In comparison with West European theater, Hebrew theater is young: only a century separates the Moscow première of the first professional Hebrew production on October 8th, 1918, and any of over 50 current theater events that can be attended nightly in Tel Aviv, Israel’s theater capital. The almost total lack of theater traditions in Judaism, other than the inherent theatricality in religious services, until the turn of the 20th century and the ensuing quantitative as well as qualitative proliferation of shows, demonstrates a strong link between Israeli reality and universal theatricality. Whereas any theater tradition may have similar claims to such socio-artistic characteristics, the rapid development of Hebrew theater is peculiarly linked with the secularization of the Jewish people, with the rise of practical Zionism and immigration to Palestine and, concomitantly, with the revival of the Hebrew language in the last 150 years.

Although many Jews throughout the centuries were involved in various theatrical activities, Jewish law (Halacha) frowned upon theater performances and forbade observant Jews to frequent them, let alone participate in them. From the religious point of view, which had provided an almost exclusive social and cultural framework for whoever saw themselves as practicing Jews, the Bible warned against idol worship: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath…” [Exodus 20:4]. Interestingly, the Hebrew word Bamah stands for both stage and for altar. There is another biblical reference (Deuteronomy 22:5) where the warning is explicit: “a man shall not put on a woman’s garment.” The God of the Hebrews is described as a jealous God who will not tolerate “artistic” deviations of his believers, especially because in ancient times, art and religious ceremonies were closely linked.

From the time of King Herod, theaters were in Caesarea, Sebastia, Beit She’an, Jerusalem, and Jericho. Theatres were regarded as bawdy institutions of Hellenistic culture, and thus, for nationalistic reasons, were perceived negatively. The Talmud contains a number of references to the rather coarse sub-genres of theatrical activities that were taking place in the country, but there is no record of more elevated performances like Greek and later Roman tragedies. The sages of the period warned potential audiencesespecially womenagainst the immoral, irreligious, and anti-educational deviations of the theater from the holy occupation of studying the Torah.

While the Greeks were celebrating theater festivals in Athens of the fifth century BCE, Hebrew leaders Ezra and Nehemiah were busy rebuilding the ruined Temple in Jerusalem. While the Romans were feeding hungry lions with Christian“actors” (as a macabre theater of sorts), the Hebrews were attempting to cleanse the Temple of the sculpturesthe very graven imagesof the Roman Emperor, since the sculptures represented an intolerable religious and national colonialization.

It took more than a millennium for the Catholic Church first to tolerate, then to accept and finally to harness theater to religious purposes. Once passion plays and morality and mystery plays started being performed in Christian communities, they were often followed by a pogrom against the alleged “Killers of Christ” who happened to live in the same village; the famous passion play of Oberammergau, Bavaria, performed every ten years since 1634, is just one example. Gentile theatricality in the Middle Ages was rarely instrumental in producing potential Jewish theatricality.

However, the main reason why Jewish theater did not develop, is traceable to the profound understanding that theater essentially seeks to create rather than imitate reality. Seen as a performing show in the sense of a speech act, the rabbis of old were probably less alarmed by the bodily exposure and perceived “harlotry” and frivolity endemic in theater, than by theater daring to posit another, fictitious or real, alternative holiness. The Hebrew version of the first words in the Gospel according to John read: “In the beginning was the Word.” The Hebrew word davar means both “thing,” an object, and word. The typically theatrical characteristic of “Hoc est…” in presenting and/or representing roles, relationships and “things” on stageturning spirit into flesh, flesh into spirit, was more easily acceptable by a religion in which God Himself undergoes such a mystical yet definitely “performative” process. It is, therefore, little wonder that mystical trends in Judaism were more tolerant to theater than Halachic ones.

The first Hebrew play known to us is Zachut bedichuta de’kiddushin (An Eloquent Marriage Farce, c. 1550), by Leone di Sommi. The Jewish-Italian playwright and highly original theoretician as well as theatrical director lived in Mantua and succeeded in the unprecedented task of bridging between the culture of his Jewish origins and the traditions of Commedia Erudita. His prologue to his play is a fascinating piece of apologetics in which he claims that the midrash (Talmudic tale) in his piece is in fact moral teaching rather than pure entertainment. Di Sommi also wrote Dialogues On Theatrical Representation, a treatise on theater in which, among other thorough analyses, he claims that the Book Of Job is actually older and better than Greek drama.

In the second half of the 17th century, the Kabbalist Moshe Zaccuto wrote The Foundations Of The Universe, a play based on the biblical story of Abraham, which was also addressed as an Apologia concerning the martyrdom of Spanish Jews under the Inquisition. His other piece, Inferno Preparato (published 1721 in Amsterdam, though probably never performed) is a sophisticated Quest Play, located in hell, and is primarily a spiritual voyage, a trip, an initiation piece. Moshe Haim Luzzatto, another Kabbalist playwright, rewrote–at the age of 17!–parts of the biblical Story Of Samson (1724) as a play, also replete with mystic allusions.

With the developing Emancipation and Enlightenment Movements in Europe in the 19th century, a growing number of Jews started to introduce world drama and theater to their communities, primarily by translating or adapting classical pieces into Hebrew. This translation process can be regarded as a desire to prove that “anything you can do, we can better” in a retrospective appropriation of that cornerstone of Hebrew culture, the Bible; which is not only a religious and historical document but is also no less dramatic than Shakespeare, Molière, or Schiller. For example, Ram and Yael were the biblical Hebrew names chosen by the translator Salkinson for Romeo and Juliet, in order to bring them closer in sound, and therefore sense, to their Jewish readers. In using the biblical layers of Hebrew, associated with the revival of language as well as Jewish nationalism, rather than Mishnaic Hebrew, representing “exile mentality,” such translators qua culture adaptors, created a linguistic locus of sorts. This was a typical “exile-minded” solution for a people without a country of their own, who shaped imported dramatic spaces with a reborn Hebrew language. However, original Hebrew drama in those early days was still lagging behind both Yiddish theater and translations of world drama, and suffered from an overdose of both allegory and didacticism.

Habimah (“The Stage”) was the first professional Hebrew theater, founded in Moscow in 1917. In 1922, under the direction of Yevgeni Vachtangov, Habimah mounted An-Ski’s The Dybbuk, which won worldwide acclaim. In the political context of the national and cultural renaissance, it is particularly interesting to note that the play’s theme is the mutual relationship between the Living and the Dead: the original Yiddish play by An-Ski, translated into Hebrew by the national poet laureate Chaim Nahman Bialik, deals with the ghost of the deceased Hanan who invades Lea’s body and soul and demands emotional and legal justice since he and no other is the promised and therefore loving and rightful, groom. Many decades later Israeli literature, still offers a strange symbiosis between the living and the dead, particularly in drama.

The first Hebrew theater located in the Land of Israel itself was a group known as “Lovers of the Hebrew Stage,” active between 1904-1914. Following their great international success, Habimah moved to Palestine in 1931 and soon became known as the National Theater, a name it still retains. The Ohel Theater was founded in 1925 by Moshe Halevi as a workers’ theater dedicated to socialist issues on the one hand and, perhaps no less importantly, also to biblical themes- now under the new light of the Israeli sun, performed in the very Land of the Bible, linking the once glorious past with hopes for a no less glorious future.

The repertoire of Hebrew theater from the 1920s until the early 1940s has been intensively discussed by political leaders, writers and intellectuals, proving the enormous importance ascribed to an artistic activity which in less tumultuous regions was primarily a matter of entertainment. Two of the dominant topics in the original Hebrew plays presented in the repertoire of those years, were those of Jewish history and pioneering, describing the physical and mental hardships suffered by the newcomers in “building themselves while rebuilding the country,” in the words of a much-used expression.

Translated plays, which were often performed, brought with them a ready set design as well as directing and acting styles from their countries of origin, which was mostly Russian at Habimah, although German expressionism can also be detected together with the influences of French farce and East European operettas. Due to the lack of an indigenous theater tradition and because of the (self-imposed) pioneering spirit, these original Hebrew plays were sometimes devoid of a real conflict. Rather than portraying a conflict between two human adversaries, the main antagonist seems to have been the actual new space into which the immigrants had been, albeit willingly, flung. Plays such as Shimonovitz’s A Night In The Vineyard (1911), Dan The Guard by Sheen Shalom and even This Land (1942) by Aaron Ashman, represent a relatively harmonious community whose major task is to find their roots in their newly-gained long Promised Land. As often experienced in pioneering drama (e.g. Canadian and American…), here too, a great effort had been invested in re-locating the entire group of dramatis personae, (representing the very real, intimately known people behind them) rather than developing human failings and discrepancies within the collective.

Another motif also apparent in the Israeli drama of those years is a religious, though not Halachic or denominational, attitude toward the land itself and to physical work on it as a substitute for the holiness of Jewish Law, presumably less important now, when “we have our own land again.” Whereas the Hebrew language can be considered a dramatic space in the drama still created in the Diaspora in the previous generation, in Israeli drama of the 1930s, space itself is a major component of theatrical language. Such was He Walked In The Fields by Moshe Shamir, a commemorative play constructed as a flashback collage of vignettes about Uri, a young kibbutz member.  He has a laconic, perceived as a typically “new” Israeli love affair, with Mika, a Holocaust survivor. Uri is killed in the struggle for Israel’s statehood. Like The Dybbuk, the sweeping success of the production was not only due to the intrinsic qualities of the drama itself, but proved once again the inseparable links between Hebrew theater and its political and sociological ambience. He Walked In The Fields was performed two weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel in May, 1948. The production marks the historical and thematic shift between the “Eretz Israeli” Jewish theatre and Israeli theatre of the era of statehood. For the first time, a Sabra (native-born Israeli Jew) writes about sabras in an (almost) up-to-date, Russian-accent-free, idiomatic and modern Hebrew. The Cameri theatre, only three years old in 1948, presented the play under Yossef Milo’s Brecht-like style of direction.

Soon after, Habimah staged On the Plains Of The Negev, a play based on a situation during the War of Independence, in which the fighters must decide whether or not to desert a kibbutz under attack, using a central motif in Jewish tradition: The Binding of Isaac (Genesis, 22). Outside the auditorium, real soldiers demonstrated against what they claimed to be a false portrayal on stage, stating that “that wasn’t the way things happened.”

Certain important productions in the 1950s were dedicated to drama featuring the gap between the ideological dreams before the establishment of the state and the following–inevitable–disillusion.  Nissim Aloni, later to become one of Israel’s outstanding playwrights, wrote his first play Cruelest Of All–The King as a pseudo-biblical drama portraying the division between Judea and Samaria. Aloni portrayed inner ideological and political divisions in the Israeli society of the mid-1950s through the alienating effects of biblical language and situations.

During the same period, Ephraim Kishon satirized the bureaucracy and the attitude toward new immigrants; Aharon Megged dealt with the “aristocracy” of the kibbutz movement and the Zirah Theater started to introduce Beckett and Ionesco. The first performance of Waiting For Godot after the legendary Paris production, was shown in a tiny auditorium in Tel Aviv in 1955. Most critics felt that “we do not need this Rive Gauche un-socialistic, nihilistic decadence…” In later productions, one may relate to Godot a developing Israeli cultural hero, although he was neither born and certainly never seen anywhere around the building projects of Tel Aviv or Haifa. This never to be seen character, indeed the personification of offstage, has been changed by about 12 different major Israeli productions, representing Bohemian intellectuals, oppressed women, the Palestinian revolution, the rating system and more.  Translated modern classics such as Beckett on the one hand and Brecht on the other, in the many Hebrew productions they enjoyed, played almost as crucial a role in Israeli theater as did original Hebrew drama. It is often through foreign eyes that Israeli artistic directors show the Israelis their own image, since the alienation necessarily involved in a foreign play creates an otherwise impossible to achieve distance from the socio-ֹartistic mirror of theater.

Since the foundation of the state, Israeli theater has been intensively involved in the identity problems of its audiences: who actually are we as Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis, coming from more than 100 countries, speaking some 70 different languages and from totally different cultures and traditions? The Holocaust, as a Jewish trauma, and the year-long War of Independence three years later, as a typically Israeli event, have left their obvious marks on Israeli drama. Whereas the Holocaust is a constant theme to which Israeli playwrights keep returning, there have been other wars since 1948, and relationships with the neighbor/enemy are a frequent topic in Israeli drama.

Unlike in poetry and prose, it took a number of years before Israeli writers were ready to cope with the Holocaust in the public medium of theater. One of the first to dare do so was Leah Goldberg in The Lady Of The Castle (1955), a play that avoided a direct depiction of Holocaust atrocities and instead reflected upon the cultural brinkmanship of the survivors. The play presents a number of psycho-cultural options such as a romantic-escapist approach, a pragmatic provincial one that defends pure physical survival or a balanced attitude between tradition and renewal. Ben-Zion Tomer in his The Children Of Shadow presents a meeting between Yoram, a young Israeli officer, with his relative, who was a capo in a concentration camp. Yoram must now cope with his own past as a refugee and re-integrate his suppressed and oppressed Holocaust-childhood into his present, sabra, macho Israelihood.

Another of the earlier, documentary-style plays written about the Holocaust was Aaron Megged’s Hannah Szenes, describing the capture, trial and execution of a young Jewish-Hungarian girl who immigrated to a kibbutz and soon after joined the British army, parachuting into Hungary in order to try and save as many Jews as possible. At the beginning of 1945, the trend in Israeli society was to emphasize the new active courage rather than the old passive victim situation of the Jews. Hannah Szenes’ real personal devotion became a local myth. Her character inspired seven different productions in later years, in which the objective theater spectator can observe a gradual process of de-mythologization. In Kastner (1944), playwright Motti Lerner hints that Hannah Szenes actually betrayed her friends. Such an allegation could never have been even remotely considered in the 1950s. The National Image would not have contemplated it. David Ma’yan’s Arbeit Macht Frei In Teutland Europa (1992), mounted by the Acre Theater Group, is a harsh and penetrating example of how temporal perspective enables Israelis to cope with major traumas in a psychologically and artistically more liberated mode.

By the 1960s, Hebrew drama had gained a certain distance from burning ideological issues, a fact well-reflected in an international choice of plays together with a more universal, less local flavor in Hebrew drama itself. Nissim Aloni with his before-his-time post-modern plays, introduced a highly poetic stage language side by side with a kind of stylized slang-Hebrew idiom that had not been used so far. It is perhaps the uniqueness of his style, hyperbolic, staccato, highly-allusive and filled with non-Hebrew words, that is the reason for his lack of international acclaim. His plays The American Princess, The Bride And The Butterfly Hunter, Napoleon – Dead Or Alive, Eddie King etc. enriched the Israeli stage with theatrical imagination and at the same time, seem to emerge from a world drama that is ironically pretending not to be Israeli at all:

Also in the 1960s, and ignoring the local political and social scene for once, Nathan Alterman wrote a self-reflexive poetic play, The Inn Of Ghosts, vaguely following a soul and self-searching dramatic voyage in the manner of Goethe’s Faust or Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. From the late 1960s, Hanoch Levin (born 1943) wrote more than 60 plays, providing a major contribution to Israeli theater. He began with satirical cabaret (Queen Of The Bathtub, You, I And The Next War), performances addressed against the militaristic hubris that flooded Israel after the Six-Day War victory. Levin continued with Family And Neighborhood, existential malaise plays (like Ya’akobi And Leidenthal); and he also wrote mythological plays, including The Trials Of Job, and The Child Dreams, an open, Holocaust-like parable. Levin, who died prematurely in 1999, is definitely the most written-about Israeli playwright whose shows, which he usually directed himself, aroused many rousing public scandals as well as enormous critical acclaim.

In 1969, A.B. Yehoshua (primarily known as a writer of fiction) wrote A Night In May, examining the precarious walls of sanity threatened by fragmentation, inner tensions and real threats of war. He locates the plot in a small Jerusalem apartment, a semi-underground, tomb-womb like space, in which members of one family try to sort out their neuroticism on one another as the Six-Day War is about to break out. It is a good example of the delicate balance that Hebrew drama maintains between specific local issues and an overall, universal struggle of Eros and Thanathos. During the 1970s, Israeli theater examined its own capacity to portray reality in a theatrical and forceful way without losing either one of these elements. Among the important contributions of this period are Josef Mundi’s socially critical, political-absurd play “Around And Around (1970) in which a “Herzl” and a “Kafka” are locked in an asylum, “comparing” two sorts of insane images of the Israeli sadistic muscleman with the passive, masochistic “spiritual” Jew. Whereas Mundi depicts the State of Israel as a besieged, claustrophobic space, Ya’akov Shabtai’s Spotted Tiger compared the country to a circus. In order to be “normal,” we must have a circus. Also in the 1970s, Hillel Mittelpunkt, began by writing social plays about the down-and-out characters of society and, like many other playwrights, he did not forget to depict the Arab as lowest on the Israeli totem pole in his “Underground Waters.

In the 1980s, playwright Yehoshua Sobol’s cooperation with theatre director Gedaliah Besser at the Haifa Municipal Theater produced productions such as Soul Of A Jew, Ghetto, and Shooting Magda–all of which present an extended, consequential search for Israeli-Jewish-Hebrew identity. One of the main problems in treating this theme is that of Zionism versus Jewishness as shown by Otto Weininger’s qualms in his Sex And Character (1902), the book Sobol refers to in his Soul Of A Jew. Sobol and Besser dared tro regard the Holocaust as a non-exclusively Jewish suffering and in trying to observe the relationship to the Palestinians not only through the sights of a gun. Both of them were pressured to resign from their message-charged theater, soon after they mounted Jerusalem Syndrome, an apocalyptic, video-clip styled aggressive play containing severe warnings regarding Israel’s future if the right-wing government of that time would not change its politics.

The 20 year old annual Acre Festival for Alternative Theater is a good example of Israeli theatrical energy with which to conclude this short survey. Presenting about ten out of the 100 submitted entries, the Festival, established in 1980, is a precise thermometer for measuring heat and pressure in Israeli societyoften more accurate than the politicians. In 1985, with no premeditation or political scanning and planning whatsoever, 11 out of 12 of the major shows had “living dead” as active roles on the stages. The Festival took place in the Crusader fortress, in the Arab Old City of Acre which in turn is encircled by the new Israeli town. Twenty-five kilometers further north, the Lebanon War was still going on, in which real rather than stage dead, were losing their lives. Two years later, in 1987, the artistic director of the Festival was accused of presenting an overly-political repertoire, because many of the pieces chosen dealt with the perceived low status of the Palestinians in and around the parts of the country occupied by Israel in 1967. Six weeks later the first Palestinian Intifada broke out.

Despite its pluralistic, slightly blasé, commercial, insufficiently subsidized, and somewhat lacking in focus, Israeli theater (and society…) in the beginning of the 21st century, is nonetheless still very much alive. Foreign directors often envy the lively, highly-charged atmosphere on Israeli stages and in rehearsal rooms. Local actors may respond by quoting the ancient Chinese curse: May you have an interesting life!

Each year, more theater classes are being given in high schools and more theater teachers are being trained. Acting schools have to reject growing numbers of aspirants. Between identity crises and a thirst for “uninvolved” culture, somewhere between Bible and Arabs, between local festivals that import world drama and adapting Hassidic stories and Israeli novels, in the growing interest for women’s theater and sexual male entertainment, social satire, lightweight romanticism, true experimentation and moderate non-ֹconformismIsraeli theaters keep selling an astounding number of tickets.

Selected bibliography

  • Gideon Telpaz, “On Theatrical References in the Talmud”, Bamah. 9/10:19-25
  • Haim Shoham, The Drama of the Native-born Generation in Israel, Or’Am, Tel Aviv,1989
  • Gershon Shaked, Hebrew Historical Drama in the Twentieth Century, Bialik Institute, Jerusalem. 1970
  • Gideon Ofrat, Earth, Man, Blood, Cherikover, Tel Aviv, 1980
  • Shimon Levy, Beckett Criticism in Israel, Dyonon, Tel Aviv University, 1986
  • Ben Ami Feingold, The Holocaust in Hebrew Drama, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1989.
  • Gershon Shaked, “A New Wave in Hebrew Fiction,” Sifriat Poalim, Tel Aviv, 1971.
  • Shimon Levy, Israeli Theatre, Resling, Tel Aviv, 2018.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.