Her Mother's Daughter

Ilana Rovina's mother was the country's greatest actress, her father was an admired, handsome poet. She herself grew up in kibbutzim and in foster homes, abandoned a singing career after the death of her third husband and is now struggling with the huge debts left behind by her fourth husband.

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

Four months ago Ilana Rovina returned to Israel, at the age of 73. She is the daughter of Habima Theater's renowned actress, Hanna Rovina, and of the poet Alexander Penn - two of the best-known figures in the history of Israeli culture. Ilana Rovina, who was a popular singer, left the profession 30 years ago, and 14 years ago moved to London. Now, after her return, she is trying to make a comeback in a small, nostalgia-driven show. Called "Vacation in the Health Resort," after one of her best-known songs, the show opened two weeks ago in the small hall of the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv, with the participation of the veteran actor Shlomo Bar Shavit. Rovina sings and relates behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Habima in the 1950s and 1960s.

No, she does not intend to take the audience by storm, she says. All she wants to do is see whether she still has the old vim and vigor - and it's also a living. "My mother always said that a woman needs a profession," she says with a bitter laugh, because what her mother wanted her daughter to be was a kindergarten teacher.

How to repay debts

As befits a princess, Rovina is not pleased when people bother her early in the morning. Her day begins, lazily, at noon. It's then that she begins to open up to the world. She answers the phone and is ready to receive visitors in her handsome north Tel Aviv apartment. The apartment itself is currently at the center of a dispute - Mizrahi Bank says it's theirs and Rovina says it's hers. A month ago, a receiver was appointed for the apartment on behalf of the bank, and last week, an hour before the trucks were to start moving, Rovina's lawyer managed to get a bit of breathing space from the Tel Aviv District Court. The court issued a temporary injunction blocking Rovina's eviction until a final ruling is handed down, in return for which Rovina deposited a guarantee of NIS 50,000. The bank has asked the Supreme Court to allow it to appeal and is determined to carry out the eviction.

The dispute with the bank over the apartment is only the tip of the iceberg of Rovina's financial Titanic. One afternoon, a little less than two years ago, Rovina went to the garden of her home in West Hampstead, London, and found her partner, Rafi Weiser, dead. He committed suicide by hanging. Weiser and Rovina lived in London for 14 years. Rovina wanted to be close to her only child, Maya, who has lived there for 17 years. They made a living from real estate, buying old homes and renovating them, before renting them or selling them for a handsome profit. Weiser collapsed after trying to take loan upon loan to repay debts that only mounted. In the end, according to people who knew him in London, he left debts of 3 million pounds (about NIS 25 million) to the Bank of Scotland.

"Ilana apparently didn't know about his entanglements," says an Israeli businessman who lives in London. "They looked like a good couple. He adored her and she needed someone to look after her. But she didn't know the first thing about business and signed whatever Rafi told her."

In 1997, Rovina signed one document too many. She transferred the rights to the apartment to him. In 2001, the debt of the couple and of Rovina's daughter to Mizrahi Bank stood at NIS 2,740,526, an amount that included a mortgage and various business loans. "It's very tempting to come and say that the bank is cruel and wicked, and why shouldn't it let the poor widow be," says a spokesman for the bank. "But in this case, the bank showed rare forbearance for a very long time."

According to the bank's request to the Supreme Court, the couple signed a declaration and commitment to repay their debts and even took loans from the bank for that purpose, but the debt was not fully repaid and today stands at NIS 1,420,904, the bank says.

"Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank has been trying for more than a decade to collect its debt from the deceased partner and from Ms. Rovina," the spokesman says. "The bank demonstrated the greatest possible sensitivity and consideration for the couple's economic situation, and afterward in the tragic circumstances of the case - but without success. Only after it became clear to the bank that Ms. Rovina has no intention of carrying out the agreements she signed, and that she is abusing the bank's considerate attitude, did the bank go to the Bailiff's Office, in July 2006, and ask that a receiver be appointed for the apartment."

Rovina, for her part, is trying to make some money in her new show with Shlomo Bar Shavit. "It's a drop in the ocean," Bar Shavit says. "It can't even solve the problem for someone who has no problems, but it can make you feel good. To get out of the house a little, sing, meet people, see that people remember her. There are ironclad rules in this matter, and I say this as an actor - when you get on the stage, you forget everything, even if you went to a funeral that morning. I saw her onstage and the audience stood up and shouted 'Bravo!' I saw her face and that said it all. And she also sings beautifully."

The show was organized in a modest, economical spirit within a month at the initiative of the radio broadcaster Haim Keinan. There's a stage, a microphone, a grand piano, two armchairs and a small table in the center on which are two bottles of water. Rovina hopes the show will just keep going. "As long as it's possible to sing and appear on the stage, and if it's not too tiring, then why not?"

She sings her repertoire from the 1970s - "I Asked for a Light," "Go With Her," "Ballad About My Boy Who Grew Up," and the song with which she is most identified, "Vacation in the Health Resort," which she sang with her former husband Uri Zohar, the iconic Israeli entertainer-turned-rabbi.

The audience received her lovingly at the show's opening two weeks ago. She herself was a bit restrained and didn't always remember the words. "It's hard to know if she truly enjoyed the evening," says a music critic. "She had no passion or enthusiasm, and the show is also not professional enough. There were occasional slips, sometimes she was a half-tone off - but she still has a wonderful clear voice and she exudes charm and nonchalance."

"I had a feeling of being at home," Rovina says. "I felt that people came to give me credit."

In the 1970s, Rovina was a popular singer with a distinctive voice, but she was never a star and she never did solo shows. She usually appeared around the country with other singers or on television. "I still remember appearing in remote towns and singing a song by Alterman or Naomi Shemer," she relates, "and someone in the audience shouted 'Give us a magician.' Who there ever heard of Alterman or Naomi Shemer? It's not their fault, no one ever bothered to teach them."

Not long after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Rovina decided to stop singing. "The pleasure went out of it," she says. "My husband, the father of my daughter, died around then, and I lost the desire to perform. It didn't happen in one day. I continued to appear a little on television, but I chose what I wanted, and naturally there were fewer and fewer opportunities. I always treated it like work that I love, not a career. When I stopped singing I didn't stop living, just the opposite. There are some people who if you take singing away from them - or, as in the case of my mother, when they took away the theater - they stop living."

'But I'm here!'

When Rovina says "my mother," one can feel in the room the tremulous voice of the great diva that seems to emerge from a color portrait that hangs in her living room. There is no doubt that the mother is still present in the life of her daughter and still rules with a high hand. Hanna Rovina was born in a small town near Minsk, in Belarus. There is some dispute over the year of her birth: Hanna Rovina claimed she was born in 1892, but various reference works say 1889, while according to her acquaintances she was born in 1888. In any event, she was a rebellious girl who was fascinated by the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement and by the relative freedom given to women. She studied in a college for kindergarten teachers in Warsaw, which was headed by Yehiel Halperin, the father of the Canaanite poet and ideologue, Yonatan Ratosh.

In 1917, Rovina joined Nahum Tzemah and Menachen Gnessin, who established a Hebrew theater in Moscow. The connection with her was forged earlier, in Warsaw, when the two, looking for women who could speak Hebrew, recruited Rovina after they saw her act onstage with kindergarten children. In 1921, she married the Habima Theater actor Moshe Halevy, but divorced him a few years later. She became the transfixing star of the theater and was best known for her lead role in the play "The Dybbuk." In March, 1928, all the members of the theater immigrated to Palestine and settled in Tel Aviv.

In 1931, Rovina, who was already the diva of the theater, met the poet Alexander Penn, who with Moshe Zmiri adapted Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" for Habima. "A tall, pale man in black boots ... and a leather coat: Alexander Penn, handsome as a prince, a poet. The city is small and there are few poets, and he is special, creates an impression, breaks hearts" was the way the poet Haim Gouri described him to Prof. Hagit Halperin, a Penn scholar.

Penn's legendary figure also appears in the memoirs of the noted theater critic Yossi Gamzu: "I remember a hot day," Gamzu wrote, "and suddenly, on this brutally hot day, the asphalt bubbling and burning, there appears in leather boots, in a rubashka of yellow silk with a velvet cord, a prince from one's childhood fairytales ... I don't recall ever seeing, other than in the cinema or in books, a nobleman from head to foot, walking quietly, long sidelocks, something breathtakingly gorgeous. It wasn't someone, it was something."

Penn was born in 1906 on the Russian steppes, on the shore of the northern ice sea to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, apparently from a Swedish aristocratic family. His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised by his grandfather, who was a bear hunter. According to various accounts, when the grandfather died the boy managed to get to his father's home in Moscow by foot and there was converted to Judaism. He began to write poetry in Moscow and became friends with some of the great new Russian poets, including Vladimir Mayakovsky and Boris Pasternak (author of "Dr. Zhivago"), before settling in Tel Aviv in 1927.

At the time of his tempestuous affair with Rovina, Penn was 25 and she was 18 years older (approximately). He was still married to his first wife, Bella, the mother of his two children, Zerubavela and Adam. Their affair lasted two and a half years, according to Prof. Halperin, and was one of the most famous love affairs in the history of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. It was a passionate affair, with ups and downs. For a time the two lived in a rented apartment on Hamagid Street in Tel Aviv. In 1934, on Tu Bishvat, their daughter, Ilana, was born (her mother was apparently 45 at the time). Her name came from the holiday, which is also called Hag Ha'ilanot (ilan is the Hebrew word for "tree").

"I was born in Jerusalem," Ilana Rovina relates, "at the old Hadassah. My mother wanted my birth certificate to say Jerusalem." After the birth, Hanna Rovina became seriously ill and remained in Jerusalem for several months. She almost died, as the Yishuv held its breath. "In public places, people asked one another, 'And how is she today?' and everyone knew who they meant," Carmit Guy writes in her biography of Rovina and of Habima. The Hebrew press carried daily reports of her condition. "Today, with penicillin, they would have ended it with two shots," Ilana Rovina says. "But my mother was a very strong woman and did not die."

Rovina lived with her mother in the Habima homes in Tel Aviv, at the corner of Gordon and Dov Hoz Streets. All the theater's actors lived in close proximity to one another. The relationship with Penn ended badly. While Rovina was hospitalized, he fell in love with Rahel, a nurse at Hadassah Hospital, who later became his wife. Rovina went back to the theater. Rehearsals in the morning, rest in the middle of the day, performances in the evening. Motherhood was not one of the important roles in her repertoire. The little girl was at best a decoration and in the worst case, a burden.

"She had a few abortions before me, and she didn't want me, either," Ilana Rovina says. "But my father told her not to have an abortion, and because she loved him so terribly much, I am alive. He persuaded her that she would not be complete as a woman if she did not go through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, and she thought that maybe it would give her greater depth as an actress."

Saved from being aborted, Ilana Rovina became a sweet girl with golden curls whom her mother liked to boast about to her friends. She was effectively raised by nannies and her mother's girlfriends, who looked after her while Rovina was busy, which was most of the time. One of the nannies was Zehava Ravikov. "I loved her terribly," Rovina says. "She lived with me in the room. One day, when I was two and a half, she decided that I should see my mother onstage and took me to see 'The Eternal Jew.' So I see on the stage my mother dressed in clothes like a madwoman and her whole face colored brown and her hair all wild, and I knew she didn't have hair like that. She walked the stage and shouted 'Where is the child? Where is the child?' And I became very frightened, so I stood up and shouted, 'I'm here.'"

Rovina's presence at home was primarily functional: to gather strength between rehearsals and for the many trips Habima made all over the country. Something of Rovina's attitude toward her daughter is reflected in a note that was found in her estate. The note was written by Zehava, the nanny, to the present-absent mother: "Ilana and I are waiting for you ... I want Ilana to be with you as many hours as possible. She should be less attached to me, because I am only a nanny. Today I am here, but tomorrow, who knows? I don't want to frighten you, but Ilana will not always need a nanny like me, and I have to make sure that the separation will not be too difficult. Because the nanny's feelings needn't be taken into consideration."

In 1937, when Ilana was three, Habima went on two tours abroad, to Egypt and to Europe, and she was sent to the children's house in Kibbutz Geva for almost a year. In the summer of 1940, Rovina sent her to Jerusalem, to a family in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood on the city's western outskirts. "It was the usual thing for Tel Aviv children to be sent to Jerusalem to breathe the mountain air and for the Jerusalem children to be sent to Tel Aviv to see the sea," Rovina recalls. "It was just at that time, when I was in Jerusalem, that the Italians bombed Tel Aviv, and my mother was very frightened. She knew that she went on many trips with the theater, and out of concern she left me with a foster family in Beit Hakerem. They were very simple people, hard-working and good-hearted, and she came to visit me when she could."

Rovina lived with the family for four years and attended elementary school in Beit Hakerem. Returning to Tel Aviv, she entered fifth grade. She wasn't a very good student but her mother didn't make a big fuss over it. "My mother didn't go to parents' meetings," she says, "and if I came home with a note saying that I had to bring mother, she would send back a note saying she couldn't make it because she had a rehearsal."

Did they give you breaks in school?

"Exactly the opposite. There was an English teacher there that I will never forget. To make sure that people wouldn't think he was giving me protekzia, he would really get on my case. A lot of times I deserved it, because I was a bad student. I learned how to read very quickly and after that, all the other things didn't interest me. I read books in the classroom under the desk or I daydreamed, and when I was asked a question I would say I didn't know."