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Celebrating the Life and Career of Yiddish Theater Legend Mina Bern

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

A large crowd filled the main auditorium at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan on January 11 to see a memorial program in honor of the life and work of the Yiddish actress Mina Bern. During the concert a dozen singers, actors and musicians performed songs and skits from Bern’s diverse repertoire and shared personal memories of the beloved actress, who died in 2010. The Congress for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish Historical Society organized the event.

While the audience took their seats, a screen above the stage showed footage of Bern cooking chicken soup in her apartment and performing in various concerts and theatrical productions. The footage was taken from a documentary film that the director and photographer Joan Roth is making about Bern’s life and career.

At the beginning of the program Shane Baker, the executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture and a Yiddish actor and translator, explained that Bern’s original surname was Bernholtz. She changed her name in her native Poland on the advice of the theater director and playwright Moshe Broiderzon, in whose theatrical troupe she performed. Broiderzon, a distant relative of Bern’s, told the young actress to cut the second half of her surname, which means “wood” in Yiddish, and to stick with just “Bern,” because “you’re not wooden.”

An emotional Baker told the audience in Yiddish that Bern was the very first person to take him under her wing in the Yiddish cultural world, inviting him into her home and tutoring him in both Yiddish and acting over bowls of chicken soup. Baker also recalled some of the dozens of Yiddish theater greats with whom Mina performed during her nearly 80-year career on the Yiddish stage, including the cantor and movie-star Moishe Oysher, who called Bern “the woman with a thousand facial expressions” (a pun: min-e means “facial expression” in Yiddish).

After Shane’s speech the actress and singer Eleanor Reissa took the podium and described her decades-long friendship with Bern. Like many of Bern’s friends and colleagues, Reissa and Bern referred to each other using special nicknames. In their case they used the unusual term of endearment makhshefa, or witch: Reissa became the “young witch” and Bern “the old witch.” Reissa explained that because Bern was a major star of the Yiddish stage and she, Reissa, was still fairly young, it was difficult at first to get the older actress to listen to her when she first directed the theater legend. Reissa told the audience that during the run of ”Zise Khaloymes” (“Sweet Dreams”), a play which Reissa wrote and directed, Bern was already 87 years old but still managed to steal the show every night. After her speech Reissa sang the love-song “Umru Mayne” (“My Unrest”) by Moyshe Leyb-Halpern that Mina Bern had sung in that same production.

Cantor Shira Flam then took the stage and sang a stirring rendition of Mordechai Gebirtig’s “Hershele,” a song that was a favorite of Bern’s. Afterwards Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, the husband and wife Yiddish-theater duo known for their appearance in the Cohen Brother’s film “A Serious Man” as well as for their roles on “Boardwalk Empire,” performed a comedic sketch in Yiddish. The sketch “He and She,” a ridiculous dialogue in the form of a series of letters between a husband and wife, was gifted to them by Bern, who used to perform it with her own husband, Ben Bonus.

The actress Lori Wilner, who appeared alongside Bern in the Broadway hit “Those Were the Days” shared some of her memories. Wilner explained that although the theater legend was 79 years old in 1990, when the show debuted, she always wore high heels no matter the weather. The play, which presented the history and greatest hits of Yiddish theater for the first time on Broadway, featured a couple of monologues Mina Bern had written for herself. Among them was an absurd monologue in English, “The Coat Monologue,” in which an elderly Jewish woman is alternatively ignored and abused by her wealthy children, who force her to become a maid. The poor woman doesn’t even realize what is happening to her and continues to trust and praise her children even after they abandon her in a nursing home. Wilner performed the monologue in a perfect imitation of Bern’s Yiddish accent.

The program took a serious turn when longtime Forward correspondent Masha Leon took the stage. Leon, who explained that her father, an arts critic for the Warsaw Bundist newspaper Folktsaytung who had reviewed several of Bern’s performances, first got to know the actress after both had immigrated to America after World War II. Leon noted that Bern’s passionate recitation of Binem Heller’s poem “It’s the Month of Nisan in the Warsaw Ghetto” was for decades a highlight of yearly commemorations in honor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. While Bern was known for reciting the lengthy poem from memory, Shane Baker, Yelena Shmulenson, Joanne Borts and Hy Wolfe relied on print-outs of the poem for their stirring reading.

After a speech by Vidal Pearlman, a granddaughter of Bern who talked about her relationship with her grandmother, the audience heard from Bern herself in the form of a recording of her singing the duet “Odessa Motifs” with her husband. In the comic sketch, Bern, in her extraordinarily high voice, asked her husband if he was annoyed with various members of her family. Although both husband and wife deny the feeling, it soon becomes clear that both are fed up with the other’s relatives and they eventually break down and acknowledge that they can’t stand their respective in-laws.

At the end of the program all of the performers took the stage to lead the audience in singing “Shabes, Shabes” by Ben Yomen. The song was chosen especially because during the run of “Those Were the Days” in 1990 and 1991 Mina Bern would tell the audience that they should remember the song long after she dies “twenty years from now.” Bern, then aged 79, did in fact die twenty years after the show’s run, in 2010 at the age of 99. With such a fitting memorial program the performers helped to assure that neither Mina Bern, nor her songs will be forgotten for many years to come.


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