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Mina Bern

Yiddish performer, American actor
1911 – 2009
by Adrienne Cooper

Mina brought the most spectacular hat to my birthday party. She must have gone into her collection and fished it out from among the shawls, brooches, and paintings that she gave to favored friends when the right occasion arose. It was a black net confection, the lace net stretched over a broad flirtatious frame, something Bette Davis would have worn in Jezebel. Fabulous!

I loved her big gestures, her marvelous story telling. Several years earlier, I was working on a program exploring Jewish concert repertoire in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I knew Mina had lived in Palestine after World War II, before Israeli statehood. I wanted her eyewitness account of those breathtaking days, what performance opportunities she had, what repertoire she sang there, how did she get to Palestine?

She was born Mina Bernholtz on May 5, 1911, in Bielsk Podlaski, in what is now Poland. She was onstage by the age of 7. Her official theater career began in Lodz where she lived as a young adult, moving on to Warsaw to perform with the greats, Ida Kaminska and others, in the heyday of Yiddish theater in Poland. In Warsaw she joined Ararat, a sophisticated, popular kleynkunst (“little art”) theater, appearing in urbane variety shows with music, monologues and satirical sketches.

Mina Bern - publicity photo
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Photo courtesy: Adrienne Cooper.

Along the way, her name changed. When journalist Masha Leon once asked Mina about her stage name, she responded: “My maiden name is Bernholtz (the second syllable means 'wood' in Yiddish). But when I came to [the theater] in Lodz, the director said ‘kayn holtz iz zi nit/wooden she isn’t, so we must trim the wood from the name.’ And so it was shortened to Bern.”

Mina had a flourishing career and a young family when the Nazis attacked Poland in 1939. With other Yiddish performers, she and her daughter fled east, ending up in the Soviet Union, where she continued to entertain during the war. On the move again, she ended up in Africa, in Uganda, and then moved on to British-mandate Palestine. There she performed in Yiddish and Hebrew, was part of the Lilalo Cabaret.

I once asked her if she remembered where she was when the State of Israel was declared. Who knows if it was really the moment of the declaration – but she painted a vivid, joyous scene. She was with a crowd of excited people, outdoors, and someone lifted her up onto a tabletop and she sang "Artsi haketana/My little country." She lit up recalling the joy - after all the wandering away from the “Old World,” she was in a place ancient and utterly new, in all that light and heat, in a Jewish country.

She traveled to New York in 1949 at the invitation of The National Theater on Houston Street, along with her co-star, later her husband, Ben Bonus. Their first New York production was “Shalom Tel Aviv.”

In America, she and Bonus formed their own theater company, touring across the United States, Canada and Latin America in Yiddish revues. They risked and lost some significant money producing Yiddish work on Broadway in the 60s and 70s.

Ben died in 1986 and Mina went on as a solo act, a solo life, her daughter, Reyna Pearlman, and two granddaughters, living in Israel. Toward the end of Mina’s life, a granddaughter and two great grand children lived close by, in New Jersey, and it meant everything to Mina.

In the last two decades of her near century of life, Mina landed roles in a dozen movies Her film credits include "Avalon," "Crossing Delancey," "Little Odessa," "I'm Not Rappaport," Woody Allen’s "Celebrity," "It Could Happen to You," "Everything Relative" (characterized as “a Lesbian Big Chill”, with Harvey Fierstein), "Flawless" with Robert DeNiro, "Brooklyn Babylon," and "Tenement:Game of Survival" (“When an insane band of leather-clad punks lays waste to a New York tenement building, the vengeful residents take up arms for a massacre guaranteed to make your screen run red.”)

Mina was game for everything and directors loved her.
In her 80’s Mina won an Obie for her role in The Folksbiene’s “Sweet Dreams.” She continued to appear on and off-Broadway in revues and in perennial productions of The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene.

She belonged to a generation of Yiddish cultural figures who have no concept of the notion of retirement. Mina worked until the end - for herself, for her audiences, for her art, for the world of Yiddish. In 2009 she rose from a communal table at the Workmen’s Circle’s Annual Cultural Seder to declaim Bunim Heller’s fierce eulogy, "In Varshever Geto/In the Warsaw Ghetto." The poem commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, heaping bloody curses on the Nazi enemy. Mina’s grief was fresh, her curses frightening, her gift to the past and to those present fully given. Her artistic ethos dictated performing as long as you drew breath and had intact memory – and Mina had both until the end. Her memory is a blessing.

Adrienne Cooper is one of the most influential innovators interpreting and teaching Yiddish music today. She records, performs, conducts master classes, and lectures on Yiddish culture around the world. A mentor to a generation of artists, she serves as Executive Officer for External Affairs of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring.

More on:
Mina Bern in New York
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Photo: The National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene, www.folksbiene.org.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Mina Bern, 1911 - 2009." (Viewed on September 16, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/bern-mina>.

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