If anyone stood for the vitality of the theater as an art form, it was Mina Bern, the indomitable actress whose career long outlasted the glory days of the Second Avenue Yiddish stage. To mark the fifth anniversary of her death, the Congress for Jewish Culture, in conjunction with the American Jewish Historial Society, is assembling a starry roster of Bern’s former students to pay tribute to the beloved performer. The free program will take place this Sunday afternoon at the Center for Jewish History in Chelsea.
Organized by actors Shane Baker and Eleanor Reissa, the tribute will feature klezmer trumpeter Frank London, along with more than a dozen Yiddish actors, including Shira Flam, Allen Lewis Rickman, Elena Shmulenson, Lori Wilner and Hy Wolfe. Bern’s trademark skits will be restaged, including the heartwarming “Shabbos Shabbos” from the 1990 Broadway revue, “Those Were the Days.” In addition, photographer Joan Roth will screen her short film about the actress.
Bern, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, displayed her moxie and talent for reinvention by finding acting opportunities wherever she found herself — first in her native Poland, then in Russia where she fled after the Nazi invasion of her home country, then in a camp in Uganda to which she was sent.
A two-year stint in Israel ended disastrously when Bern hired a butcher to beat up a drama critic, Haim Gamzu, who complained in his review that she had “murdered” one of her songs. Bern escaped reprisals by heading for America, where she ultimately capped off a long stage career with cameo appearances in “Crossing Delancey” (1988), “Avalon” (1990), “Little Odessa” (1994) and other films.
In an interview, Reissa told The Jewish Week that Bern “wore heels in every weather — she was always classy and elegant in her appearance.” In addition, Bern “had cilia all over her body” — she was so attuned to every nuance of timing and delivery in her own work, that she was hyper-aware of criticism from others. “If you gave her a wrong look, you would be in the doghouse. You can’t get sensitivity in one place and not pay for it somewhere else,” Reissa observed.
Yet Bern’s generosity was also legendary. “She was a mother hen to so many other actors,” Reissa remembered. “She took us under her wing. She provided a home and respite to so many who didn’t have a home of their own.” In addition to ladling out chicken soup, Reissa recalled, Bern told performers which sketches would best fit their talents. “She kept Yiddish culture alive by transmitting and sharing it in so many deep ways.”
“Mina Bern: A Celebration” will be presented this Sunday, Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St. Tickets are free, but must be reserved through SmartTix, www.smarttix.com. Kosher refreshments will be served.