Cemach Nachum Dawid

Nachum Dawid Cemach - Personal data
Date of birth: 1887
Place of birth: Wołkowysk
Date of death: 1939
Place of death:
Occupation: actor, director
Related towns: Białystok, Warsaw

Cemach (Zemach) Nachum David (1887, Vawkavysk – 1939, New York) – actor, director, founder of the Habima Theatre.

In 1909, after his father’s death, he moved with his family to Białystok, where he taught Hebrew and founded a theatre troupe called “Ha-Bimah Ha-Ivrit” (Hebrew: “Hebrew Scene”). The very same year, the troupe staged a play entitled Musar Naar Ra (Hebrew: “Morality of an Angry Teenager”; author: I. Barkan, developed by M. Zalkind). The performance went down in the history of the Jewish theatre as the first Hebrew play staged in the Russian Empire. In 1912, Zemach assembled the amateur troupe “Ha-Lahaka Ha-Dramatit Ha-Ivrit” (Hebrew: “Hebrew Dramatic Stage”) together with Menachem Gnessin. It soon staged the play Ha-Noded Ha-Nichi by Osip Dymov (Hebrew: “The Eternal Wanderer,” directed by I. Bertonov, translated into Hebrew by N. Zemach). The same play was also staged in 1913 in Vienna during the 11th Zionist Congress, where the performance met with a chilly reception from the audience (it was only staged twice), but nonetheless gained critical acclaim.

In 1912, Nachum Zemach teamed up with the “Hovevei Sfat Ever” society (Hebrew: “Lovers of the Hebrew Language”) to establish the “Ha-Bimah Ha-Ivrit” troupe in Warsaw. Its performances took place once a week and featured such actors and actresses as Hanna Rovina and Menachem Gnessin. The same year, the troupe staged M. Arenstein’s play Ha-Shir Ha-Nitzchi (Hebrew: “The Eternal Song”). With the outbreak of World War I, the troupe split up. Zemach moved first to Białystok and then to Moscow, where the local Artistic Theatre had already enjoyed the reputation of one of the best stages in Europe, and where Zemach applied for the permission of the tsarist authorities to found the “Habima” society. He managed to collect one hundred thousand roubles from the supporters of his project to open a Hebrew theatre in Moscow. In the spring of 1917, Zemach established the “Habima” society in Moscow, with the town’s chief rabbi, J. Maze, and writer and entrepreneur Ch. Złotopolski largely contributing to the success. The Habima Theatre was established under the auspices of the society. Zemach officially held the position of the director’s representative and board member. The name of the “Habima” Jewish Dramatic Studio did not appear in official documents until ca. 1918.

During the rehearsals for the play Ha-Yehudi Ha-Nitzchi (Hebrew: “The Eternal Jew”), Zemach and his troupe concluded that the Theatre’s development was headed in the wrong direction. Zemach saw the Moscow Academic Art Theatre as the artistic ideal to aspire to. The founder of Habima eventually succeeded in arranging a meeting with his mentor, outstanding director, actor, and teacher – K. Stanislavski. Stanislavski was stirred by Zemach’s ardent speech about the tragic history of Jews and ambition to create a Jewish stage which would play an important role in the national revival. He therefore chose one of his most talented pupils, E. Vakhtangov, and entrusted him with the mission of directing performances at the Jewish theatre and taking care of its activities. Vakhtangov interrupted the rehearsals for Ha-Yehudi Ha-Nitzchi and began to teach the basics of acting to the members of the troupe. In return, Zemach started to educate him on the iconic figures of Jewish literature (I. L. Peretz, Ch. N. Bialik, and others). The classics selected by Zemach largely dealt with the themes of Jewish history, ethics, and morality, which was of great interest to Vakhtangov. On 18 October 1918, the troupe premiered the play Neshef Breshit (Hebrew: “The Victory of Creation,” four one-act plays), which was positively received by both the public, the critics, and the authorities.

In order to save the Jewish theatre during the Bolshevik rule, Zemach sought for Habima to be recognised as a national theatre. He once again received help from Stanislavski, who supported Zemach’s request to the communist authorities to grant national status to the group “Teatron-studio Habima” (the official Hebrew name of the institution). The efforts to nationalise the theatre proved successful – Habima was granted an annual subsidy and the studio was moved to its new headquarters at 6 Nizhny Kislovsky Street. Nonetheless, Zemach would often remind his actors: “Our home is Habima in Jerusalem.” These words were immortalised in Habima’s anthem, with both the lyrics and music written by the theatre’s founder.

Nachum Zemach was a talented manager, expert diplomat, and excellent speaker. During riots and famine in Moscow, he managed to acquire materials necessary to build sets and make costumes. He gained the support of such prominent figures as M. Gorky, F. Chaliapin, L. Lunacharsky, K. Stanislavski, or Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Zemach was also able to attract some of the best Russian directors (E. Vakchtangov, W. Mchedelov, and B. Verschylov), musicologists (I. Engel) and set designers (G. Yakulov, N. Altman, and R. Falk). The premiere of the play Ha-Dibbuk (Hebrew: The Dybbuk) by S. Ansky was attended by both the Rabbi of Moscow, J. Maze, and the chairman of the Mossoviet (Moscow City Council), L. Kamenev, both of whom sat in the same row. Zemach was even able to refute the attacks of the Jewish Section of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) with his fiery speeches and publications in the press.

Habima was supported in the fight against the Jewish Section by many well-known men of letters, theatre people, musicians, and visual artists. All of them signed the petition addressed to the Centrotheatre. In March 1920, the chairman of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, L. Kamenev, sent back a copy of the petition with the note “I fully support it,” while the commissar of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, Joseph Stalin, made the following addition to the original document: “The protest of the Jewish Sub-Division of National Minorities (the Jewish Section) is to be considered unfounded, I allow the payment of annual subsidies on general terms.” The National Theatre Management granted Habima the status of the National Academic Theatre, which was confirmed in 1923, 1924, and 1925. Despite these assurances, Zemach was very well aware that Habima remained the last “Hebrew island” on the cultural map of the Soviet Union, and that murky future awaited Jewish theatre in the USSR.

In January 1926, Zemach and his troupe, with Stanislavski’s permission, set off on the first European tour – Habima made guest appearances in Lithuania and Latvia, in France, Poland, and Austria. In December 1926, the troupe arrived in the USA, where its performances were warmly received. In June 1927, most members of the troupe left the United States in protest against Zemach’s undivided rule and returned to Europe, from where they went on to Palestine.

Zemach remained in America, where he tried – without much success – to set up new Hebrew-language Jewish theatre troupes. The paths of the Habima theatre and its creator had separated once and for all. Nachum Zemach tried to return to his theatre in 1935, when Habima had already gained much acclaim in Palestine. He came to Tel Aviv, but it turned out that “his” theatre had started to follow a different management model: at the time, the troupe did not have an evident leader. All members were equal, and debates and disagreements were resolved democratically. The former close co-workers of Zemach, H. Rovina and A. Meskin, put forward the idea to welcome the former boss back to the troupe, but only as an ordinary member. The proposal was rejected by the troupe, and the theatre’s founder never reconciled with his former colleagues. In the years 1935–1937, Zemach lived in Tel Aviv and ran the Bet Ha-Am theatre. In 1937, he returned to the United States and headed the New York Jewish Theatre, forming part of the Federal Theatre Project, until his death.

Nachum Dawid Zemach became famous not only as an acclaimed theatre director and manager, but also as an excellent actor (The Prophet in Ha-Yehudi Ha-Nitzchi, the Tzaddik in Ha-Dibbuk) and a great promoter of the revival of the Hebrew language. Zemach sought to restore the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, closest to the way the language sounded in ancient times. Habima’s founder demanded hard work from his actors and ensured high quality of the repertoire, which is why he collaborated with many talented playwrights and translators who created Hebrew versions of various plays especially for Habima. This tradition has been preserved by the theatre and by other theatres throughout the Land of Israel[1.1].


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