Bryna Paston likes to say her two passions in life — writing and acting — have been fraught with rejection.
But with an acting resume that includes features commercials for DKNY with model Emily Ratajkowski and an ad for Jdate, as well as a writing portfolio including cover stories about the Russian Jewish mafia and serving as an editor of a local paper, it hasn’t been all that bad.
“As long as you can deal with rejection, if you can just say, ‘You know what, there’ll be another day. I’ll get another job.’ And if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world, and I’m having a good time and so what?” the 80-year-old Paston said, her voice as airy and carefree as her vibrant personality.
She grew up in State College, where her father was an accounting professor at Penn State University, and she was the only Jewish student in her class at State College High School.
“I tried my best to be one of the gang, but there was always that little barrier, always,” she said.
Her family was influential in the town’s small Jewish community. Her father was a part-time cantor and later became the coordinator of religious affairs for the school. There wasn’t a synagogue like there is now, so the community shared a worship space. A plaque dedicated to him is mounted on the walls of the Hillel.
She studied journalism and theater at Penn State, but couldn’t wait to leave and chase her dreams in New York City.
Though she admitted she was scared, off she went after her parents laid out a few ground rules, including that she have a job before she moves and she live with a roommate. So, “green as green can be,” she moved in with a roommate and worked for an advertising agency, but quit after about three months as all she was doing was getting people coffee.
She moved to Brooklyn and worked for the now-defunct department store Abraham & Straus.
Along the way, she started dating her husband, Alan, whom she reconnected with after moving to New York.
The two met when they worked as counselors at a B’nai Brith camp in the Poconos for two summers — but had both been with other people. After she moved to New York, the camp director had a get-together; Alan showed up and they started dating shortly thereafter.
“Do you want to hear the first date story? Because it’s great,” she asked eagerly. “I couldn’t invent this one.”
On a freezing cold March day, not unlike this most recent March, they took a trip to Coney Island for a Nathan’s hot dog, which she’d never had.
So they went to Coney Island and were the only ones there but as ever, Nathan’s was open — and it was “terrific,” she said.
“And he says to me two things: He says to me, ‘One, I’m never getting married until I’m 30. Two, if I don’t have anything important to say, I don’t talk,’” Paston recalled, making an incredulous face.
“I didn’t think that started off on a very good note,” she laughed.
But of course, they continued dating and eventually married in 1962. Breaking his first rule, they were 24, not 30, “so there, take that,” Paston teased.
They eventually moved to Dresher where Paston worked as the Bucks County editor for what was then The Jewish Times. She hadn’t found luck in journalism in New York, as there were limited roles for women in the field.
She met with an editor for a job at a newspaper in New Jersey, but was told they “already had their society editor,” as that was the position women held. In advertising, the jobs were more plentiful she said, but her passion was writing.
“I went to my father at one point and I said, ‘OK, there are three things that I love: music, theater and writing.’ And he pauses and he says, ‘Please pick the one that you can get a job,’” she laughed.
She worked for the Northeast Philadelphia-based Jewish Times for about 10 years, and in that time, she also did freelance work for the Baltimore Jewish Times as well as the Jewish Exponent, including an interview with Elie Wiesel.
For the Baltimore paper, she and her Philly Jewish Times colleague Alan Jaffe wrote a February 1984 cover story investigating the Soviet-Jewish mafia. The cover image is a striking all black background with a large gun and red print along the left side in all-caps: Murder. Extortion. Kidnapping. Forgery. Arson.
“Is There a Soviet-Jewish Mafia in the United States?” the headline reads. She met with sources Deep Throat-style at midnight in parking lots because people were afraid to talk to them.
Over about six months, they talked with police departments and sources across the country with large Russian Jewish populations, from Los Angeles to New York, to write the story. Despite some threats they received, “it was a great story to do,” she said.
After she stopped working for the paper, something happened that led to another phase: She became a grandmother.
Her son Michael — one of her two kids in addition to daughter Dina — had his first of three children, Rachel, and suddenly he became the only one who knew how to be a parent, she laughed. Paston thought there could be a book in there somewhere, which became How to be the Perfect Grandma. A companion — How to be the Perfect Grandpa — came out a few years later.
The book, which was published in 2001 and just had a cover redesign, is chock full of short, humorous anecdotes from her family and rules on how to be the perfect grandma. (Rule 18: Grandma’s house should always be stocked with the good stuff.)
“There are stories in the book about him and his ridiculous rules and regulations for me — not for his father, just for me. Because I didn’t know anything about raising children,” she said.
A standout story to her was when he didn’t want her taking Rachel on the boardwalk during a trip to the beach because it was windy, so he didn’t give his mother a stroller to take with her. (She bought a new one and took Rachel on the boardwalk anyway.
“She did not blow out to sea. She’s 27 and got married this past August, so I think she survived.”)
Now the grandmother to six “brilliant and wonderful” grandchildren, being a grandmother led to another opportunity: becoming a yenta for Jdate.
The dating service recently launched an ad campaign in which five Jewish grandmothers serve as the new faces, or “yentas,” of the company. They were called back for video interviews and asked about dating stories and advice they’d give to those signing up for Jdate.
Her first piece of advice to anyone venturing into the dating world is to be safe. Her second? Trade up.
“Find somebody that you really admire,” she added, “that you really feel can complement you, that you feel can add something to your life, but that you could be independent, self-sufficient, on your own. … Be your own person. Be secure. Be happy. It’s not easy, this world, and dating is tough.”
As she waits to see what happens with the videos, she continues to audition for other jobs and work on her next writing piece, teasing that it will be about the funny parts of getting older.
“It’s just been a hoot,” she reflected.