Yiddish Theater’s Last Leading Lady

At 98, Mina Bern was one of the few remaining stars from Second Avenue’s heyday.

01/22/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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She was one of the last supports of a world that was crumbling to pieces.

When Mina Bern died of heart failure last week at the age of 98, the Yiddish theater world mourned one of its leading lights, an indefatigable performer and champion of the Yiddish language whose career spanned three continents and virtually the whole of the 20th century.

According to Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, Bern was “a star in every sense of the word. Audiences loved her, laughed with her, cried with her, were roused by her and celebrated her.”

In the eulogy that he delivered at her funeral, he said that some of his earliest memories are of listening through his bedroom wall from the age of 4 or 5, as Mina and her husband, fellow performer Ben Bonus, sang long into the night at his parents’ soirees of Yiddish-speaking performers in the Bronx.

Mina Bernholtz was born on May 5, 1911 in Bielsk Podlaski, which is now part of Poland. She studied to be a Yiddish teacher, but was invited to join Ararat, a theater company known for producing cabaret-style songs and skits. After marrying a fellow musician, Victor Tamei, she escaped the Nazis in 1939 by fleeing with their daughter, Renya, to the Soviet Union. Tamei died in the Vilna Ghetto.

From the Soviet Union, Bern went to Uganda and later Kenya, where she put on shows for other displaced Jews. She arrived in Palestine in 1945, where she performed in cafes in Tel Aviv and, while she spoke little Hebrew, became known for singing some of the early anthems of the pioneers, including a celebrated tango, “Artzeinu Haktantonet” (Our Little Country), a passionate love song to the Jewish homeland.

Bern arrived in America in 1949, where she soon met and married Bonus, with whom she developed a series of popular shows, including “Light, Lively and Yiddish,” “Sing, Israel, Sing,” and “Let’s Sing Yiddish.” When they weren’t appearing in New York or Los Angeles, Bern and Bonus flew to Canada or South America, or hit the road in a station wagon, bringing Yiddish theater to audiences in Chattanooga, Atlanta and other cities throughout the South.

A 1983 show by Bern and Bonus at the Norman Thomas Theater, “Let There Be Joy,” also featured Eleanor Reissa, David Rogow and other Yiddish performers.

One of the highlights was a sketch in which Bern and Bonus played Teyve and his wife as contemporary New Yorkers. Murray Schumach of the New York Times called it a “warm, zestful revue” in which the pair had “resumed their laudable task of breathing life into the Yiddish theater.”

After Bonus suffered a fatal heart attack in 1984, Bern continued to do live theater and began a film career as well, appearing in bit roles in a number of films, including “Avalon,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Little Odessa” and “Flawless.”

Nahma Sandrow, the author of “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater” (Syracuse University Press, 1995) said that Bern “stayed girlish and mischievous” in her onstage persona, despite all the hardships that she had experienced throughout her life. While many looked down on the Second Avenue Yiddish stage for its perceived “schlockiness,” Sandrow said Bern and Bonus brought a more sophisticated type of entertainment, “edgy as well as charming and funny.”

Sandy Levitt first met Bern when she saw his debut in “Hard to Be a Jew,” which was one of the last Yiddish plays to be produced at the Eden Theater on Second Avenue. He later co-starred with her in two shows in Miami, “A Mitzvah a Day” and “One of a Kind.”

Her indomitable will, he said, was awe-inspiring. Levitt remembers her once coming on stage with pleurisy, a condition that made it hard for her to breathe, much less sing. “As soon as her foot hit the stage, this whole new being appeared, full of life and energy.” He calls that era, in which a sizable audience still existed for productions in Yiddish, as the “last big breath of Yiddish theater.”

When Reissa, working with Mlotek, took over the Folksbiene in 1999, she cast Bern in “Zise Khaloymes” (Sweet Dreams) as a Jewish mother who comes back from the dead. “She was miraculous,” Reissa said. “She displayed “strength, chutzpah, tenacity and stubbornness.” Bern won a Lifetime Achievement Obie as a result. Reissa later cast her in “Yentl,” in which the then 87-year-old actress played a mikveh lady who plucks chicken feathers while retailing the local gossip.

While some have suggested that Bern was primarily a comedian, Reissa disputes that view, arguing that Bern “could go deeper and deeper, into a place with real schmutz and grit. She had all her theatrical chops; she could get a laugh, but she could also break your heart.”

While she sometimes “got on other people’s nerves,” Reissa recalled, “Bern was also a lot of fun backstage. She liked to hang out with young people. She was not like an old diva; she was one of the girls in her foolishness, fun and foolery.”

Mlotek summed up Bern’s life and career in a Yiddish expression, saying that she encompassed “velt mit veltelech” (worlds within worlds). He said that it is “that much more poignant when you lose someone who lived in this habitat. Every line that she spoke was informed by so much Jewish life, by so much Yiddishkeit. We aren’t likely to see her like again.”

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