By Michael D. Minichiello

This month’s West Village Original is Dina Paisner, a resident of Bank Street since the 1940s. Working for decades as a professional actor and model, until recently Paisner has kept a busy schedule. As a model, she has appeared in various magazines and periodicals including New York Magazine and The New York Times. Her acting credits include film, television, “Medea” on Broadway with Irene Papas, and many Off-Broadway and regional productions. Sadly, Dina passed away in February just before we went to press.

When actor and model Dina Paisner was born in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood it was, according to her, very sleepy and peaceful. “I went to P.S. 25,” she says. “It was a very old school on Lafayette Avenue. The toilets were outside and we had to leave the building to use them.” When, exactly, was this? “No, thank you! I’m reluctant to give my age. People immediately put you into a category as a result and I don’t like to be categorized. Let’s just say I’m way up there,” she says, laughing.

Paisner grew up as the youngest of seven children of a family that had emigrated from the Ukraine. “My father was a Hebrew teacher,” she recalls. “My family was a real kind of tragic family out of a Chekov play. When I was a child I would observe them all sitting around on Friday nights with the candles lit. There was so much quiet tension that I felt compelled to break it. So I would imitate all my neighbors and make everybody laugh. Everyone thought I was going to be an artist but I loved theatre more and that’s what I pursued.” As an actor, Paisner was very busy for a while, going from one role to another. She was particularly active Off-Broadway before it became “fashionable.”

What is it about the theatre that appeals so much to her? “Because it’s life,” she says emphatically. “Theatre is life! Theatre saved my life, actually. Like so many children I had unfortunate things happen to me that kind of scarred me a little bit. I compensated with theater and I was able to live my life through it. And I was a very good actress.” Were these childhood traumas the reason she never had children of her own? “I was always waiting to grow up before I had kids of my own,” she says. “I never wanted to inflict my problems on another generation. That said, I love my family and I’ve always loved people. I’ve never been afraid of them.”

In 2006, Paisner discovered that 18 of her lymph nodes had become cancerous. After treatment, she had seven years remission but recently her health has dwindled precariously and she is now in hospice care in her home. “I’m not depressed, though, because I have so much to do and I don’t have that luxury,” she says, paradoxically. “I find that my relationships with people are on a much deeper level because the distractions of pursuing a career are gone. My decisions are much easier now. My life is quickly shedding unnecessary things and in some ways it’s on a higher quality because my days are so precious. It’s like the worse my health gets the better my spirits get. I don’t advise getting sick in order to make the quality of your life better but there’s no turning back now!”

Paisner has lived on Bank Street since the 1940s in a “tiny, old studio” she inherited from a sister-in-law. “I’ve seen a lot of changes,” she admits. “When I walk it’s almost like I see in 3D. I see the building that was there before and the one before that. I miss a lot of the old Village institutions like the Mom and Pop stores and the barbershops. But I’m thrilled to still be here. There are a few old-timers still around and we help each other out. I have a neighbor who feeds my cat three times a day. And while it’s become so expensive here, I was brought up in the Depression so I can live very frugally.”

Does Paisner have any words of advice for others? “Whatever happens in life, there’s always a funny side to it so having a sense of humor is very important,” she says. “And being creative is paramount. The greatest gift in life is to be creative. That’s because your mind gets out of the way. You act very naturally on your impulses, which come from a very universal force within. So stay creative, everybody,” she urges,

laughing. “Hang loose and get out of your own head!”

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9 thoughts on “West Village Original: Dina Paisner

    • Author gravatar

      My name is Dina. I was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine.
      I am USA citizen from 1990.
      I wrote my first story in English – about Dina Paisner.
      Dina is a difficult name.
      Always alone, always self-sufficient, always working hard.
      Strong, funny and sad – very deep inside.
      Very kind, great sense of humor, very direct, well organized.
      Compassionate. Beautiful.
      We were strangers, random people. We met at St. John’s Cathedral after Holocaust Remembrance event.
      My sister and I been stricken by her beauty and could not stop looking at her. I said something out loud with my heavy Ukrainian accent, just to get her attention, engage into the conversation.
      She immediately reached to me, by asking to put my tongue between my teeth and repeat the same sentence again. I tried – it was even worse. We started to talk. She asked if we know an old Ukrainian woman who can restore her old linen table cloth, which she inherited from her parents. We said that we are these Ukrainian woman and my sister and I would restore her table cloth.
      Dina was willing to take the train and go “to the country” – the town in New Jersey suburbs where we live. She said:
      – I did not leave the island for 40 years. It is time to go!
      I met her at the Millburn train station and we went to my sister house. She trusted us. While we were having late breakfast, the precious table cloth was boiling in the big pot with water and shredded soap.
      She was watching like a kid at the circus – with trust and admiration. After 30 minutes of boiling in soapy water, the table cloth came out spotless white. No stains left. My sister decided to iron it while it was wet. Dina trusted her. Dina and I were sitting on the coach watching my sister ironing the table cloth. We did not talk. We were observant. My sister was thinking: “Dina, when is your birthday?”
      Dina answered the question which never been said: “My birthday is in April, around Passover.”
      This is how we became friends.
      She never invited us to her studio apartment on Bank Street. It was her territory. We saw each other often, she was an active participant in our lives. We also wrote each other letters. Not emails, but regular letters written by hand. I always included two tea bags in the envelope. One week before she died, I got a sudden urge to see her. I put together some sweets and tea bags and asked my husband to drive me to the city. He did not tell the word. He drove me to Bank Street and was waiting on the curb.
      I was not sure how to get to the building. I was certain that I will get some help. It was a good timing:
      The person was entering the building at the time I was in the front of it. When he knew, I am coming to visit Dina, he let me in. I went upstairs. I knocked the door. Home attendant opened up the door. I said: “My name is Dina. I would like to see Dina Paisner.”
      “Dina, this is Dina. She would like to see you.”
      “Come on over, Dina”, – Dina said.
      She was very happy to see me. She was beautiful in her hospital bed. Her blue eyes were clear and sparkling. She was calm, almost translucent. She was holding my package with both hands, feeling it, touching softly. She asked me to read everything what was on the package including her home address.
      She told me firmly to save the ribbon and not to tear off the wrapping, but unwrap it carefully and save the paper. She asked me to read the card which I wrote for her. She was holding my hand with her right hand. She was listening to me with her eyes closed and warm smile on the face. When I finished reading, she told me:
      “Dina, Do you know – it is coming?”
      “Yes, I do. Do not be afraid.” – I said.
      “I am not afraid. I have many good friends. I have so many things to do. There is no time for self-pity” – Dina said.
      “Kiss me in the forehead,” – she asked.
      I kiss her once.
      “Once more”, – she asked.
      I kiss her again.
      She opened her eyes. I asked:
      “Can I kiss you one more?”
      “Yes, you can” – she answered.
      I kiss her third time.
      She asked me to stay more, but I could not. My husband was waiting outside, parked illegally.
      I explained. She said:
      “He is a good man.”
      I said:
      “ I love you, Dina.”
      “I love you too”, – she said.
      I was sitting in the car quietly while driving back home, surrounded with warm cloud of peace and love.
      I still feel this warm cloud of peace and love when I think about our friend Dina.

      • Author gravatar

        My name is Audrey and I happen to be Aunt Dina’s great great niece. Dina Paisner was my grandfather’s aunt. I always appreciated her words of wisdom about how to navigate through a world full of self centered and deceitful people that perceive kindness as a weakness, almost immediately. Please stay in touch with me! Dina Paisner is truly legendary, in my opinion. Dina Paisner (4/16/1919-2/15/2016)

        • Author gravatar

          By the way, I feel more than certain that Aunt Dina Paisner and Barbra Streisand would have been lovely friends, if they met each other. Exactly like Barbara Streisand, Aunt Dina’s biological mother was from The Soviet Union, and was Jewish as well. Also, Aunt Dina was exactly as stubborn, witty, imaginative, had a difficult childhood, unique, artsy, imaginative, demanding, kindhearted, beautiful, and refined with regards to the theatre and music as Barbra Streisand is. They were also both born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. To anyone who knew Dina well, she NEVER allowed anyone to rain on her parade!!! Much love to whomever has been so kind to acknowledge what I have just written. I am also more than certain Aunt Dina has repeated the following questions from Barbra Streisand’s song, “Where Is It Written”, from the movie “Yentl”

          “There’s not a morning I begin without
          A thousand questions running through my mind,
          That I don’t try to find the reason and the logic
          In the world that God designed.
          The reason why
          a bird was given wings,
          If not to fly and praise the sky
          With every song it sings.
          What’s right or wrong,
          Where I belong
          Within the scheme of things…”

          The slightly older version of Barbra Streisand was a phenomenal woman. I will always love her, even though she was a distant relative of mine.

        • Author gravatar

          Dear Audrey, I am Nancy, Dina’s great niece. I will be in NYC for one day tomorrow July 5. Dina has been to my home in Berkeley Ca. 2 times and each time that I come to NYC I see her. I last saw her 3 yrs. ago. I just looked up her name and saw this notice. Is she still alive. I will call her when we get to NYC tomorrow. Please contact me asap. 510 520-6662 cell phone We dock at 9 AM. Nancy and Rick

    • Author gravatar

      Dina/Dinah Paisner was my mother’s first cousin. As a child, I was fascinated by Dina’s long hair, wrapped tightly in a bun. I always asked her to let it down ( like rapunzel)- it wa so long and silky and magical to me. Dina moved like a faerie delicate and strong. When I became older, I’d meet Dina and take her out for a meal. She loved seeing my children and always having words of wisdom for them.Dina loved to travel and we t on archeology digs. She also loved to dance and was a member of vacuous troupes which performed in NYC. She adores cats and may have had many to care for.
      I dropped her off at her apartment, but she never invited me in—
      I suspect it was her most private refuge. Her father used to come to my house as a child to teach me Aleh bet. He was a learned and revered man. Her sister, Lucy wrote amazing poetry which was shared with the family. Lucy was a nurse.
      She was the most soft spoken and gentle spirit of a woman I have ever ever met. I am blessed to have this part of my family and the memories created by their impact upon me. My eldest daughter remembers Dina and I’m so glad she had magical interaction with her.
      What joy to know, embrace and love such special people

    • Author gravatar

      Oops sorry for the typos!

    • Author gravatar

      For a few weeks during the autumn of 1964 I was privileged to interact with Dina. I have never forgotten her: She wasn’t the kind of personality that’s casually forgotten.

    • Author gravatar

      I just saw Dina Paisner on an old episode of The Saint.
      I had not heard of her before.
      She was a wonderful actress and extremely beautiful.
      It just shows in the performance
      that it pays to have worked live on stage
      before going into television and movies.

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