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Bernstein-Cohen, Miriam

(1895–1991), actor, Hebrew writer, poet, and translator. Miriam Bernstein-Cohen was born in Kishinev. Her father, the physician Ya‘akov Bernstein-Cohen (1859–1929), was a Russian Zionist leader. The images and sounds of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom that shocked Bessarabian Jews were embedded in her memory and recorded in her autobiographical work, Ke-Tipah ba-yam (Like a Drop in the Ocean; 1971). After the pogrom her family moved to Kharkov, where Bernstein-Cohen attended the German gymnasium, and where she acted, for the first time, in plays staged at her school.

After the 1905 Revolution, the Bernstein-Cohen family moved to Palestine, though dire economic situations and health problems experienced by the female members of the household caused them to return to Kishinev in 1910. There Miriam completed her studies at the German gymnasium for girls and founded a theatrical company. When she was 16, a story that she translated from English into Russian appeared in the ‘Ogoniyok weekly. After completing her studies, she returned to Kharkov to study medicine as well as to enroll at the Paul Iliian Ivanovich School of Dramatic Arts.

While still a medical student, Bernstein-Cohen served in the army during World War I. In 1918, she completed her studies and at the same time appeared on the stage of Kharkov’s studio theater. She traveled to Kiev and to Moscow, where she performed at the October Revolution Theater, and enrolled in the theatrical department of the Moscow Philharmonic, studying under, among others, Konstantin Stanislavsky. In 1920 she traveled to Italy, and in 1921 returned to Palestine. Through her initiative, the first professional Hebrew theater, Ha-Te’atron ha-‘Ivri, opened its doors. In 1923, she left for Berlin where she joined the Te’atron Erets Yisra’eli (Land of Israel Theater Group, abbreviated as T’ey), headed by Menaḥem Gnessin and boasting the membership of, among others, Shim‘on Finkel and Ari Kota’i. When in 1925 the company returned to Palestine, they founded the T’ey Theater in Tel Aviv. That same year, Bernstein-Cohen was appointed editor of Palestine’s first arts journal: Te’atron ve-omanut (Theater and Art), the first edition of which appeared on 17 June 1925.

Owing to internal friction, the theater closed down and Bernstein-Cohen traveled to Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and South Africa. After a stay of five years in the Baltic states, she returned to Palestine and set up Ha-Komediyah ha-Eretsyisra’elit (The Land of Israel Comedy) Club, which featured her husband, the actor Mikha’el Gur.

Miriam Bernstein-Cohen became known to the Israeli public chiefly through her career as a radio performer. She joined the Cameri Theater Company as an actress in 1952. It was only in 1967 that she was invited to appear with the Habimah theater company in their production of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (Shulḥanot nifradim). She retired from the stage at the age of 80.

Bernstein-Cohen also composed literary works and studies of the theater. In 1938, she completed the novel Mefisto, based on the experiences of Jewish intelligentsia at the time of the Russian Revolution. In addition, she published a narrative poem, Be-Erets Ofir (In the Land of Ofir; 1939), the novel Tav‘erah (Conflagration; 1939), a compilation of stories titled Ishah ba-derakhim (A Woman on the Road; 1954), a poetry anthology called Demamot (Silences; 1961), and the short-story collection Ben yom le-yom (From Day to Day; 1967). The psychologically complex stories in this compilation deal with moments of crisis in the lives of the protagonists, their subsequent introspection, and their “journeys” to the past. Her novel Shorashim ba-mayim (Roots in the Water; 1976) is set in Russia, Germany, France, the United States, and Switzerland, placing the spotlight on a Jewish intellectual undergoing an identity crisis. She wrote the nonfiction works Toldot ha-te’atron me-reshito ve-‘ad yamenu (The History of the Theater from Its Origins until the Present Day; 1961) and Be-‘Olam ha-ashlayot (In a World of Illusions; 1961), the latter of which contains studies of problems related to the stage. Her autobiographical work Ke-Tipah ba-yam appeared in 1971 and focuses on her memories from her childhood through her career at Habimah. She also translated the works of Tolstoy, Buck, Pirandello, Pushkin, and others. In 1975, Bernstein-Cohen won the Israel prize for acting.

Suggested Reading

Judith Eisenberg Harari, “Be-Te’atron ha-‘ivri: Bernshten Kohen,” in Ishah ve-em be-Yisra’el: Mi-Tekufat ha-Tanakh ‘ad shenat ha-‘asor li-Medinat Yisra’el, pp. 437–438 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1959).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler