Theater Lover Gets Ovation


By Masha Leon

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.

Corey (Gedalye) Breier, president of the Yiddish Artists and Friends Actors Club and the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance, celebrated his 50th birthday at the organizations’ June 27 dinner dance, held at Park Avenue Synagogue. The place was jumping as the ballroom vibrated to the music of Mitch Kahn’s orchestra, and a multigenerational crowd filled the floor for horas, freylakhs, kazatkies, fox trots, cha-chas and mambos.

Described as “a credit to humanity” by 82-year-old master of ceremonies Fyvush Finkel, Breier touted his passion for Yiddishkeit, his love for his wife, Rose, and for his parents, Ralph and Cookie Breier, who were celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary. Breier remembered Lillian Lux (who died in June). He also wished a speedy recovery to ailing 90-plus actress Mina Bern and to hospitalized 90-year-old actor David Rogow, who was celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife, Nina. Among the 360 guests were Charlotte Goldstein (one of Maurice Schwartz’s leading ladies), radio veteran DJ of “oldies” Danny Stiles and Irving Fields, still tickling the ivories at 90.

Radio host Joe Franklin revealed the secret to making it in his field: “Sincerity… once you learn to fake it, you got it made.” Zalmen Mlotek, at the piano, accompanied Claire Barry, Phyllis Berk, Joanne Borts, Eleanor Reissa, Genia Feierman and Shifra Lerer, who’s still chipper at 90.

Breier and I were students at Queens College’s Yiddish Studies Program from 1972 to 1976, when its academic “stars” included Itche Goldberg, Joseph Landis, Benjamin Gebiner, and Yiddish theater workshop mentors Ida Kaminska and Miriam Kressyn. It was this aura that Breier credited as the catalyst that inspired him to eventually become the devoted invigorator of two historic institutions: the Actors Club, founded in 1936 to help members of the Yiddish theater in need of financial support (the club’s first president was actor Paul Muni), and the alliance, founded in 1917 to help actors, musicians, composers, stage hands and their families in times of sorrow. Bravo, Corey Breier!

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Filmgoers who have witnessed the unraveling of family and friends’ lives may find it discomfiting to watch Ingmar Bergman’s latest, and probably final, opus, “Saraband” (2003), which recently opened in New York. The film is masterfully written and directed by Bergman, who, at 87, is still trying to come to terms with lost youth, lost love and unresponsive gods. “Saraband” is a closing chapter in a filmography that includes Oscar-winners “The Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Fanny and Alexander,” as well as the brilliant “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona” and “Smiles of a Summer Night” (which Stephen Sondheim reinvented as a musical, “A Little Night Music”).

In “Saraband,” a follow-up to his 1973 made-for-television “Scenes From a Marriage,” he mends a 30-year rift between a professor named Johan (Erland Josephson) and Johan’s wife, Marianne, a lawyer (Liv Ullmann, still beautiful at 65). With Bach and Bruckner’s music underscoring the angst of the flickering remains of a relationship that cannot be resurrected, Bergman stages 10 retrospective vignettes that bring the viewer up to date on the detritus of the characters’ lives. The acidic dialogue and Johan’s lacerating hatred of Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), his 61-year-old son by another wife, and his grandfatherly love for Henrik’s 19-year-old daughter, Karin (the luminous Julia Dufvenius), a cellist who plays music with her father and shares Henrik’s bed, offers more questions than answers. See the movie, then check in with your friendly psychotherapist for a detoxification session. Not to be missed!

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I first met Ullmann in 1987, when she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the Writers and Artists for Peace in the Middle East in recognition for her humanitarian activities as a good will ambassador for Unicef, as well as for her concern for the survival of Israel and her documentary about refusenik Ida Nudel. The guests that evening included Linn (her daughter by Bergman), Elie Wiesel, and Roman Kent (a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Flossenburg) to whom Ullmann wrote: “Dearest Roman… meeting you on the day I was asked to be part of your documentary about ‘The Children of the Holocaust,’ my life took on a new meaning….”

In the spring of 1993, my daughter, Karen, and I were in Ullmann’s New York apartment to interview her about “Sofie,” an award-winning film that she wrote and directed. It’s based on the 1932 Henri Nathansen novel, “Mendel Philipsen & Son,” a chronicle of two brothers in Denmark in 1886 through the beginning of the 19th century. One wanted to remain a traditional Jew, and the other chose to assimilate.

“There was a lot of low-level antisemitism in Denmark then and even today,” Ullmann said. “But it was very genteel, very secretive, you know. I feel it very strongly, since I married a Jewish man and hear it because nobody knows he is Jewish.” Just before we left, her husband, Donald Saunders (who remembered the Yiddish Forward from his childhood), recalled a Yiddish expression: “In mitndrinen schvangert di bobe.” This means, literally, “In the midst of all this, the grandmother is pregnant” — i.e., “Who needs this?” I last saw Ullmann in 1996 when, along with Jehan Sadat, widow of Egypt’s slain prime minister, Anwar Sadat, she was honored at a Rabbi Marc H. Tannenbaum Foundation tribute. Ullmann had met Tannenbaum on a 1979 International Rescue Committee mission with Bayard Rustin and Wiesel to the Thai-Cambodian border. Ullmann recalled that “Marc went looking among the 200 men [on the mission] for a minyan to say kaddish for Elie’s father’s yahrzeit.” At that event, Madame Sadat averred:

“There are no differences between religions. I appeal to my Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel and in the world in the name of Begin and Rabin — let us forget and forgive the past and bring peace so that both Arabs and Jews can create a new civilization.”

PILLARS OF SUPPORT: Actor Fyvush Finkel (left) served as the master of ceremonies at the June 27 birthday salute to Corey Breier (right, with performer Claire Barry).

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