The Habima Theatre is Israel’s national theatre company and is located in the aptly-named ‘Habima Square’ in central Tel Aviv. It was founded in Moscow in 1917, by Nachum Zemach, as a Hebrew-speaking theatre company, with productions that dealt with Jewish folklore and tradition. Initially, it met with some hostility from the Czarist government and, once again, with Stalin's communist party after the Russian Revolution. With the increasing persecution of the Jews in Russia, a decision was made to move the theatre to Palestine and in 1931, the company settled permanently in Tel Aviv.
Early Years in Palestine
In Hebrew, ‘ha Bima’ actually means ‘the stage’ and this refers not just to the performances on offer in the theatre itself (and the Mann Auditorium, located adjacent to Ha Bima) but also the entire public space in the area in which it is built. The first play that ever opened to the public was a Hebrew version of a play in Yiddish by Shalom Aleichem entitled ‘Ha Otsar’ (‘The Treasure’) - evidence of its desire to reflect the cultural mood, as well as the portion of the Hebrew language and its culture. The theatre has grown and thrived since then and, today is regarded as a world-class cultural institution.
Habima in Tel Aviv
The idea of establishing a cultural center in Tel Aviv was first proposed by Patrick Geddes, the man behind the Geddes Plan. His view was that the theatre should represent a sort of ‘Acropolis’ - a cultural center within the city - and in this regard, he was joined by Oscar Kaufmann, the architect who designed the original building in the ‘Bauhaus International Style’. A cornerstone was finally laid in 1935 and, throughout the 1940s, the area was home not just to Habima but also an educational center and a small sycamore grove too.
From then until now, the theatre has its home in a vibrant part of the city, namely the intersection of Dizengoff Street and Rothschild Boulevard. (Geddes' idea was that the cultural life of Habima would be juxtaposed with the more commercial area of Dizengoff). Today, the intersection remains a lively area, popular with locals, tourists, and young people, who sit at the numerous sidewalk cafes and stroll or cycle along the surrounding boulevards.
Renovations at Habima
An ambitious plan to renovate the entire area was set in motion by architect Dani Karavan in 2007, incorporating not just the theatre itself but the surrounding streets and square. Four and a half years later, after much discussion, the complex was opened. Built, as before, in the international style of the White City (drawing on Corbusier/Bauhaus architecture and intended for preservation under UNESCO Heritage terms) it is indeed a minimalist look. Whilst some people have argued that it is rather cold and austere, this is deliberate. The ‘stripped-down’ design, it is argued, serves to detract attention away from the public space and towards the theatre itself.
Habima was designed in a classical style, as per Kaufman’s previous European designs, and is home to four auditoriums, all completely rebuilt. Each one is a different color and size - Rovina seats 930 people and is blue, Meskin is painted lavender and seats 320; Bertonov comes in green and seats 220, and Habima 4 (once known as ‘Heineken’) boasts wood paneling and seats 170. The Frederick Mann auditorium (where the Israeli Philharmonic performs) was rebuilt in a more modernist style, and the contrast is noticeable.
Today, Habima receives an annual state subsidy, which enables it to host a wide variety of plays, using some of Israel’s best actors and actresses from the stage and screen. The content is wide-ranging, from Shakespearian classics to contemporary dramas by Tennessee Williams to popular musicals like ‘Evita’ and ‘Mamma Mia.’ Many plays also deal with current-day affairs relating to Israel (such as Maya Arad’s play ‘Ten Minutes from Home’, dealing with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1997) and pieces that deal with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As expected, almost all of the plays are in Hebrew, but from time to time English subtitles are available, giving tourists the opportunity to enjoy a performance.
Outside Habima, the square itself is a popular place for strolling, passing an afternoon drinking coffee, and listening to buskers perform. In the sunken garden nearby you will see lavender, cacti, and almond trees, all planted as a nod to the vegetation that grew there years before and a water basin is another unusual feature of the square. At its foot lies Rothschild Boulevard, one of the most beautiful streets in the city and filled with renovated buildings in the original Bauhaus style. Just as importantly, underneath the square is a huge car park, enabling people to drive from outside the city to attend cultural performances and enjoy the general ambiance.
Close by (a block from Rothschild) is another beautiful street, called Ahad Ha’am (‘One of the People’ in Hebrew). It was named after Asher Ginsburg, who was a poet and journalist and a central literary figure in reviving cultural Zionism (fun fact: the street boasts more Bauhaus buildings than any other in the city). Ahad Ha’am street is well-known for its famous, and beloved, ‘Cafe Noir’ (with its European-style waitstaff in long white aprons, and legendary chicken schnitzel).
The restaurant is open until late and, with its proximity to the theatre, remains a popular spot for artists and playwrights to grab a bite after performances. To the north of the square sits the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, a 1959 Bauhaus-style building that hosts exhibitions of cutting-edge local and international art and ten minutes walk in the other direction brings you to King George Street, with its Bohemian stores and cosmopolitan style.
To sum up, today Habima is truly one of Tel Aviv's most iconic buildings. The entire area has never been more popular, which is evidenced by the number of outdoor performers, art installations on Rothschild Boulevard, and a growing number of eateries in the neighborhood. Whilst, by day, it may seem lacking in color, anyone who sits there as dusk falls and the lights of the theatre are switched on, cannot fail to be impressed by the inviting atmosphere and the high regard which the locals clearly have for the area.