Last Monday I ventured for the first time into a Hebrew play at the Habimah theatre in Tel Aviv.
The Habimah started life in Bialystok in 1912 and despite persecution by czarist authorities continued throughout the war after which its existence was confirmed by leading Bolsheviks including Joseph Stalin. In 1926 the company left to tour abroad, and although some of them remained in America other members immigrated to Mandate Palestine. Habimah speedily gained a position as the National Jewish theatre, with a large Hebrew repertoire, and it retains this position to this day. Among their early productions in Tel Aviv were Hebrew translations of Shakespeare, but perhaps their most famous play was Ansky’s “The Dybbuk”, telling of a Demon who possesses the body of a young bride. Performed in a Hebrew translation by the famous poet Bialik, this became one of the great cultural emblems of the Hebrew theatre.
Habimah’s first purpose-built theatre in Habimah Square in Tel Aviv was erected in 1945, and then vastly extended in 2012 so that the building now includes four auditoriums of different sizes.
The play that I saw was a biography of the famous Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt. He is one of the greatest Chazzanim and his influence on the art is incalculable. Born in the Ukraine he moved through a series of positions in Europe until in 1912 he emigrated to New York where he was to have his greatest impact. Many of his compositions have entered the repertoire of synagogues, but perhaps his most famous is the tune for Shir Hama’alot that most of us sing before Birkat Hamazon – look up “Yossele Rosenblatt Shir Hamaalot” on YouTube.
Rosenblatt commanded vast fees for concerts and appearances as guest Chazan in various synagogues, but he was financially naive and lost his money to fraudsters. To restore his fortunes he appeared in the first talkie film “The Jazz Singer”. In 1933 he came to film in Israel but died on location and is buried in Jerusalem.
The combination of the historic theatre, the great Chazan and the Hebrew stage was riveting; I will be back there soon