Playing the roles

After 49 years as a local actress, Hannah Rieber is thrilled to finally be recognized for her contribution to the theater scene.

Hannah Rieber actress 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Rieber actress 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Rieber is a classic practitioner of Simeon Ben-Zoma’s oft-quoted tenet from Pirkei Avot, “Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his lot.”
At the age of 86, actress Rieber has the collateral to demonstrate the efficacy of her lifelong go-with-the-flow approach to life and her work. Not only does she have a jumbo-sized resumé of all manner of thespian endeavor to show for her labors; she is finally getting some kudos from the Establishment, of sorts. Next Friday, Rieber will receive a Golden Hedgehog Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in fringe theater, at a ceremony that will take place at the Karov Theater in Tel Aviv at noon on Friday.
The jury members noted Rieber’s “determination and persistence throughout her creative life. She is known for her seriousness, professionalism and caring, her indefatigable strength, her high energy-driven fervor, and personal and stage humor. She is driven by an adventurous spirit to discover new creative horizons and demonstrates an uncompromising will for personal exposure, as required by the work she is performing.” Gilded words indeed, and no more than Rieber deserves.
“It took them 49 years to get around to recognizing my work,” Rieber comments. While that may sound like a touch of sour grapes, there is not an ounce of self-pity about this woman. She is clearly made of sterner stuff. Mind you, considering the start she got to her profession, and – like quite a few olim – the disillusionment she encountered when she made aliya from Romania in 1964, she has every right to feel a little underappreciated. “I got so used to the peace and quiet [from the media and industry awards people],” she adds with a twinkle in her eye. “I just got on with my work and didn’t expect too much.”
Hailing from Bacau in the Moldavian region of northeast Romania, she and her family survived the horrors of the Nazi-made ghetto during World War II, after which she studied acting at university in Bucharest. By her early 20s Rieber was something of a household name, performing in Yiddish and Romanian productions alike, and she frequently walked the boards with her husband, Ze’ev “Willy” Rieber.
“My husband and I were already at the top of our profession in Romania, and we thought Israel was just waiting for us to get on the stage here. But we were wrong,” she recalls. “They laughed at us because we didn’t know Hebrew. I thought it was enough that I was Jewish and knew Yiddish. I thought Yiddish was the international language of all Jews.”
But when the going got tough, Rieber sprang into action, although even the phonetics went a little haywire. “I had a Hungarian Hebrew teacher in Bat Galim. I started the lessons with a Romanian accent in Hebrew and I came out with a Hungarian accent,” she laughs.
There were also some ethnic identity shenanigans to be navigated when Rieber tried her luck with the Habima Theater. “They didn’t have time for us,” she says. “They were all Russians, so it would have helped a lot if I’d been Russian. Some Poles could also get in to Habima, but not Romanians.”
Discouraged but far from beaten, the Riebers began to look further afield for work. “I never, for one moment, entertained the idea that I might not work in acting in Israel.
I was certain I would get something and be able to work in the profession which I loved so much,” she declares.
“I was willing to compromise and be flexible, but my husband was less so.
He came from a more rigid German background.”
Rieber finally landed a job in her chosen profession with the Haifa Theater, which had been founded only a couple of years or so earlier.
It was another oleh who came to the rescue. “Yosef Milo was in charge of Haifa Theater back then, and he came from Czechoslovakia, so he was sympathetic to olim, and how they sometimes struggled to find their feet here,” says Rieber. “He was also accommodating when it came to the way actors did their thing on stage. He was not a pedagogue. He liked to tailor the role to the actor, rather than the other way around.”
That approach was perfect for Rieber’s foreign accent in Hebrew.
“He said ‘What shall we do with your accent? We’ll make it into a Russian accent.’” Rieber gave her new tonal identity its first run in a play called Days of Gold, written by Polish-born playwright Shlomo Shva. The work was, neatly, about a real-life husband and wife who made aliya but found the going challenging at the start. By all accounts, Rieber did a good job with her Haifa debut.
“There were all sorts of reviews and comments about my performance, and some said that I acted and looked very much like the real Mrs.
Halpern from the story – people who knew her themselves,” recalls Rieber. “That was nice to hear. That was very encouraging after the rough start we had in Israel.”
She went on to perform many more memorable roles at Haifa Theater and began to spread her artistic wares around the country, including a stint, 20 years ago, at Beersheba Theater. While she was in the capital of the Negev, Rieber saw that things had improved appreciably in terms of providing actors who were new to the country with a helping hand.
“They provided a language coach for all the actors, and he worked with all them, to help them with their lines in Hebrew and with their accent,” notes Rieber. “When we came to Israel we didn’t have a coach. We just started looking for work.”
In fact, the post-Romania phase of the Riebers’ acting career started even before they set foot in the Holy Land. “When we were on the boat to Israel, the olim discovered that the Jewish Agency was going to send everyone to Karmiel,” recounts Rieber. “But everyone wanted Tel Aviv or Rehovot, or somewhere like that. There was a revolt on the ship when we were in Naples, and no one was going to get on the boat.
So the Jewish Agency people asked my husband and I to entertain the olim, and to raise their spirits.”
The couple did a good job. “We all got off the ship in Haifa, singing ‘Hatikva.’” In the last close-to-half a century Rieber has graced practically every stage in the country, and has acted in movies and on TV. “I can do anything,” she states. “I don’t care what it is. It doesn’t have to be a starring role; I just get on with it.”
Rieber has been getting on with it, to great effect, in classic and contemporary roles alike, with the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth, at Tzavta Theater and in a wide range of cinematic roles such as Anne Frank’s Diary, Israel Love and a highly successful student venture called Bikur Holim (Visiting Hours), which placed second in its category at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
“I have had a lot of luck with my work,” says Rieber, “and it’s nice to get an award after all these years.”
And she is not showing much sign of slowing down either. If you want to catch some of Rieber’s hard-earned acting magic, just get yourself to the Simta Theater – where she is currently acting in a production of Ingeleh.