Jewish Women on the Map - Hebrew Actors Union
Yiddish as an Eastern European Jewish lingua franca was transformed further as it filtered the American experience. The plethora of cultural production of all sorts meant the fast evolution of Yiddish into a language of the arts and politics. Activists often condemned the well-attended "shund" (trashy, common fare) shown in theaters and music halls which remains the source of most of the popular Yiddish song tunes that we know today. These pundits hotly debated whether those who allowed "shund" should still be seen as political at all. Equally controversial was the propriety of encouraging Yiddish cultural creations such as poetry to develop independent of political currents and parties. Sometimes leftists who wanted to recruit from the masses recognized that cultural productions should also entertain and not alienate as more conventionally uplifting, highbrow and "politically correct" realism fare risked doing.
"Grine Kuzine" captured the popular imagination when bandleader Abe Schwartz brought the image of the innocent rather than the despised "Grine," or greenhorn to the fore and portrayed America's sweatshops as breaking this pure embodiment of Yiddish virtue. Mina Bern was someone who knew how to play with all of these images in her long career in the Yiddish theater.
Mina Bern was an actress's actress who starred in many Folksbine and other Yiddish theater productions. Starting as an ingenue, she moved along in her career often as the sharp-talking and sharp-witted "Yiddishe Mama." She adored the old standards of the Yiddish theater when the Lower East Side was home to the Rialto of Second Avenue.
This photo was taken at her 98th birthday celebration by the Friends of Yiddish Actors at the Hebrew Actors Union (the first actors' union in America), where she was feted with the Yiddish version of "Happy Birthday." She is greatly missed on the Lower East Side.
It would not be an exaggeration to call her a doyenne of Yiddish theater, who was defined as much by her pithy asides, as well as the somewhat cynical and yet ultimately sentimental outlook that she brought to the classical roles of the Yiddish stage year after year.
For more on Mina Bern, see Adrienne Cooper's "We Remember" piece.