In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Israeli Theater

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Israeli Plays in English Translation
  • Additional Research Resources

Jewish Studies Israeli Theater
Donny Inbar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0101


Even though Israel has held a world’s record in theater attendance per capita for decades, the birth of theater in modern Hebrew occurred during the first decade of the 20th century. Although founders of Hebrew theater believed they were turning their backs on the “obsolete” Yiddish theater (itself hardly fifty years old, founded in 1876 by Abraham Goldfaden [b. 1840–d. 1908]), its roots are clearly intertwined with it. Though “Israeli theater” usually takes place in Israel (or in pre-state Palestine), its most significant roots began in Moscow. Israeli theater also includes theatrical creativity in languages other than Hebrew. Israeli theater is preceded by “prehistory”: “the first Hebrew play” by Italian Jewish theater professional Leone De Sommi (b. 1527–d. 1592), as well as texts written in dialogue by Italian Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ra.M.Cha.L., b. 1707–d. 1746). This is followed by original (closet) plays in Hebrew and Hebrew translations of classical plays by scholars and followers of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Following sporadic school and amateur performances in Hebrew in Palestine, which started in 1889, activities leading toward professional theater in Hebrew began in 1914 in Moscow, with the pioneering Habima Theater. Two of its founding members immigrated to Palestine and founded two other troupes: the short-lived Eretz Israel Theater, T.A.I., and the Ohel (tent) Theater of the Federation of Unions; both launched their activities around 1925. The last significant theater company to be founded in pre-statehood Israel was the Cameri Theater (1944), which marked a dramatic departure from the Russian culture and style and led Israeli theater onto a Western path. During its first decades, Hebrew theater based its repertoire mostly on Yiddish resources, as well as a handful of plays on biblical themes and world drama. Consequently, it began producing original plays on contemporary topics, which only in the 1970s began taking center stage, at first mainly in the Haifa Municipal Theater. Inspired by a general European model, Israeli theater is produced predominantly by state- and city-subsidized repertory companies. Commercial (for-profit) theaters flourished between the 1950s and 1970s. The fringe or alternative theater arena has been thriving since the early 1980s, emanating from Tel Aviv, as well as Acco in the north and Mitspe Ramon in the south. Since 20 percent of Israeli society is non-Jewish (mostly Arab), theatrical activities in Arabic have taken place since the 1960s. In addition, various forms of theater in Yiddish have existed since the early days of Zionism. As Israel is a small country, all of its theater activities constantly tour. In spite of the above-mentioned subsidies, Israeli theater has always been critical of the establishment and has become extremely political. On the other hand, repertory theaters still rely on ticket sales. Therefore, most companies find themselves gradually having to compromise, heavily, on the need to be popular and reach a broad (and thus low) common denominator.

General Overviews

The following titles provide both a basic overview and deep comprehensive look into Israeli theater and its history. Although composed in various periods, and on different levels of academic depth and style, these are efficient points of departure to the understanding of Israeli theater, and often provide the main coverage of certain topics. An effort has been made on offering materials in English, even though the majority of academic research of Israeli theater has been conducted in Hebrew. Kohansky 1969 and Ben-Zvi 1996 complement each other in providing a concise history of theater in Israel (the former until the end of the 1960s, and the latter emphasizing more recent decades). Following the comprehensive coverage of history of Israeli theater (Kohansky 1969 and Ben-Zvi 1996, as well as supplemental materials in Abramson 1998 and Nahshon 2009), its fundamentals and roots are presented in Shavit and Sitton 2004 and Levy’s Development of Israeli Theater: A Brief Overview. Carmeli and Shavit 2005 provides vital statistics on Israeli theater and its attendance. Yerushalmi 2013 and Ben-Meir’s Biblical Thematics in Stage Design for the Hebrew Theatre offer a glimpse into specific aspects of Israeli theater, such as directors and stage design.

  • Abramson, Glenda. Drama and Ideology in Modern Israel. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    This most recent collection of articles on Israeli theater covers various topics such as Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on stage; dramatic contending with the Holocaust and religion; and major playwrights, including Hanoch Levin and Yehoshua Sobol.

  • Ben-Meir, Orna. “Biblical Thematics in Stage Design for the Hebrew Theatre.” The Bible on Stage

    Although focusing on a specific theme, this is a unique article (in English) on stage design in Israeli theater. Since the quest for recreation of biblical glory was one of the main roots in early Israeli theater, this article sheds light beyond its specific topic.

  • Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Theater in Israel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

    Considered the most comprehensive and authoritative resource on Israeli theater, this 1996 book contains articles by top Israeli theater scholars, genuinely covering Palestinian and Israeli theater’s major creators and issues (including interviews with many playwrights and directors) and offering comprehensive chronologies of early productions as well as bibliographical lists.

  • Carmeli, Abraham, and Zohar Shavit, eds. Ha-teatronim ha-tsiburiyim be-Israel: Sikum ha-pe’ilut ha-shnatit, 2003. Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, Culture Governance, the Center for Information and Culture Research, 2005.

    This report (in Hebrew), also published in subsequent years, is the authoritative resource for data on theater attendance and other demographic information on theater spectators in Israel. (Title translation: Public theaters in Israel: Yearly activities summary for 2003.)

  • Kohansky, Mendel The Hebrew Theater: Its First Fifty Years. Preface by Tyrone Guthrie. New York: Ktav, 1969.

    Until Linda Ben-Zvi’s book was published, Kohansky’s book had been considered the best resource (in English) on Israeli theater. It covers several areas, including less-charted territories such as early Israeli extra-establishment theatrical activities. Given the revolution in theater activities (and especially dramaturgy) since the 1970s, more than four dramatic decades are missing from this history book.

  • Levy, Shimon. “The Development of Israeli Theater: A Brief Overview.” Resources.

    Levy collects and contextualizes several historical and ancient roots of theatrical activities in Palestine and Israel and also covers all the main issues and turning points in the development and special nature of modern Israeli theater. Another version is also available in Theatralia Judaica 2 (1996): 27–35.

  • Nahshon, Edna, ed. Jewish Theatre: A Global View. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009.

    Relevant articles: Nahshon, Edna. “What Is Jewish Theatre?” (pp. 1–14); Belkin, Ahuva. “Ritual Space as Theatrical Space in the Jewish Folk Theatre” (pp. 15–24); Rokem, Freddie. “Job’s Soul and Weininger’s Torments: Jewish Themes in the Theatre of Hanoch Levin and Yehoshua Sobol” (pp. 257–268). See also another short article by Nahshon, which touches a number of critical issues and turning points in the history of Israeli theater and provides some basic bibliography: Nahshon, Edna. “Israeli Theatre: The Revival of the Hebrew Language.”

  • Shavit, Yaacov, and Shoshana Sitton. Staging and Stagers in Modern Jewish Palestine: The Creation of Festive Lore in a New Culture, 1882–1948. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

    This fundamental historical study covers several aspects of Zionist creativity in Palestine and contextualizes theater and dramatic endeavors with other cultural trends of the emerging Yishuv (renewed Jewish population), from the rural socialism of the kibbutz movement to the bourgeois center of Tel Aviv.

  • Yerushalmi, Dorit. Derech habimuy: Al bama’im bate’atron haYisraeli. Tel Aviv: Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2013.

    A great thorough resource (in Hebrew) on directors in Israeli theater. See also director Shmuel Bunim’s memoirs, Bunim 1994, in Additional Memoirs and Monographs. (Title translation: The directors’ stage: On directors in the Israeli theater.)

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