and The Mother by Karel Capek (1890–1938). About half the parts she played—approximately seventy in number (Finkel, 62)—were mother or grandmother roles. It is no coincidence that the poem Simon Halkin (1898–1987) dedicated to her, as the representative of a generation, turns in entreaty to: “One like you ... live long, mother of the Messiah! ... We have thirsted for a mother, O God, a mother whose tears are clear!” (ibid). Rovina’s many roles in productions of world classics include Phèdre (1945); Jocasta in Oedipus the King (1947); Mrs. Elwing in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1947); Mother Courage (1951), and Medea (1955). Nissim Aloni (1926–1998) collaborated with her, creating roles and even an entire play, Aunt Lisa (1969), especially for her. Hayyim Gamzu (1910–1982) wrote about her performance in the latter: “The role of Aunt Lisa was surely intended by the playwright ... for Hanna Rovina, who was the center of the production and who created one of the most interesting characters of her career. Rovina was Aunt Lisa, queen of evil spirits and dark desires, a Lilith who, though aging, is not about to give up the right she took for herself to fight against fate. . . . She feigns disability, a supposed weakness, but even in her weakness she has more power than the others have in their strength. [She] was regal in her white gown. . . . The performance was Rovina within the scope of the role that Nissim Aloni created” (Gamzu, 1999: 272–273).

Her impressive appearance, “erect and regal carriage” (Finkel, 238), unique vocal ability, total dedication to the role and special talent turned Rovina into an icon of female acting during the Yishuv period even before the founding of the State. But Israeli audiences also wanted to see real-life women, who were not “godlike.” Such were the actresses who won fame after Rovina: Hanna Meron, Orna Porat, Gila Almagor, and others.

A theater album compiled by Peter Merom in 1965 opens with two Hannas, Hanna Rovina and Hanna Meron (1923-2014). Rovina is sitting in the Green Room, looking upward (not into the mirror). Her face—to use the image employed by Roland Barthes (1915–1980) in describing the face of Greta Garbo (Barthes, 1957, 77–79)—is an idea, like a mask; and she indeed promises her admirers: “With all my love of life, with all my desire to live, if I knew that my death would help to put an end to wars in the world, I would be willing to die. Every role, every play that cries out against war I take on gladly” (Merom, 1965). Rovina needs only one picture for this. The photographer devoted two pictures, however, to Hanna Meron: the first is a shot of her face looking down into a small mirror, reflected in a large mirror behind her; in the second, she is smoking a cigarette with a slight smile on her face. Her face, to borrow another image from Barthes, reminds us of Audrey Hepburn, and like her personality, it is an event, full of life and ever-changing (Barthes, 78–79). Hanna Meron creates that impression herself in the words she adds to her photographs. She describes the moment before a performance as “the moment between the death of the private persona and the birth of the stage persona” (Merom, 1965).

Hanna Meron was an actress whose “stage persona” fed on biographical details accumulated through her performances in theater and other media—a persona in which characteristics such as sexual attraction, a sharp tongue, a feel for timing, and pealing laughter were prominent. Even the diminutive “Hannaleh,” which the newspapers used a great deal, indicated an intimacy with that same inviting stage persona. Her biography was summarized in the press from the beginning of her acting career in Israel. In the many articles about her, she tells her life story: she was born in Berlin in 1923, was a wunderkind in the German theater and acted in films, first in Germany and later in France. After coming to Israel, she found her place in the Hebrew theater and studied at the Habimah studio under Zvi Friedland (1898–1967). She joined the British army, serving first as a clerk and then as a member of the army entertainment troupe, and later joined the founders of the Cameri Theater. Her “biographies” also mention her relationship with her mother, her parents’ divorce, her three marriages, and her special relationship with her first husband, actor Yosef Yadin (1920–2001), who was her regular partner on the stage. Yet all the while she constantly stressed the buffer she erected, and wished to maintain, between her private and professional lives. It is thus no wonder that her audience (who are also the readers of the above-mentioned texts) refered to her “biography” when they encountered her in the theater. As a text, that biography is nourished by its intertextuality with other similar and dissimilar texts, as is the case with other actresses. Several of her interviews revealed her fear of losing her status as a celebrity actress (as in her story of the taxi driver who could not recall whether she was Hanna Rovina, Ilana Rovina, or Hanna Aharoni—respectively a stage actress, a singer, and a film actress), or her reluctance to be remembered in a role she played on television, and also her fear of success as a comic actress, which might have overshadowed her status as a “serious” dramatic actress (Urian, 1994). Hanna Meron belonged to the generation of professional actresses who were tested anew in every role. Hayyim Gamzu’s review (1957) of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), in which she played Laura, applies equally to her acting ability in most of her other roles: “The role of the daughter found in Hanna Meron an actress with nobility of mind and not only of ordinary talent. … [She] knew … how to create belief in her entire performance, in the smallest details of her acting. … It was a real joy to watch her serious and steady building of the role, which has many difficulties, little enough text and demands of the actress both performance skill and imaginative power” (Gamzu 1999: 183–184). Meron appeared in many successful roles, among them Mika in Moshe Shamir’s He Walked in the Fields (1948), Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1954), Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1959), the title roles in Hedda Gabler (1966) and Medea (1971), Mira in Driver, Artist (1988) by Hillel Mittelpunkt (b. 1949), and others.

Orna Porat was born in Cologne in 1924. After high school, she studied at the Cologne drama school, appearing on stage while still a student. She performed in several theaters in Germany before her arrival in Palestine in 1947. She was accepted into the Cameri Theater, where she appeared in various roles, including Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1952), a performance that established her as a significant actress. From Emil Feuerstein’s review of the performance, we can learn of the effect that Porat had on her audience: “Porat has such clear Hebrew diction, such wonderful creative ability. We do not often see such identification of an actress with her part. That same innocent village girl who sees visions is there before us.... Orna Porat has built a monumental character by dazzling artistry. The character grows before our eyes from scene to scene and from act to act, from the beleaguered city to the court, to the coronation and her imprisonment and death at the stake. No Hebrew artist has provided us with such an experience in years” (Yerushalmi, 1999, Ha-Teatron 2:57). Her most outstanding parts were the title role in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart (1961) and Euripides’s Electra (1964), a performance in which Porat reached “one of the high points of her dramatic capability. Fragile and delicate, torn and slashed, wild and vengeful” (Bar-Nir, 1964). In 1983, against the background of the war in Lebanon, she appeared with Gila Almagor in Euripides’s The Trojan Women in its adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre—a play that exemplified women’s increasing involvement in Israel’s conflicted political reality. Porat was also the founder of the first public children’s theater, an institution that was later named after her. Orna Porat died in 2015.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to single out only some of the outstanding actresses who performed on stage during the 1960s and thereafter without doing injustice to others. By then the era of the “great actresses” had ended, and many talented actresses were appearing on stage, in films, and on television. In addition, the variety of female roles had changed. Instead of the roles of “great” maternal types, or other stereotypical conceptions of women found earlier, we find that in the last third of the twentieth century women’s roles had become comparable to those of men in every way.

Among the actresses from this period is Gila Almagor, who won a place of honor in Israeli theater and film. Almagor began her professional career at the age of seventeen with Habimah. She pursued further study with Uta Hagen (b. 1919) and Lee Strasberg (1901–1982). Her many roles include a performance based on her novel The Summer of Aviya (1988), which she performed hundreds of times. Almagor has also appeared successfully in Israeli cinema. Among the many other actresses who have become well known in recent decades are Lia Koenig (1930), Zaharira Charifai (1929), Liora Rivlin (1945), Ruth Segal, Miriam Zohar (1928), Jetta Monte, Dina Blei (1957), Anat Waxsman (1961), and Smadar Ya’aron (b. 1956).

Playwrights

There were few women playwrights in the Israeli theater of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and their plays were at best performed infrequently. This began to change only during the 1980s, intensifying in the 1990s, when the number of women writers increased together with the number of their plays that were performed. Among the “forgotten women” writers of the Hebrew theater is Shulamit Bat-Dori (1907–1985), one of the founders of 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 Mishmar ha-Emek, who studied with Max Reinhardt (1873–1943) and at the Laban School. Bat-Dori was a pioneer playwright and director. In her plays A Simple Man Set Out (1935) and The Trial (1939), she was influenced by the traditions of political theater of the 1940s, especially that of Erwin Piscator (1893–1966). The founder of a culture of amateur theater in the kibbutz movement, she staged large-scale performances on kibbutzim, such as My Glorious Brothers (1953) and Till Eulenspiegel (1955), both adaptations of well-known novels. For these performances, the landscape was changed, hills were moved from place to place, trees uprooted and replanted in order to create natural scenery. Hundreds of people were called upon to participate. Yet despite these and other achievements, Bat-Dori is not among the well-known Hebrew theater personalities. Despite her theatrical and educational activities and the folkdance festivals that she organized at kibbutz Daliyyah, she has not been accorded her due place in the annals of Hebrew culture.

Lea Goldberg (1911–1970) was an exceptional figure in the 1950s. Born in Kovno, where she studied philosophy and Semitic languages, she came to Palestine in 1935. Here she was better known as a poet, translator, and researcher of literature who also wrote several plays. Lady of the Manor, first performed in 1955, has two female characters—Dora Ringel, a Youth Aliyah emissary in Europe, and Lena, owner of the mansion, who has found a hiding place there. The mansion symbolizes the past, and Lena is invited to join the new world in Palestine.

Miriam Kainy was the first woman playwright recognized as such in Israeli theater. An “engaged” playwright, she devotes her plays to political and feminist issues. Her first three plays, The Return (1973, 1975), Like a Bullet in the Head (1981), and They—Imagining the Other (1982) were also the first to bring the subject of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to both the fringe and established theater. In later plays, she created women characters such as Babatha (in the play of that name, 1986), a historical woman of the second century. Working from texts found in a cave at Nahal Hever, Kainy recreated Babatha’s life—her youth, marriage, and widowhood; her struggle with her son’s guardians; her acquisition of a great deal of property; her second widowhood and subsequent struggle over her second husband’s inheritance, before the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 C.E.). Kainy says of her character: “She is a survivor. In the second century CE, during a hopeless war against the Roman conqueror, in an exclusive male world that does not allow her to own property or to keep the gains of her own labor except through a male guardian, she manages to function as an independent adult, not as a woman who uses her sex appeal as a tool, but as a powerful woman” (Kainy-Avigal, 1996: 357). In later plays, such as The End of the Dream Season (1991), Kainy created other strong female characters.

Shulamit Lapid (b. 1934) is a well-known writer who has written several plays, of which Abandoned Property (1987) has been especially successful. Lapid describes the play as follows:

Three women, a mother and two daughters. It’s also very marginal: they live in a faraway, God-forgotten place. The mother is illiterate. One daughter is busy reading stories to her all the time. The other daughter is also illiterate. One daughter is the hands and legs of the mother, the other is the mother’s heart and head. A road is to be built where their house stands. For the daughters, this is an opportunity to leave and move to a new place and a better life. The mother clings to the house and doesn’t want to leave. That’s the conflict of the play. And all the time they’re reading de Maupassant’s story, “The Necklace.” So through the reading [the play] is also a comment on literature, the influence of fantasy and the place it has in our lives (Finnegan 1995: 118).

The most important woman in Israeli theater in the 1970s, and one who created a revolution there and in Israeli culture in general, was Nola Chilton, the first of the women playwright-directors (auteurs) in Israeli theater. Others are Rina Yerushalmi (b. 1940) and Ruth Kanner. Chilton brought the “Other” to the theater in a new dramatic language that corresponded to the need for portraying the problems Israeli society repressed.

The American-born daughter of a Russian immigrant family, Chilton studied acting with Lee Strasberg (1901–1982). She directed off-Broadway shows, including a performance by a mixed group of African-American and white actors who presented the problems of African-Americans. Chilton arrived in Israel as a tourist in 1963, settled in Kiryat Gat, and began teaching acting in Tel Aviv and directing. From the end of the 1960s, with the collaboration of Yehoshua Sobol (b. 1939), Itzik Weingarten (1951), Oded Kotler (b. 1938), and others, she led a process that some refer to as “Relevant” or “Documentary” theater. Chilton’s work is usually regarded as unique (for better or for worse) because of the special use she made of “authentic” material. The “rhetorical conventions” that Chilton used to organize her performances were something new in Israeli theater. She brought to Israel the American off-Broadway experimental methods of Living Theater and directors Richard Schechner (b. 1934) and Joseph Chaikin (b. 1935). A common feature of all these theater artists was the use of theatrical conventions (such as gesture, movement, make-up, costumes, scenery, songs, and music, as well as novel forms of dramatic narrative) as ways of intensifying the specific social problem being presented. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Nola Chilton was a leading figure in four project groups that influenced Israeli theater as a whole. Chilton was the first to show Arab characters (in Co-Existence, 1970), elderly people (in The Coming Days, 1971), and women during wartime (in What Do I Think about the War, 1971). In Chilton’s most important work, Kriza (1976), of outstanding significance because of its presentation of the ethnic problem, the “breaking of realism” was effected through the absence of scenery and by songs, accompanied by group choreography, that interrupted the action and alternated Eastern and modern styles. The performance was constructed like television reportage, moving from place to place, interspersed with musical clips—a series of events that created a “dense description” of social reality. The three-hour-long show was comprised of two parts, the first dedicated to the “Fathers” and the second to the “Children.” The “Fathers” represented the generation of the great waves of immigration, most of them drowning in deep despair. Some worked in factories as simple laborers while others were unemployed; only very few managed to acquire any social status. The “Children” referred to criminal youngsters, to children absorbed by the kibbutzim, and to the experience of special education classes.

A paradox in some of Nola Chilton’s works is that despite their relation to the documentary-realistic genre, they are close to Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater” in the way the performance is organized in segments, in interruptions of the narrative by songs, and in abundance of characters (Kriza has 160), the purpose of which is to present the ensemble as an archetype for a social group, rather than personal stories that might provide an “escape” from the problem. In Kriza, in accordance with Bertolt Brecht’s rules of “alienation,” the songs and choreography interrupt the flow that is so important to realistic narrative, thereby creating “gaps” that allow the viewers to process the social meanings of the “documentary” pictures (Urian, 2000).

Rina Yerushalmi, another director, was born in Israel and grew up in Haifa, where she first encountered artistic dance under Yardena Cohen (b. 1910). She studied movement at the Laban School in London, as well as the Feldenkreis method and Graham dance technique in Israel. She served as assistant director and stage manager in the Giora Godik Theater and received additional theater training at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Joining the La Mama Theater in New York, she directed The Dybbuk and Malone by Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), as well as other plays. She then studied Noh theater in Japan. In 1989 she formed the Itim Ensemble with Moshe Sternfeld, serving as its director. She was also a professor in the theater arts department at Tel Aviv University.

The Itim Ensemble is an independent group whose actors devote themselves to a particular project on a long-term contract. Working together over a period of time, the group acquired special tools for creating theater of a completely original type. The dramatic material is worked upon until both form and content assume their final form. At each stage the work is performed for an audience, who also have an effect on the ongoing work-in-progress. With each public performance, the group continues to develop and change the content and form—hence the importance of the long run that each show enjoys. These conditions require a neutral performance space, which allows for a change in the relationship between stage and audience in accordance with the project’s content and form. The Itim Ensemble began operation in 1988; in 1990 it presented Hamlet at the Acre Festival, winning first prize. This was followed in 1992 by Woyzeck and Romeo and Juliet. Yerushalmi’s extremely successful Bible Project comprised Vayomer (He Spoke), Vayelech (He Went) (1996–2000), Vayishtahvu (They Bowed Down), and Vayerah (He Appeared) (1998–2000). The Scriptural text was kept intact and adapted in four parts, which were presented in two performances. The concept underlying Yerushalmi’s work is one of theatrical research. She claims that “[T]he director must allow the material rather than him or herself to dictate the type of theater. Otherwise, the same kind of theater will always be created. In effect, every play or subject we deal with dictates a different theater” (Perlstein, Ha-Teatron 1, 1999: 26). Yerushalmi’s interpretation of female characters is often innovative. For example, in her production of Hamlet she presents Ophelia not as a delicate flower but rather as a strong personality who goes her own way. Unable to deal with the truth, she falls victim to her love. As for Gertrude, Yerushalmi diverges from the customary Israeli presentation of her as a “Jewish mother,” instead showing her as unwilling to give up her new life and her new, young and handsome husband-king. She is torn between her son and her lover, because Hamlet insists that she fulfill only a maternal rôle, while she herself wants to live life to the full, as a vital, zestful woman.

During the 1990s, a significant change occurred in the place of women playwrights in the Israeli theater repertoire. Among the many plays written by women that were staged by both the main theaters and on the fringe were those of Goren Agmon, Anat Gov, Savyon Liebrecht (b. 1948), and Edna Mazia (b. 1950). The last is particularly outstanding as both playwright and director. Among her works are Backyard Games (1993), The Rebels (1998), and Herod (2000). Other important writers were Nava Semel, Nava Macmel-Atir, Maya Ayad Asur, Sigal Avin, and Alma Weich.

Another playwright and scriptwriter, Hanna Azulay-Hasfari, wrote Selihot (2001), a melodrama mixed with comic elements that succeeds in touching audiences while also making them laugh. The play draws vividly on the writer’s personal background in, and familiarity with, the Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi community, presenting dilemmas typical of the second generation children of immigrants from the Arab countries who arrived in Israel in the 1950s.

Directors

The most outstanding woman director of the 1990s was Ofira Henig, who graduated from the directing course at the Seminar ha-Kibbutzim in 1986. Her productions include The House of Bernada Alba (at Bet Zvi), which was also performed at the Strasbourg Festival in 1995. At Habimah she produced The Night of the 20th by Yehoshua Sobol (1990), Euripides’s Hippolytus (1993), and August Strindberg’s Creditors (1993). From 1996 to 2002, Henig served as the artistic director of the Jerusalem Khan Theater before being appointed director of the prestigious annual Israel Festival.

While administrative and artistic management positions in the major theaters have traditionally been reserved for men, several women have managed small stages such as the Habimarteff, the Kibbutz Theater, the Sifriya Theater, and the Theater for Children and Youth, whereas only three women in the entire history of the Hebrew stage have managed medium-sized theaters [Ofira Henig, Ada Ben-Nahum (1927–1990) and Tzippi Pines]. Speaking of the difficulties of a woman theater manager, Henig says: “The very fact that I am a woman invites male arrogance. I am a woman without any apology or camouflage. I refuse to put on the androgynous thorns of many women managers. …” (Bar-Kadma, 1996).

At the Khan, Ofira Henig directed Anna Galactea (1996) by Howard Barker (b.1946); The Maid of Ludomir (1997) by Yosefa Even-Shoshan (b. 1965); and Return to the Desert (2000) by Bernard-Marie Koltes (1948–1989), which takes place during Algeria’s War of Independence and was considered by both reviewers and audience to be particularly relevant to Israeli reality. Henig won the Theater Prize for Best Director of 2001 for this play. “It is not difficult to see that women characters occupy a central place in many of the productions staged at the Khan during Ofira Henig’s time there as artistic director,” writes critic Dorit Yerushalmi, “in the productions: Anna Galactea, The Maid of Ludomir, Antigone, Darling Estherlein by Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970), Princess Yvonne, The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen.” (Yerushalmi, Theater 5, 2000:26).

Women have also been active in fringe artistic and community theater in Israel. Thus, for example, women’s theater in Jerusalem was established at the end of the 1970s, as was The Jerusalem Theater Workshop, directed by Joyce Miller (b. 1919) and others. Beginning in the 1990s, women became dominant in community theater groups. The number of productions directed by women has grown, and the place of women in community theater has also changed: “Today, we can identify three main types of such theater: groups of elderly women who continue to focus on cultural and ethnic expression, mixed groups of men and women in which women are usually the majority, and groups of women, mostly native-born, of Mizrahi extraction and low socio-economic status” (Lev-Aladgem, 2000).

The Twenty-First Century

The playwright Anat Gov and the director Edna Mazya are among the most prominent and successful women artists in early twenty-first-century Israeli theater. Both have made a powerful impact on the ways women (and men) have been portrayed on the Israeli stage in recent decades. They have created a new aesthetic perceptible in “feminine” narratives, cast, genre, symbolic markers on the stage, and modalities of discourse in theatrical scripts. These changes integrate characteristics of television culture into the stage.

Anat Gov (1953–2012) and Edna Mazya (b. 1949) came from similar backgrounds, had similar worldviews, and, above all, were able to work together from 1999, until Gov’s death, with Gov producing scripts and Mazya directing. They studied theater at Tel Aviv University, established families, and raised children. They lived and worked for many years in Tel Aviv and worked with the Cameri Theatre. Both began to write for the stage relatively late in life, and it was perhaps due to their skill in writing for television that they joined the theater at a time when it had begun to turn toward a “television-like” repertoire. It was also a period when women playwrights began to take a central position in Israeli theater.

Although both Mazya and Gov leaned Left politically, they were consciously centristic when it came to the theater, particularly the Cameri Theatre. Both expressed their disapproval of “fringe theatre.” For example, in one of the scenes in Lysistrata 2000, in which a version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is performed as an experimental presentation of women’s underground theatre (“what’s called off-off-Acropolis”), masks accompanied by weird gestures—a derisive and deliberately artificial theatrical scene—are used. Gov and Mazya enjoyed popular (and financial) success in the theater from their very first joint production, Best Friends, and their plays have been published in book form.

Mazya and Gov tilted toward the kind of feminism that Elaine Aston calls “bourgeois.” In an interview with Neri Livne, Mazya expressed her view of feminism as “a correction of injustice that’s years long. It’s an injustice that began with Adam and Eve, and its correction really begins there, too. Already then, after all Adam was a dolt and a buckpasser whereas Eve was practical, effective, and active. She ate the apple.” In Gov’s plays, theater critic Michael Handelsalz complains, “All men are actually overgrown babies, dense, awkward, rather foolish, lacking in self-humor, and plagued with inflated egos.” Indeed, men are given a special kind of design in Gov’s and Mazya’s plays and productions: they are prideful, puerile, stupid, coarse, aggressive, and lecherous. All the same, they exude a charm that sometimes originates in those very characteristics. “If there’s anything that just makes me laugh,” Mazya states, “it’s typical Israeli men. The only men I’m willing to have any relationship with are those who connect with their female element” (conversation with Neri Livne).

In three of the plays that Gov wrote and Mazya directed, the main standoff is between women and men; in one of them, the maleness on display belongs to God. The three plays in question—Lysistrata 2000, Househusband (2004), and Oh, My God (2008)—are comedies that lean toward the sitcom genre in its theatrical development. In Lysistrata 2000 (2001), television culture serves as a frame to organize the content. Gov crafts her characters and “dictates” how they discourse within it. The play takes place in a television studio influenced by “ancient Greek culture” and opens with a “chorus”—male and female broadcasters who put on a news show that accompanies the plot as a “framework story.” On the Cameri Theatre website, Lysistrata 2000 is described “the story of a woman who organizes all women in her country for a sex strike until war ends and peace reigns. The sex-starved men have to choose between the things they love the most—war and sex. The play, written 2,400 years ago, is more current today than ever; it underscores the absurdity of war and the gender-differentiated approaches to war and peace, life and death. The arrangement remains true to the spirit of Aristophanes’ comedy.”

Lysistrata 2000 abounds with allusions to familiar events. It is edited in modules (following Aristophanes), it undergoes rapid changes of pace, its choice of language squares with that of the audience, and it is spiced with laughter-provoking jokes and pranks with escalating celerity. Its resolution ostensibly solves the problem presented at the beginning. The conclusion may be dubious but so was Aristophanes’; once they quench their sexual hunger, the men revert to their miscreant and warmongering ways.

Househusband (2004), too, ends without a resolution, settling instead for a temporary armistice between the sexes that will inevitably be breached, as happens in any TV sitcom. In Oh, My God (2008), the deity starts a course of psychotherapy that requires multiple appointments and does not assure success. In all three plays, the narrative has a “feminine” tilt: an accelerating cascade of jokes and pranks that loosen the constraints of the plots, emphasize the actors, and aggravate the problem presented. The problem (as in Aristophanes) lies in the militaristic male worldview that Gov finds (in a talk with Arik Kelner) disastrous.

In Househusband (Cameri Theatre, 2004), a fifty-five-year-old Air Force pilot retires and goes home, where he receives a joyous welcome mingled with justified dread due to the possibility that he will wreck the lives of the women in the household. Househusband bursts with television culture. Much of the plot revolves around the home television set and the sofa facing it. The set’s remote control is a central accessory that Zevik, the pilot, can hardly operate, let alone control. The stage switches between the theatrical stage and television-like spaces that sometimes look like visual quotations from an enlarged TV screen. The women in the household (and the Russian servant) intently watch a soap opera, a specimen of a “feminine” genre. The ex-pilot inveighs against this “vulgar” phenomenon but fails; television culture wins. The soap opera’s audio is heard in the background, and discussions about its characters’ fate accompany the plot. The turning point seems to have been mined from the soap opera. After the pilot’s friend talks into him posing as a cancer patient in order to restore his place in the family, the doctor reveals the illness to the pilot’s wife in the kitchen as the other women in the household watch the soap opera. With the help of Hani Vardi’s lighting, the stage shrinks into a television-screen window of sorts, through which we watch the doctor “disclosing” the results of the tests to the wife—with weeping, embracing, music, the denouement is a sitcom scene. As of early 2021, Zevik, snared in a domestic reality that leaves no place for him, solves the problem in the current episode, but additional episodes are “forthcoming.”

Anat Gov discovered God’s humanness by studying the Bible: “It stands out mainly in the first books, Genesis and Exodus. God is very human there; he makes mistakes, has regrets, and gets angry” (conversation with Zipi Shohat). Gov’s deity in Oh, My God (Cameri Theatre, 2008) is a retired pilot played by Yossi Pollak, who appears in a black jacket and hat reminiscent of Orson Welles, whose photograph hangs on the wall of the psychologist’s workroom like a poster. The pilot introduces himself as a creative artist and also as a performer who is sensitive and vulnerable because “I’m an orphan from birth.” Throughout the history of Jewish law and thought, is has been forbidden to anthropomorphize God. Philosophers, thinkers, and rabbis have devoted great efforts to keeping the Jewish God one and isolating God from humankind. The “godless” Anat Gov dismisses these proscriptions and invites God to a theatrical therapy session.

In Oh, My God, the script and the presentation create an expanded television skit of sorts, a sitcom about maleness, femaleness, and godliness, a theological debate on a public stage before a liminally cultured audience. A prime-time television audience would find no interest in a lengthy dramatic text about war and peace, maleness versus femaleness, and theological questions such as reward and punishment and divine providence. At the theater, however, plenty of people are interested in watching an “improved” sitcom and listening in on a light and funny theological debate, all in a little more than an hour.

As feminist playwrights and directors, Mazya and Gov coped with “maleness” and, particularly, with the “female” self-image in a way that grew in power from play to play. In Lysistrata 2000, Aristophanes as a hook on which the female-male debate as suspended. In Househusband, the conventions were reversed—the pilot, the ideal male, is no longer a hero but rather an imagined patient who craves female attention. And in Oh, My God, the male as the Creator of the Universe who is responsible for the injustices of creation and pleads for a hug.

These three plays project an antiwar worldview that may be suited to most of the audience, especially the women. In Lysistrata 2000, the stage is a playground for childish men who offer child sacrifices as a national imperative. From their standpoint, women are meant to provide services and sex. In Househusband, the bellicose male pilot proves to be pitiful and hopeless. And in Oh, My God, the main determinant of war is—so says the psychoanalyst—a god who exhibits the symptoms of a battering male. God is also a man who yearns for love and gets a hug: “They... didn’t hug You ... Will You let me hug you? ... Calm down ... Close Your eyes.”

In the first de twenty-first century—after nearly a century of “male” Hebrew theater—women play a central rôle. In certain stage professions, such as set design, there are more women than men. Most significantly, the ways of representing women in the Hebrew theater have undergone important changes. Rather than “stereotypes” or typical images, one now encounters characters who are finely drawn and individualized figures. Women continue to have a significant impact on the Israeli stage, winning international awards and drawing recognition to both Israeli culture and politics.

Bibliography

English

Aston, Elaine. An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre. London and New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 38–41.

Avigal, Shosh, iInterviewing Miriam Kainy. In Theater in Israel, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, 355–360. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1957.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Interviewing Rina Yerushalmi. In Theater in Israel, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, 373–382. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Finnegan, Seamus. James Joyce and the Israelites and Dialogues in Exile. Chur: Harwood Academic, 1995.

Lev-Aladgem, Shulamit. “Rethinking Community Theater in Israel: History, Ideology and Practice.” Assaph (2000).

Urian, Dan. “Israeli Theater and the Ethnic Problem: The Case of Nola Chilton.” Assaph 16 (2000): 135–156.

Hebrew

Arnon, Yohanan. “The First Theater Star.” Etmol, April 1990: 9–10.

Bar-Kedma, Emmanuel, “Interview with Ofira Henig.” Yediot Aharonot, November 29, 1996.

Bar-Nir, Dov, “Electra.” Al ha-Mishmar, November 13, 1964.

Finkel, Shimon. “Hanna Rovina,” Eked. Tel Aviv: 1978, 253–255.

Gamzu, Hayyim. “Theater Reviews.” edited by Michael Handelsalz. Tel Aviv: 1999.

Gnessin, Menahem. My Career in the Hebrew Theater, 1905–1926. Tel Aviv: 1946.

Handelsalz, Michael. “The Whole Spectrum of Lies.”  Ha’aretz, September 29, 2004.

Heimann, A.M. Ha-Herut, June 6, 1914.

Kelner, Arik, and Anat Gov. “The Last Words.” Yedioth Ahronoth, December 14, 2012.

Kohansky, Mendel. The Hebrew Theater. Jerusalem: 1974.

Livne, Neri. “Mazya Erupts.” Ha’aretz, June 2, 2000.Merom, Peter. Theater Album. Tel Aviv: 1965.

Pearlstein, Moshe, “‘We are not fringe’: Israeli Non-Repertory Theater in the 1990s.” Ha-Teatron (1) Summer 1999: 25–30.

Shaked, Gershon. “The Appearance of the Generation and the Appearance of Its Actors.” (A) Yediot Aharonot, October 13, 1989.

Shohat, Zipi. “In the Beginning, God Cried.” Ha’aretz, March 11, 2008.Talpir, Gabriel Joseph. Gazit 20 (April–July 1964): 253–256.

Talpir, Gabriel Joseph. “The Beginning of Modernism: Forty Years of Theatrical Work in Erez Israel, 1890–1930.” Gazit 15 (December 1963–March 1964): 249–256.

Talpir, Gabriel Joseph. Gazit (April–July 1964): 253–256.

Urian, Dan. “‘And Hanna Laughed’ Hanna Merom as a ‘Celebrity’ in a Surrogate Womb.” In The Role of an Actress: Hanna Merom, edited by Mordechai Omer, 93–100. Tel Aviv: 1994.

Yerushalmi, Dorit. “Stage Roles that Precursored a Period: From the Twenties to the Fifties.” Ha-Teatron 2 (Spring 1999): 53–59.

Yerushalmi, Dorit. “Strategies of Delusion: A Feminist View of the Republic of Institutional Israeli Theater.” Ha-Teatron 5 (2000): 23–32.

Zalel, H.B. (Brenner). Ha-Po’el ha-Zair 22 (September 4, 1910).

Have an update or correction? Let us know

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

How to cite this page

Urian, Dan. "Hebrew Theater: Yishuv to the Present." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 1, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hebrew-theater-yishuv-to-present>.