Wednesday 25 March 2015


He was born in Shatsk, Minsk region, Byelorussia.  He studied in religious primary schools and yeshivas.  From his early years, he evinced an aptitude for singing and an inclination toward music in general.  At age twenty, he became a choir member under a cantor in Kovno, and at the same time he attended the local music school.  Two years later, he became the choir leader to Cantor Rozovski in Riga, and in 1891 the Vilna reform synagogue Taharat Hakodesh hired him as its first cantor.  He served as cantor there for thirty years.  Over the course of this period of time, he wrote numerous cantorial pieces, a number of which—such as “Hayehi” (It shall be), “Veani tefilati” (And I My Prayer), and “Takanat Shabbat” (Rules of the Sabbath)—were quite popular.  In 1914, with the participation of the larger cantorial musical scene, he published two collections of religious music entitled Avodat habore (Divine prayer).  He was also the first to compose music for the poems of modern Yiddish poets.  In 1893 he published his compositions: Am olam (Eternal people), with text by Mordechai Zvi Mane; Al harere tsiyon (To the mountains of Zion), text by Menakhem Mendel Dolitsky; and Zamd un shtern (Sand and stars), text by Shimen Frug.  The last of these spread extremely widely and was republished in 1916 in New York.  He also published: Zemer lefurim (Purim song), in a supplement to Hatsfira (The siren [Warsaw, 1904]); Hot rakhmones (Have compassion), on the occasion of the Kishinev pogrom, text by Shimen Frug, a supplement to Fraynd (Friend [St. Petersburg, 1903]); Tsu hertsls yortsayt (For the anniversary of Herzl’s death)., a supplement to Undzer osed (Our future [Vilna, 1917]); and O, hemerl, hemerl, klop (Oh, little hammer, bang away) for Avrom Reyzen’s “Tsum hemerl” (To a little hammer).  In the 1920s he worked as a teacher of voice in secular Jewish schools in Vilna.  He wrote a textbook for solfeggio (teaching pitch and sight reading of music) and composed over 200 compositions in Yiddish and Hebrew for children’s poems.
He also wrote articles about the cantorial art and Jewish music in such periodicals as: Yarḥon haḥazanim (Cantors’ monthly), Hatsfira, Hazman (The times), Haolam (The world), Undzer osed, Mes-les (Day and night), Tarbut (Culture), Vilner tog (Vilna day), Pinkes (Record) in Vilna, and Khazonim-velt (Cantors’ world) in Vilna.  In 1927 the Vilna Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society, named for Sh. An-sky, brought out Muzikalisher pinkes: nigunim zamlung fun yidishn folks oytser (Musical records, a collection of melodies from the Jewish folk-treasury), vol. 1: a world-wide collection of folksongs, melodies, Hassidic tunes, and compositions from ancient songs, which Bernshteyn compiled over the course of many years, put together the texts, and wrote explanations as necessary.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 367-69; A. Zabludkovski, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (July 22, 1932); “Fun vokh tsu vokh” (From week to week), Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 26 (1932); Z. Shik (Szyk), 1000 yor vilne (1000 years of Vilna), part 1 (Vilna, 1939), p. 460; Alfred Sendrey, Bibliography of Jewish Music (New York, 1951), see index; a full listing of Bernshteyn’s compositions can be found in Khazonishe velt (May 1934); M. Bernshteyn, “Zikhroynes iber mayn bruder” (Memories of my brother), Khazonim-velt (Warsaw) (July 1934); there was a Bernshteyn issue of Khazonim-velt (May 1934).

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