In 1990 a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead was staged in Tel Aviv. The venue was Habimartef (‘Habima basement’ or ‘Habima cellar’), a small auditorium at the underground floor of the Habima National Theatre’s building. The director was Moscow-born and raised Yevgeny Aryeh (Evgenij Ar’e). The performance language was Russian.
The event marked the debut of the Gesher Theatre, then an unknown company, today one of the most prominent theatres in Israel. The Gesher (‘Bridge’) was founded by Aryeh along with other Russian actors recruited for the purpose and immigrated to Israel. Therefore its experience needs to be placed within the wider context of the wave of Russian immigration to Israel, which brought nearly one million of Russian and other post-Soviet Jews to the small Middle Eastern country after 1989. Nonetheless, the comparison arose naturally with the same journey on which Habima embarked six decades earlier.
Founded in 1917 by Nahum Zemach, Menachem Gnessin, and Hanna Rovina, who had met in Warsaw before the Great War, Habima was a collective of Jewish actors and directors from Russia and Congress Poland who aimed at performing in Hebrew. Stanislavskij welcomed Habima as a studio of the MKhAT (Moscow Art Theatre) and in 1922 the company reached global fame with its memorable production of An-ski’s The Dybbuk directed by Vachtangov. In 1926 Habima left for a triumphant world tour and never went back to Soviet Union. Five years later it permanently settled in Tel Aviv.
Differences between the two companies lie mainly in their language choices. Since the earliest days, Habima founders opted exclusively for Hebrew despite the lack of a Hebrew-speaking audience in their time and place. Their goal was to establish a Jewish theatre in Hebrew (rather than in Yiddish), thus contributing to the national-linguistic renaissance. Conversely, the Gesher started out with Russian-language shows in a Hebrew-speaking country. Its goal seemed to be the preservation of Russian identity in Israel. Nevertheless, it immediately went beyond the expectations of an immigrant, ethnic theatre, starting out with a British absurdist play, considered avant-garde in the 60s, aimed at enthusiasts who were familiar with Hamlet and could appreciate metatheatre. Just one year later, the Gesher actors began acting in Hebrew as well, starting the bilingual tradition of the company.
Despite the differences, both Habima and the Gesher offered their contribution to the Hebrew stage, thus showing a pattern in the injection of talents from Russia in transitional periods of Israeli history. It is a well-known fact that professional Hebrew-language theatre was born in Moscow with Habima and that the birth of the Hebrew theatre was tightly intertwined with the Zionist enterprise. Even today, parodies of old-fashioned acting are characterised by a heavy Russian accent, proving that the connection between Russia and the origins of theatre is a shared perception in Israel. It should not be surprising that again from Russia came a group of actors with a solid training and an extensive experience who established, against all odds, a new theatre in Israel.