Pen Ultimate / Queen of mamaloshen
On the recent passing of Mina Bern, whose short career on the Hebrew stage was dwarfed by her success in Yiddish theater in the Goldene Medina.
The small notice on the obituary pages of Haaretz Hebrew edition last week contained meager information about the death in New York of Mina Bern, "a singer, an actress and a fighter for the cause of the Yiddish culture and language." While the name rang a bell in my memory, I had to go online to hear the exact sound. On The New York Times' site, I read that the "plucky and versatile actress and singer, who was one of the last links to the scrappy world of Yiddish theater in New York," had died at 98.
Mina Bernholtz was born in Bielsk Podlaski, Poland, and lost the second part of her surname when auditioning for the Ararat Yiddish cabaret theater in Lodz, in the 1930s. Upon seeing her perform, director Mozes Broderson remarked, "kayn holtz iz zi nit" ("Wooden she isn't"), and the name was shortened. Following several successful seasons she moved to Bialystok, where she established a small cabaret theater. When the Germans invaded Poland, Bern escaped with her daughter to Russia, went on performing in Yiddish there, traveled to Uganda and finally ended up in Palestine in 1947.
During her two years here, she joined Li-La-Lo revue theater, and left - albeit unintentionally and most probably against her will - an indelible mark in the annals of the Hebrew stage.
From 1945 to 1953, Li-La-Lo, founded and run by impresario Moshe Wallin, provided theater-goers in Palestine (then gearing up to become the State of Israel) with light entertainment and satire, and served as a counterweight to the gravitas of the Habima and Ohel Theaters and the pioneering atmosphere of that era. It staged some 20 revues, with songs written by the winning team of Nathan Alterman (a leading lyrical poet of that generation) and Moshe Wilensky. Among Li-La-Lo's stars was the young Yemenite singer Shoshana Damari. Many songs that premiered on the troupe's stage are still popular hits today, including "Tzarich Letzaltzel Pa'amayim" ("You Should Ring Twice") and "Kalaniyot" ("Poppies"), both sung by Damari, and "Artzeinu Haktantonet" ("Our Little Country"), performed by Bern.
In his 1998 book "Days of Sands and Stars" (published in Hebrew), Wallin described Bern as "a newcomer from Poland, an exciting, perky blonde, very much like Hollywood's Betty Hutton. She mastered Hebrew quickly and soon became one of the stars of the theater, with her grotesque style of acting and her special way of performing satirical songs, written especially for her by Alterman and Wilensky."
For Li-La-Lo's 1947 revue "Not Too Much," that duo wrote the song "Nowadays It's Made of Nylon" for Bern - evidence that Jewish Palestine was already in sync with American commercial trends. We are so used to this synthetic material today that it seems as if it existed in antiquity, but nylon was first produced by chemist Wallace Carrothers for the DuPont company on February 28, 1935, and soon became an indispensable product. Indeed, according to Alterman's lyrics, everything was made of it: for instance, the modern bride's dresses, shoes and jewelry, and possibly even the groom and his mother as well. There's a silver and golden wedding anniversary, and now we'll also have a nylon anniversary, sang Bern. She was losing her mind, but, she crooned, one can always find another mind - made of nylon.
One of those attending the debut of "Not Too Much" was the late Dr. Haim Gamzu, my illustrious predecessor as Haaretz theater critic, who later became director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and founder of the Beit Zvi acting school. In 1947 he had been a theater reviewer for just five years and was already frustrated by the thankless job.
On the whole, Gamzu liked the show and in general saw the revue genre as a vehicle by which "even a serious poet like Alterman can have some fun with glib rhymes and word games." However, he did have one main criticism about "Not Too Much": "The beautiful song written by Alterman - 'Nylon' - was virtually murdered by Miss Mina Bern, who this time exhibited an astounding misunderstanding of the words and amazing incompetence in her performance."
Two evenings later Gamzu went out to the popular artists' meeting place Cafe Kasit, on Dizengoff Street. After he left, escorting a lady friend, shortly after midnight, he was accosted by a man, who heavily beat him up using iron knuckles. While assaulting Gamzu, the man kept shouting: "You had this coming! Miss Bern sent you this gift in return for your review."
Gamzu lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized for 18 days. Janusz Alter Rapaport, a butcher (the papers made a point of highlighting his occupation), was apprehended by the police and charged with grievous bodily assault. His request to appear before a British judge so that he would get a fair trial, was denied.
In his ruling, judge Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit (later the minister of police in the newborn state) reprimanded Rapaport, saying: "We are in favor of criticism. You could have hit Dr. Gamzu with words, but you have chosen a different way."
Rapaport was found guilty and fined 50 pounds, and was ordered to compensate Gamzu for his suffering by paying him an additional 50 pounds (which Gamzu donated to help illegal Jewish European immigrants imprisoned by the British in transit camps in Cyprus).
The local journalists association, for its part, threatened that if Li-La-Lo did not fire Bern, its members would no longer cover performances in which she appeared. But by then the singer-actress had left Israel forever, for New York. The first revue she appeared in there, in Yiddish, was entitled "Shalom Tel Aviv." For all I know, no irony was intended.
At that time, New York's Yiddish theater was on the wane, but Bern and her future husband, producer and actor Ben Bonus, fought for Yiddish culture and language on Broadway and off, with revues like "Let's Sing Yiddish" (1966) and "Sing, Israel, Sing" (1967) and "Light, Lively and Yiddish" (1970); in 1976, they enjoyed a major hit with the touring U.S. bicentennial revue "Long Live Columbus."
In her later years, after Bonus' death, Bern launched yet another career, as a movie actress, appearing as an elderly immigrant in feature films like "Crossing Delancey," "Avalon" and "I'm Not Rappaport."
In May 2005, at 95 she performed in the one-woman stage memoir "Mina Bern: A Life on the Stage, A Personal Memoir Told in Song and Story," at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, under the auspices of the National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene, on whose stage she frequently appeared.
Luckily, then, Bern's short-lived Israeli/Hebrew fame was overshadowed by a very long and successful career in her mamaloshen. Indeed, as she once said: "Yiddish is such a rich language. As an actress I can convey sorrow, pain, fear and pleasure without making an effort to look for a word."