Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, actor, director, poet and translator, was born in Kishinev in 1895. Her father, Dr. Jacob Bernstein-Kogan (Cohen) (1859–1929), was a Zionist activist and physician who changed her given name, Maria, to Miriam when the family arrived in Palestine in 1907. Her father was particular about his daughters’ education; as children they learned Hebrew with a private tutor and spoke the language among themselves with an Ashkenazic accent. The parents also introduced their daughters to theater at an early age, and as a child Bernstein-Cohen directed and acted in children’s plays at home with her friends and sisters. When antisemitic riots broke out in 1903 the family moved to Kharkov, where Bernstein-Cohen attended the German Gymnasium and appeared in school productions.
Bernstein-Cohen’s family lived in Palestine from 1907 to 1910. Her father served as a physician in the agricultural communities in the Lower Galilee, later finding work in Petah Tikvah and then in Jaffa. Bernstein-Cohen attended the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia in Jaffa and appeared in Hebrew and French plays produced by Dr. Haim Harari. When the health of her father and sisters deteriorated, her family returned to Kishinev, where Bernstein-Cohen studied in the German Gymnasium and once again participated in the drama club, cast in leading roles. Upon completing high school she went to Kharkov to study medicine, as her father wished. She chose Kharkov because there was a drama school there which she attended secretly, since her parents opposed her desire to be an actor. She studied medicine in the morning and attended drama school in the afternoon, working as a private tutor in order to cover tuition fees.
During World War I Bernstein-Cohen worked as a nurse in a military hospital at the front. After completing her medical studies she worked as a physician, acted in local theater companies and also appeared in a one-woman show of reading and recitation.
She began acting professionally as an extra under the name Alexandrova so that her parents would not learn of her additional occupation. After completing her studies in the drama school she signed a one-year contract with a professional theater. During the siege of Kiev in 1918, she traveled to Moscow, where she studied with Constantin Stanislavsky in the department of drama headed by him and Vladimir Nemirovitch-Danchenko. She appeared at The Hall of the October Revolution. In Moscow she met Nahum Zemach and Menahem Gnessin, who were among the founders of Habimah and who asked her to join the new theater company. She rejected the invitation and continued her studies with Stanislavsky, remaining faithful to his method throughout her career.
After traveling throughout the Soviet Union and appearing with various theater companies she went to Palestine in May 1921 and joined the Te’atron Ivri (The Hebrew Theatre in Palestine) directed by David Davidov, the first professional theater company in Palestine. At the same time she worked as an instructor at the drama club at the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia. The members of the Te’atron Ivri continued to work together even after Davidov’s departure in 1922, performing plays under Bernstein-Cohen’s direction. In 1922 the group signed a contract with the owners of the Eden cinema in Tel Aviv, becoming a commercial company that mounted a new production every two weeks. The multiplicity of shows and the compromise on artistic quality exhausted the actors, who felt they needed to study further. Five of them—Bernstein-Cohen, Michael Gor (1898–1969), Menachem Benjamini, Ari Kutai and Joseph Oksenberg—went to Berlin. Bernstein-Cohen took care of the organizational aspects, raising funds and planning the curriculum. The group asked Menahem Gnessin, who had left Habimah, to be their manager and director. When he accepted, they announced the founding of the Teatron Erez Israeli (The Palestine Theatre) in Berlin in September 1923. Their first production, Belshazzar, on which they worked for nearly a year, was highly successful. As a result, Bernstein-Cohen appeared in three German films.
Realizing that their true audience was not in Berlin, the Teatron Erez Israeli returned to Palestine, appearing to great acclaim. In 1926 the company disbanded due to differences of opinion between Gnessin and its members regarding repertoire and the actors’ desire to work with an additional director. Bernstein-Cohen directed the former members of the company in two productions, Potash and Perlmutter by Montague Glass (1877–1934) and Mirandola by Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793). When the director I. M. Daniel arrived, they joined him in founding the Erez Israel Artistic Theater, but this group was also short-lived.
In 1925 Bernstein-Cohen founded and edited a periodical, Te’atron ve-Omanut (Theater and Art) the first Hebrew-language publication in Palestine to deal with these subjects, which appeared until 1928. To support herself Bernstein-Cohen appeared in dramatic readings and worked as the person responsible for correspondence at a sewing machine company. She also coached actors in their roles and taught the first theater course in Palestine. On her way to Kovno, where she had been invited to direct a Hebrew-language acting studio, she stopped in Berlin, appearing at parties together with Raphael Klatzkin (1905–1987), her former student, with whom she also went on tour. Because of her delay in Berlin, her position at the studio in Kovno was given to Michael Gor. She herself traveled all over Eastern Europe, appearing in dramatic readings and teaching at the Hebrew acting studio in Łódź.
She was invited to South Africa to give performances and lectures on Lithuanian Jewry. Upon her return to Europe she joined Michael Gor in Riga, taught at the Hebrew Gymnasium, appeared in one-woman shows, traveled throughout Latvia and lectured on Hebrew literature. In Riga she met Michael Chekhov, watched rehearsals and performances he directed, and joined a Yiddish theater.
Upon the birth of her daughter Aviva in 1933, she and Gor decided to return to Palestine, where she auditioned repeatedly for Habimah but was rejected. In 1937 Habimah even refused to allow Bernstein-Cohen to appear at an event at which the company was scheduled to appear. Bernstein-Cohen remembered this insult for many years, forgiving it only in 1968, when, towards the end of her career, Habimah invited her to perform in Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan.
In 1935 she and Gor established the Erez Israel Comedy Theater, which soon foundered due to economic difficulties, disagreements with the actors and the 1936 riots, during which refugees looted the theater, stealing scenery and costumes. As a result of this bitter experience, Bernstein-Cohen never again founded a theater company, instead turning to other occupations: publishing books, essays and translations and giving readings throughout Palestine and Europe. She also taught theater at her home and at the Hazon drama school, directed by David Vardi and Hava Yoalit. During the War of Independence she performed for the troops.
Despite her many activities, she never lost her longing for the theater. After a sixteen-year absence from the stage she returned to it in 1952, when she joined the Cameri theater, appearing mainly in supporting roles suitable for older women. After retiring from the Cameri in 1964, she produced several highly successful theater evenings at Tzavta, including Days in the Trees by Marguerite Duras (1967), which she translated, and Neither by Day Nor by Night by Avraham Raz (1968), which he wrote for her and which was also made into a film in which she starred (1972). Raz also wrote The Return of Ina Gurfinkel (1972) for her and At Mikulinsky’s (1972) for her son-in-law, Yitzhak Shillo. They appeared together in an evening at which both works were performed.
Bernstein-Cohen was a versatile actor, appearing successfully both in comedies and in serious plays. (Her major roles included both Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House  and Toinette in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid ). Although she was a professional she continued her training and broadened her education. She studied and researched background material on each of the plays and characters with whom she was involved, arriving at rehearsals with a clear and independent conception of both. She stopped acting when she felt that her hearing had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer pronounce the words clearly enough.
Bernstein-Cohen appeared with the Ohel, Matateh and Haifa Municipal Theater companies. In addition to her theater work, she wrote books and essays on theater and literature throughout her life. She was fluent in Russian, Hebrew, German, French and English. She studied Italian because she did not like the Russian translation of Dante and she learned Latin as part of her medical studies. Thanks to her fluency in so many languages, she also translated literary works into Hebrew, including a Russian translation of an English-language story when she was only sixteen. She translated plays, adapted plays for broadcasting and hosted a radio program, “Curtains and Lights,” together with Giora Manor. She wrote for the Li-La-Lo Palestine Revue and for solo performances. Her poems were published in journals and collected into books, and she wrote novels and an autobiography. She also lectured throughout Israel on theater and literature. Over the years, she taught actors in various settings and taught speech and pronunciation for seven years at the Beit Zvi School of Drama in Ramat Gan. She appeared in Israeli films, including Fortuna, Queen of the Road (1971) and Wooden Horse, and in drama programs on television. She also acted in German and American films.
After retiring, Bernstein-Cohen lived for a time on Kibbutz Palmahim where her son was a member. When he left for the United States, she moved to a home for the elderly in Ramat Efal. Bernstein-Cohen lived to extreme old age but did not see this as a blessing, even though she remained lucid and continued reading. During her final years, she lived in a nursing home.
She married three times: first in 1917 to a lawyer seventeen years her senior, a marriage that did not last long. Her second marriage was to Aaron Hirsch (Kipper), an actor she met in a theater company in Bessarabia. They married in 1921 in Italy on their way to Palestine, where her son David was born the same year. They divorced in 1926. Her third marriage was to Michael Gor, probably in 1929 in Tukums, Latvia, and they reaffirmed it in 1938 in Palestine. Their daughter Aviva, who also acted at the Cameri Theatre, was born in 1933 in Riga.
Bernstein-Cohen was awarded many prizes, among them the Israel Prize for Theater (1975) and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s Theater Arts Prize (1969), with which she established a scholarship fund for young actors in memory of Michael Gor. She also won literary prizes.
SELECTED WORKS IN HEBREW BY MIRIAM BERNSTEIN-COHEN
In the Land of Ophir. Tel Aviv: 1930; Mephisto. Tel Aviv: 1938; Conflagration. Tel Aviv: 1947; Day to Day: Stories. Tel Aviv: 1967; Roots in Water. Tel Aviv: 1976; Like a Drop in the Sea (memoirs). Tel Aviv: 1971.
Silence (poetry). Tel Aviv: 1961.
Pushkin, Aleksander. Poltava. Jerusalem: 1945; de Maupassant, Guy. Selected Stories. Tel Aviv: 1953; Buck, Pearl. The Patriot. Tel Aviv: 1952.
How to cite this page
Gilula, Leah. "Miriam Bernstein-Cohen." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernstein-cohen-miriam>.