Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Berl Bernstein


B. was born circa 1860 in Warsaw, Poland. Father --  traded in geese. From his early youth he was a funny, jolly singer and dancer, and therefore people used to call him "Berele tentser (Berele, the Dancer)", "Berele hotske". He worked in the cigarette factory of Poliakewicz, and he sang in the chorus of the synagogue, then in a quartet of Gardetski.

B. strove to become an opera singer, and went away to Berlin, where he studied in a conservatory [according to Max Rosenthal -- sang as a bass in the Warsaw governmental opera], but when he returned to Warsaw, he entered into a "rock (stein)" quartet [Feinstein, Bernstein et al], with whom he moved about across Poland, Ukraine and Russia. B. is the head of this quartet, and evoked everywhere enthusiasm through his beautiful singing, and through his artifice as a dancer.

In 1887 we find B. as a character-comic in London, wherein he arrived together with Adler and Tabachnikoff, but B. did not remain in London for long; together with Tabachnikoff and Anna Held, they traveled to Paris to act in Yiddish theatre, and from there B. and Tabachnikoff went to Lemberg to Gimpel. From then Adler brought him to America, where B. soon became very popular.

Bessie Thomashefsky portrays B.'s first performance in New York as such:

The play "Shulamis" had been performed. I had seen nothing extraordinary. My own Absalom, my husband, that is, was more important to me than the new Absalom, but "Tsingetang", Bernstein, was new to me. ... Bernstein could give a dance, an improvement on the stage after all.

The public became tremendously excited. Bernstein soon became a New York darling. People ran into the Union Theatre to see "Berele hop". They applauded him vigorously and always demanded that he should jump over the jumping (or springboard (?)."

He was entirely unique. Tall and skinny, with a bass voice, nothing like we were accustomed to from a comic, and long legs. Concerning his legs, he wore mismatched leggings in the theater cafe. People would say that when Bernstein wished it, he could make them as long as they were, and that when he wanted, he could make them entirely shorter and could act as a small, young woman. Mostly, he need only will it."

According to B. Botwinick, "Sometimes B. used to dance to the beat with sideburns or a glued-on beard, and he used to do it with his original grace.

However much of an effort B. made to be serious, the audience laughed all the more, because in his effort to be serious, he inserted comedy. For a certain time, he was with Kessler, acting in a serious role in the play "'Shabse zvi', and outside of that, as an intrigue, to stick someone with a knife, the audience gasped with laughter.

B. was not any kind of a painter of characters, no artistic, literary actor, who portrays a soulful experience of man. He was a first-class burlesque comic with many charms, and thus he played a great role in the first years of Yiddish theatre, when the burlesque comic was one of the important elements on the Yiddish stage."

In America, B. was for many years connected with Thomashefsky, in whose outstanding operettas he had acted in, but at the same time B. also had participate in many dramas and lebensbilds of the American dramatists, such as Libin, et al., and he was especially popular through the play "Shmai" in Gordin's "Kenig lir (King Lear)" with Adler.

B. was one of the four partners (Sophia Karp, Bernstein, Finkel and Louis Gottlieb), who had bought the Grand Theatre in New York, the first theatre that was directly built as a Yiddish theatre in America.

B. become a ruined man because his kind [art] of comedy no longer occupied  any important place in Yiddish theater, and besides that, B. suffered from a hoarseness, and could no longer singing with pure clarity.

In 1921 B. took, together with Sigmund Weintraub a small theatre in Chicago, but he had no luck; the theatre closed in mid-season. B. then went away into a hospital to be operated on, and they found that he had cancer, and on 29 August 1922 B. passed away in New York.

B. had two sons who were connected with the English stage as musicians and performers.

M. E. from Bernstein's brother, Kh. Feinstein, Max Rosenthal and Reuben Weissman.

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre", Vol. II, pp. 126, 143, 150-151.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky -- "Mayn lebens geshikhte (My Life Story)", pp. 206, 262.

  • B. Botwinick -- Berl bernstein, der berihmter aktyor, velkher iz nekhten geshtorben, "Forward", 31 August 1922.

  • Boris Thomashefsky -- "Der ersht farshtorbener komiker berl bernstein, "Forward", 3 September 1922.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 1, page 207.

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