Arts & Events

Habimah Resurrects ‘The Dybbuk’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 10:09:00 AM

Habimah, Israel’s national theater—which is first associated with Stanislavsky, the Moscow Art Theatre and the stylized direction of Yevgeny Vakhtangov in 1917 in Moscow—will perform its signature play, The Dybbuk, in its only West Coast performances, July 8, 9 and 12. This new production, featuring live actors and puppets, will be at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco, complementing the ongoing exhibition, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater 1919–1949, through Sept. 7. The exhibition features Natan Altman’s “faux-naif” color drawings for sets and costumes, as well as a set model, poster and program, and photographs of the original 1922 Habimah production—and Marc Chagall’s celebrated 1920 murals for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (GOSET). 

The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, written by S. Ansky, after a folklore expedition during the early 20th century through the shtetls of Eastern Europe, is a Romeo and Juliet tale of the love between a young Talmudic scholar, Khanan, and Leah, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The scholar engages in Kabbalistic studies to gain power to win Leah. When her father announces her engagement to a wealthy groom, Khanan dies, coming back on the eve of Leah’s wedding as a dybbuk, a dislocated soul become a malicious spirit, to possess her. A rabbi battles with the dybbuk over Leah in a ritual of exorcism. 

The first Habimah production, in Russian, featured the radical new production styles of Soviet theater and visual art, variously described as or compared to Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Suprematism and Constructivism. Vakhtangov, a protégé of Stanislavsky’s who had taken up the reins of the Moscow Art Theatre’s experimental First Studio after the stormy departure of the great stylized director, V. S. Meyerhold, directed the play in an aesthetic derived from what he had developed in the First Studio, along with others like Mikhail Chekhov, nephew of the playwright, described by Bertolt Brecht as “Stanislavsky plus Meyerhold—but before the split!” 

“For the Habimah, The Dybbuk has been a blessing and a curse,” said Dr. Donny Inbar, associate director for Arts and Culture of the Israel Center of the Jewish Community Federation, co-sponsors of the performances with the Israeli Consulate and the museum. “The Habimah was young, a dramatic studio, not even really a company at the time, and they start with a production that’s still considered one of the top theatrical events of the 20th century. A blessing! George Bernard Shaw was crazy about it, the King of England saw it: it was played for decades on every tour through Europe and America.  

“The curse? In many ways, Habimah has been on the decline ever since. No one could top this! There were some other good things, but the company was so closely identified with The Dybbuk that when Hana Rovina, who originated the role of Leah, got the part of a prostitute in a play ten years later, there were protests: ‘Leah cannot become a prostitute!’ She played the role of a virginal bride into her late 60s. They wouldn’t let her leave. Finally, after 40 years in the repertoire, well over a thousand performances, the production was closed by Habimah.” 

Indeed, the photograph of Rovina as Leah from the Moscow production became the icon of the Habimah—and of Jewish theater generally. 

After two further attempts to mount new versions of their signature play, both times with American directors and indifferent results, “the Habimah had the brilliant idea, for their 90th anniversary celebration last year, to produce three fringe productions, three new looks at the play—one, in dance; another, as storytelling theater from folktales, and the third, with three actors, who come onstage with suitcases and unpack props and puppets at a weird angular table, taken from Natan Altman’s original, which becomes a graveyard. It’s right out of Russian Futurism—and fits the angles of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  

“The actors change places back and forth with the puppets,” Inbar recounted, “and with exaggerated makeup, bring in some humor, and a little bit of parody. Like Hamlet, The Dybbuk has become a cliché in Israel, and part of our lingo there parodies the play.” 

The puppets themselves may look familiar. Inspired by the stop-action animation puppets of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, “which were in turn inspired by another Yiddish folktale with dybbuk elements,” according to Inbar, they put the show on “a scale of Vakhtengov to Tim Burton!” 

“This fringe production exorcised the curse from The Dybbuk,” Inbar said, “and breathes fresh air into the play. When I saw the exhibit on theater art that would open here, the first thing that came to my mind was to bring something with that breath of fresh air.” 

Inbar spoke of the wry contradictions surrounding every development in the history of the play’s success. “Ansky gave the play to Stanislavsky, in Russian, the outcome of his ethnographic journeys, meant to showcase what Jewish life was before the Revolution. To perform for audiences who didn’t know what Jewish experi- 

ence was, and also for Jewish audiences  

... Stanislavsky, a Christian, adds a  

major character, the Messenger. And Vakhtengov, an Armenian, steps in,  

Jewish audiences ... Stanislavsky, a Christian, adds a major character, the Messenger. And Vakhtengov, an Armenian, steps in, cuts two-thirds of the play, and makes magic with his incredible stylization.” 

Inbar continued with the parodox of The Dybbuk’s backstory and legacy. “The man who created what’s often considered to be the utmost Jewish religious experience on stage was the ultimate atheist! Ansky even wrote the anthem for a Jewish socialist group with lyrics saying something like, The Messiah is dead, Jewish labor is the Messiah. And Ansky plagiarized a satirical book from almost 50 years before, which parodies a rabbi trying to exorcise a dybbuk, something almost mega-anti-religious, anti-rabbinical, just leaving the jokes by the side. Some of it’s almost word for word. Usually, such things start with something serious, then become a parody!” 

Nobody knows whether Ansky wrote the original play in Russian or Yiddish, Inbar said; the original manuscript was lost. Stanislavsky had urged Ansky to translate the Russian version he was given into Yiddish. Ansky died of consumption in late 1920. The first production was mounted during the 30-day period of mourning by the Vilna Troupe, “one of the first Yiddish art theaters,” in Yiddish, and moved almost immediately to Warsaw. A year later, it was produced by New York City’s Yiddish Art Theatre. “Then H. N. Bialik, the national poet of Hebrew, translated it—and later the Hebrew was retranslated back into Yiddish. The Yiddish theater took it up everywhere in the world. Then the revolutionary Habimah production came along and changed Jewish theater forever. Both Yiddish and Hebrew versions come from the same original; it belongs to both canons. Yet there is nothing ‘authentic’ about this play!” 

The Habimah production will be in Hebrew with English supertitles. Donny Inbar will speak at the Museum at 7 p.m. August 13 on “The Theatrical Synagogue on the Secular Stage.” “The young secular Jewish theater, from 1876, was a massive secularizing force, at first dividing the Hasidim.” 

The Dybbuk was also made into a Yiddish feature film, one of the few now in existence, in 1937 in Warsaw, as well as “at least two other features in Israel, one placed in contemporary Jerusalem, a modern love story with fantastic imagery, that was at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco about 10 years ago, starring the actress who plays opposite Tom Hanks in the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. 

There’s even been a Noh version of The Dybbuk in Japan!” 

Leonard Bernstein composed a ballet score based on The Dybbuk. And Aaron Copland used a traditional melody collected by Ansky and incorporated into the play, in his piano trio, Vitebsk, named after Ansky’s birthplace. 

Ironically, Stalin helped preside at the Habimah’s birth, as People’s Commisar of the Affairs of Nationalities. The troupe left the Soviet Union in 1926, touring until coming to Palestine in 1928, making its home in Tel Aviv. Since 1958, Habimah has been officially Israel’s national theater. 



7 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday July 8-9; 5 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. $15-20, including museum admission, except Wednesday. A free, family-oriented puppet demonstration will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 12. $8-10; under 18, free; $5 after 5 p. m. Thursday. (415) 655-7815.