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Bella Bellarina

1898 – 1969

by Michael Taub

Unless they worked on the English-speaking stage, Yiddish actors were largely unnoticed by critics and the general media. Thus very little is known about the life of many of these wonderful artists who appeared before adoring audiences on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. Such is the case with Bella Bellarina, an actor who made her mark with the famous Vilna Troupe, a company dedicated to serious drama and avant-garde staging techniques.

Bella (Rubinlicht) Bellarina was born in Warsaw on July 15, 1898. Her father, Getzl Rubinlicht, was a real estate broker. Her mother, Tuna (Vinover) Rubinlicht, was a homemaker who cared for sixteen children, four of whom died in early childhood. Bellarina was the fifth in order of birth. She attended a girls’ school, and at seventeen began taking classes in education at the university, presumably to become a teacher. Early on, however, she was drawn to the stage and appeared in various school productions.

In 1916, Bellarina enrolled in the Warsaw School of Drama. David Herman, future director of the Vilna Troupe, saw her perform there and urged her to join several drama clubs in the city, among them the renowned Artistisher Vinkl [Artists’ Corner].

Her first role on the Yiddish stage was Fanitchke in Sholem Aleichem’s play Mentshn [People]. In 1918, she became a member of the Vilna Troupe and toured in Europe for several years. In 1924, amid great anticipation, the company arrived in New York, where Bellarina was cast in such Yiddish classics as Ansky’s The Dybbuk, Peretz Hirschbein’s Di Puste Kretchme [The Idle Inn] and Grine Felder [Green fields], Jacob Gordin’s Mirele Efros, as well as works by Leon Kobrin and David Pinsky.

While in America, Bellarina and her husband, Haim Schneyer Hamerow, an actor with the Vilna Troupe, decided to stay. In New York, she worked with, among others, Maurice Schwartz, the legendary producer, director, and actor, founder of the Vilna-patterned Yidisher Kunst Teater. In 1929, Bellarina and Hamerow became American citizens, which allowed them to return to Poland and reclaim their son, Theodore, who had been in the care of Bellarina’s mother. The three returned to New York in 1930. Bellarina and Hamerow continued to tour for several more years with various companies in North and South America. However, the war and the steady decline of the Yiddish theater forced Hamerow into working in the garment district. Bellarina managed to survive by appearing at benefits and various social and cultural functions. Haim Hamerow died on July 24, 1961, and Bella Bellarina on February 1, 1969.

Bellarina played many important roles on the Yiddish stage, but she is best remembered for her portrayal of Tsine in Grine Felder and Leah in The Dybbuk. As Tsine, she played a peasant girl, a mischievous tomboy in love with a shy yeshiva student from a neighboring city. The role requires a great deal of energy and charm, and Bellarina had plenty of both. By contrast, Ansky’s classic calls for an actor who can play a reserved, deeply religious young woman, secretly in love with a man she cannot marry. Both characters are beautiful women, but while Tsine’s beauty is robust and earthy, Leah’s is delicate, even fragile. Tsine is a happy-go-lucky country girl; Leah is a tragic hero. Bellarina was successful in both roles. However, Helen Beverly and Lili Liliana are better known as Tsine and Leah because they were cast in the 1937 screen adaptations of the Hirschbein and Ansky plays. Another reason for Bellarina’s lack of popularity was her inability to play on the English-speaking stage and in English-language films. Critics agreed that her talents were equal to those of Esther Rokhl Kaminska, Ida Kaminska, Molly Picon, and Celia Adlerwidely recognized names from the golden age of the Yiddish theater. Bellarina remained relatively obscure since she never appeared on Broadway or in Hollywood. Her obscurity, however, does not diminish her great contributions to Yiddish culture in the United States.

Bibliography

AJYB 71: 602; Hamerow, Theodore [son of Bella Bellarina]. Telephone interviews with author; Landis, Joseph, ed. and trans. The Great Jewish Plays (1972); Lifson, David. Yiddish Theater in America (1965); Obituary. NYTimes, February 2, 1969, 72:3; Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars—A World History of the Yiddish Theater (1977); Zylbercweig, Zalmen. Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater (1931).

More on Bella Bellarina
5 Comments

This is so interesting. If anyone is still looking at this - my great uncle (Boas Karlinski) was married to Ruta Rubinlicht, Bella Bellarina's sister. I'm trying to track down family history and grateful for anything people have found. There is a picture of the Rubinlicht family (and Boas) in Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Poland .

JWA has forwarded your message to Ms. Bellarina's relatives. We are always happy to being people together.

My mother's father's brother's wife was Bellarina. Some facts you didn't know... She had hair that went to the floor-my late mother would recall her taking more than an hour to do her hair. both Bellarina and my great uncle Chaim Schneyer had a myna bird and when my mother would visit the bird would greet my mother in yiddish and then start with yiddish bad words in which my mother would remind herself that her father taught the bird those bad words. I met my cousin Theodore in Thanksgiving 1979 and although never met him before. When I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin(where he resides) by Greyhound bus, when I got off the bus I looked at Theodore and instantly knew he is family. When Bellarina died my aunt sent a copy of a yiddish newspaper with her obituary to my mom.

Hi, I am Henryk Rubinlicht's grand-daughter. I find the history of the Rubinlichts absolutely amazing and interested. I recently have moved to the UK from Montreal, Canada. I decided to travel through Europe and as today, arrived in Warsaw, Poland. My visit here will be short, however I plan to follow some footsteps of our family's past. Today I will be walking the vanished street of Gesia. Perhaps you may have information about the Rubinlichts that can direct my trip. I have found quit a bit of information online, but anything will help. I think it is nice reaching out and finding some "lost" family members, which until a few years ago my mother didn't even know she had, until Theodore had contacted my mother; Lillian Rubinlicht-Cohen.

Well take care, I'd hope to hear from you and maybe oneday we will meet.

Cheers, Naomi Ruta Cohen

Dear Ms. Cohen, I have forwarded your message to Mr. Dunn. We hope he will respond to you.

How to cite this page

Taub, Michael. "Bella Bellarina." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bellarina-bella>.

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