1980: A Woman Who Thought What Moscow Needed Is Hebrew Theater Dies

And later relocated it to Tel Aviv, whereby Hanna Rovina became co-founder of Israel's Habima National Theater.

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Hanna Rovina stars as Leah in a 1920s production of "The Dybbuk."
Hanna Rovina stars as Leah in a 1920s production of "The Dybbuk." Credit: Courtesy
David Green
David B. Green

On February 3, 1980, Hanna Rovina, actress and co-founder of Habima National Theater, died, at age 91.

Rovina was part of a small cadre of idealistic but highly impractical Jews living in Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution who saw the need for a Hebrew-speaking acting company. After they had proved that such a company could be a success, both in Russia and internationally, Rovina was among those Habima members who decided to make life harder for themselves by relocating to Tel Aviv. She would spend the rest of her long life acting with Habima, becoming its most beloved actor and a symbol of the company.

Hanna Rubin was born on September 15, 1888, in Berezino, in the Minsk district of the Russian empire, in what is today Belarus. Her father, David Rubin, was a Chabad Hasid who made his living as a timber merchant, and her mother, Sara-Rivka Rubin, was a seamstress.

Rovina’s ambition as a young woman was to teach young children. She herself was educated in a progressive Jewish school, and then at a Russian public school. After spending two years as a children’s caregiver, she went to Warsaw to study education at the seminary run there by Yechiel Halperin, a Russian Zionist.

Winning over Stalin

In Warsaw, Rovina met Nachum Zemach, who was organizing a society of actors to explore Jewish culture in the Hebrew language. She participated in some of their productions, before heading, in 1914, to Baku, in Azerbaijan, where she had been offered a kindergarten job. Three years later, Zemach persuaded her to return to Moscow, to join what was shortly to become the original Habima theater.

Together with Rovina and actor Menachem Gnessin, Zemach turned to director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, who headed the Moscow Art Theater, for help in getting official permission to establish a Hebrew-language theater. Stanislavsky took the group under his wing and convinced the commissar of nationalities, who was none other than Joseph Stalin, to issue the necessary permit.

Habima’s premiere performance, an omnibus of four one-act plays, took place on October 12, 1918: Hanna Rovina played the role of the mother in a play by Sholem Asch. She was already 30. The following year, she also played a mother – the mother of the Messiah – in a Hebrew version of David Pinski’s “The Eternal Jew.”

Hanna Rovina plays the lead role in a 1920s production of "The Dybbuk." Credit: Talmoryair/Wikimedia Commons

The dybbuk and Chaim Weizmann

Rovina became legendary in 1922, when she assumed the role of Leah, the young woman whose body is inhabited by the spirit of her deceased lover, in S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.” Although she got the role only at the last minute, after the actress originally slated to play Leah left Habima, she and the part became inseparable in the public imagination, and she appeared in every revival of “The Dybbuk” from then until 1957, when the company performed it in Paris (to disastrous reviews). 

In 1925, after quarreling with Zemach and quitting Habima, Rovina traveled to Palestine, where her husband, Moshe Halevi, had moved the previous year. In Palestine Halevi had established what was to become the Theater of Eretz Israel Laborers.

Rovina came to tell Halevi that she was pregnant and ask him to acknowledge his paternity. When he refused, Rovina had an abortion and returned to Moscow.

She never married again. But she did have a child, Ilana, with the self-destructive poet Alexander Penn, and in the 1920s, she had an affair with the married Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann.

In 1928, the year after a first split in the company – when Zemach and other members decided not to return to the Soviet Union from their American tour – the remaining group split again, and Rovina and a number of colleagues immigrated to Palestine.

Making its home in Tel Aviv, Habima was named Israel’s “national theater” in 1958, and a photograph of Rovina dressed as Leah became its unofficial logo. She remained with the theater until the end of her life, only once playing a part with another company, when she had a guest performance with the Cameri Theater in 1961, in a play by Natan Alterman. Her final role was as the queen mother in Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” in 1976, at age 88. 

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