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Arts & Culture ‘deeply Jewish’ Argentine Actor Continues to Captivate at Age 85

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Max Berliner is holding court at a local café, regaling a bunch of strangers who have gathered around his table with stories of his life. The group surrounding him — made up of people of many different ages — is genuinely enthusiastic. Berliner, an actor and director, is adept at captivating audiences.

The 85-year-old grandfather, who wears a tie but leaves his shirt’s top button undone, was honored Nov. 1 at the AMIA Jewish community center for promoting the Jewish spirit through the plays which he acted in or directed throughout Argentina over the last 80 years.

Berliner made his stage debut in 1925, at the age of 5 — 3 years after arriving in Argentina from Poland — in a Sholem Aleichem play in Yiddish.

“In many plays, I did speak in Spanish about Jewish themes to spread what Judaism means to people that ignored it,” Berliner says in an interview at the café, in the Jewish area of Buenos Aires known as Once.

“But I also performed several plays — including universal classics such as ‘The Crystal Zoo’ — in Yiddish, to keep the language alive.”

Berliner often interrupted the interview to greet people who dropped by the table to say hello. He does so happily — inviting them all to the ceremony at the AMIA center — only later confessing that he does not know them.

Berliner says he is “deeply Jewish, from my core, from my foot to the top of my head.” Indeed, he has always lived in Jewish neighborhoods and taught drama lessons at the Argentine Jewish collective farms.

Despite the fact that the octogenarian thespian has “walked almost 30,000 days through scenery and through life,” he remains energetic and spontaneous.

In fact, Berliner traveled to the interview by subway and by foot. He walks dozens of blocks every day, he says, adding that he’s never had serious health problems.

Berliner has been married for the last 50 years to the actor and painter Rachel Lebenas. Alan Berliner, the oldest of their four grandchildren, is about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.

“I am thinking deeply about which words I will dedicate to my grandfather when I’ll call him to light a candle with me,” Alan said.

Berliner’s acting career has included performances in films and television. Last year in Spain he filmed “Dear People,” a black comedy about Palestinians and Jews. Berliner played a Jewish grandfather who had been in Concentration camps and went blind after fighting in Israel.

“Despite the suffering, the man loves life, like I do,” Berliner says.

Two months ago, Berliner finished filming of another movie that had him moving from northern to southern Argentina. In 2005, he expects to open “El Golem,” a play that Berliner himself adapted.

So, what is the secret to Berliner’s love of life?

“My life is like a wool ball, full of good and bad moments,” he says. “I only keep the good moments. Whenever I feel bad, I go to a café and talk to a friend. I feel passionate about beauty of life.”

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