Cover of the program for a Habimah performance of Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta, Vilna, 1916. (YIVO)

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Hebrew theatrical activity in Eastern Europe began as part of the larger project of transforming Hebrew into a national language. By the end of the nineteenth century, sporadic attempts had been made in Łódź and Riga to put on performances in Hebrew. With the establishment of the Agudat Ḥoveve Sefat ‘Ever (Society of Lovers of the Hebrew Language) in Saint Petersburg in 1909, such initiatives received organizational support. The society encouraged Hebrew theatrical performances in order to spread the knowledge of the language and to raise funds for the society. Most performances were staged in the context of banquets that marked holidays and anniversaries of various sorts. Such performances were a significant tool in the modernization of the Jewish educational system. Organized and staged by teachers and students at the new Hebrew-language secular schools, they spread the new culture to the children’s families and communities. Indeed, the first Hebrew theater activists in Eastern Europe were schoolteachers who were both devoted to the revival of spoken Hebrew and had artistic ambitions.

Members of Habimah in a scene from Ha-Dibuk (The Dybbuk) by S. An-ski, Moscow, 1922. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L. M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)

From 1909 to 1916, several such teachers created a vibrant amateur Hebrew theatrical scene in Łódź, staging 33 plays during this period. The first was L. Mlotek and Yitsḥak Berkman’s production of Ḥanah ve-shiv‘at baneha (Hannah and her Seven Sons) by Mordekhai Manos Monosovitsh. This production was followed by the poet and teacher Yitsḥak Katzenelson’s staging of his play Mekhirat Yosef (The Sale of Joseph) in 1910. Most of the plays were amateur in nature, but a number of productions aimed to have professional standards. In 1911, Katzenelson directed Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta first in Łódź and then in Warsaw. The Yiddish actor Julius Adler, who apparently had difficulty with the Hebrew, played the celebrated heretic Acosta. The following year, Katzenelson renewed the production, this time with another Yiddish actor, Rudolf Zaslavsky, in the starring role. After the premiere in Łódź, the troupe toured under the name Ha-Bamah ha-‘Ivrit (The Hebrew Stage), and performed in Częstochowa, Baranowicz, Pinsk, Bobruisk, Gomel, Minsk, and Odessa. The company next staged Theodore Herzl’s Ha-Geto he-ḥadash (The New Ghetto). In 1913 the group split; Katzenelson led a troupe that focused on theater for schoolchildren, while Mlotek’s group aimed to create a professional company. In 1913 the latter troupe traveled to the Zionist Congress in Vienna and performed Uriel Acosta and Ha-Geto he-ḥadash, with Julius Adler in the leading roles.

P. Lubitch and N. Vinyar in a scene from the Habimah production of Ha-Golem (The Golem) by H. Leyvik, Moscow, 1925. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L.M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)

In the same year, another Hebrew troupe, Habimah, also performed at the Zionist Congress. The company had been founded by the Hebrew teacher Naḥum Tsemakh in Białystok in 1909, but despite the support of Agudat Ḥoveve Sefat Ever, the troupe disbanded. Nonetheless, the indefatigable Tsemakh tried again in Warsaw in 1914 and finally in Moscow, to which he moved in 1915 and where he established a company under the auspices of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. With its acclaimed production of S. An-ski’s Ha-Dibuk (The Dybbuk) in 1922, Habimah emancipated itself from subordination to the ideological needs of the Hebrew renaissance and gained recognition for its artistic accomplishments. Habimah was the model for professional Hebrew theater. Two of its members, Menaḥem Gnessin and Mosheh Halevi, soon left the troupe and established new theaters. Gnessin moved to Berlin, where, with a group of East European Jewish actors from Palestine, he founded Teatron Erets Yisra’eli (TAI), which moved to Palestine a year later. Halevi went directly to Palestine and founded Ha-Ohel (The Tent) in 1925. Most of Habimah itself also moved to Palestine. Hebrew theater, these activists believed, could develop either in a cosmopolitan European environment such as Berlin or in the Land of Israel, but not in the East European Jewish world.

Yet the Hebrew cultural scene grew rapidly in Eastern Europe after World War I. In 1917, Agudat Ḥoveve Sefat ‘Ever changed its name to Tarbut (Culture) and developed a network of modern Hebrew schools throughout Eastern Europe, supporting a wide range of cultural activity including theater. By the mid-1920s, the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Tsefirah, for example, regularly published criticism of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish theatrical performances. An audience emerged that had mastered Hebrew and developed a refined artistic taste. The professional Hebrew companies based in Palestine responded to the demands of this audience. Habimah and Ha-Ohel toured Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania to great acclaim on several occasions during the interwar period. While the TAI did not perform in Eastern Europe, its star actress Miriam Bernstein-Cohen returned to Europe in the 1930s after the troupe disbanded and performed in Poland and the Baltic States. 

Avrom Morevski (left) with an unidentified actor from Habimah, Poland, 1920s. (YIVO)

The Tarbut system also encouraged amateur activity, and theater became an integral part of school programming. Amateur Hebrew companies also operated outside the school system. In 1927, Tarbut established a Hebrew studio in Kovno headed by Mikha’el Gor, a former member of the TAI; in 1929, Bernstein-Cohen coached a Hebrew dramatic studio in Łódź; in Warsaw in 1934, there was an attempt to organize a Hebrew theater that involved the director and dramatist Mark Arnshteyn. But the most successful Hebrew dramatic studio operated in Vilna from 1928 to 1933, initiated by the city’s Jewish elite. Using the model of Habimah’s attachment to the prestigious Moscow Art Theater, the Vilna studio associated itself with the celebrated Polish theater Reduta, directed by Juliusz Osterwa, and aimed to create a professional Hebrew theater ensemble. The studio was directed consecutively by several members of Reduta, first the actor and director Zygmunt Chmielewski, then the actress Halina Gallowa, followed by her husband, the stage designer and director Iwo Gall, and finally the director Wacław Radulski. The studio staged three successful productions of plays by Charles Dickens, Y. L. Peretz, and Yitsḥak Lamdan. The studio sought financial support from the World Zionist Organization in order to establish a permanent Hebrew theater in Poland, but its request was denied. It ceased functioning after Radulski accepted a directing position in Lwów, where he also worked with a Hebrew theater group.

During the Nazi occupation, Hebrew-language performances took place in the ghettos of Vilna and Warsaw. In the latter city, Yitsḥak Katzenelson directed an amateur dramatic group that staged primarily Yiddish but also Hebrew theater. On the eve of the ghetto’s liquidation, the company was rehearsing his Hebrew adaptation of Y. L. Peretz’s story “Shalosh matanot” (“Dray matones”; The Three Gifts).

Suggested Reading

Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, Ke-Tipah ba-yam (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1971); Joshua Bertonoff, Orot mi-ba‘ad la-masakh (Tel Aviv, 1969); Nathan Eck (Ekron), Ha-To‘im be-darkhe ha-mavet (Jerusalem, 1959/60); Avraham Levinson, Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-‘ivrit ba-golah (Warsaw, 1934/35); Zbigniew Osinski, “Ha-Studio ha-dramati ha-‘ivri be-Vilnah ve-hatsagotav,” in Ben shete milḥamot ‘olam: Perakim me-ḥaye ha-tarbut shel yehude Polin li-leshonotehem, ed. Samuel Werses and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 128–153 (Jerusalem, 1997).