Seniors in Japan who have practiced, enriched and husbanded their country’s national artistic forms are designated as National Treasures during their life span. Notwithstanding a lifetime of accomplishment, international renown, devoted fans and scrapbooks full of reviews, most Yiddish actors never hear the accolades heaped upon them post-mortem, in eulogies where all jealousy and acrimony are forgotten. For a brief moment from 1985 to 1987, the Goldy Awards — the Yiddish version of the Tony Awards — were established by the World Congress for Jewish Culture, under the direction of Joseph Landis. Then the honorees included Yiddish megastars Seymour Rexite, Miriam Kressyn, Dina Halpern, Henrietta Jacobson, Julius Adler and Leon Liebgold — who are all now gone.
Nothing like it has been mounted since then, until the World Congress’s recent “Veterans of the Yiddish Stage” benefit for Yiddish theater “treasures” Mina Bern (in the early 1940s, she performed Yiddish theater in Uganda!), Shifra Lerer (the first Argentine-born Yiddish actress, known as Argentina’s spitfire) and Vilna-born David Rogow — each one well into his or her 90s and still “onstage.” Held several weeks ago at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the program opened with greetings by World Congress co-president Barnett Zumoff (also president of the Forward Association) and was followed by presentations by Zalmen Mlotek (executive director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene), Hy Wolfe (actor and director), Michael Baran (Yiddish educator and activist), plus the World Congress’s executive director, Shane Baker. There were rare archival black-and-white film scenes, excerpts from Yiddish film classics, and clips of Bern and Lerer from Hollywood films, including Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Performances by Wolfe, Eleanor Reissa, and California-based Mike Burstyn (who wowed the audience with his rendition of Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania!”) rounded out the program.