Wednesday 25 March 2015


He was born in Vinitse (Vinnytsa), Podolia.  His father Shimshon was a wealthy sugar manufacturer, a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, and a major philanthropist.  His family settled in Warsaw in 1856.  In 1859 Bernshteyn was in Berlin, and he by chance came upon a collection of sayings concerning Jews.  This elicited a certain interest in him, and he began to collect Jewish sayings and relevant literature concerned with sayings.  He amassed 4,780 such expressions in 100 languages.  In 1900 he published a two-volume catalogue of his collection, which was ranked among the very best masterpieces in this genre.  He left the collection in his will to the Polish Academy of Science in Cracow, which did not even express its “gratitude” by mentioning his name in its biographical handbook.  A portion of his collection of Jewish sayings was published by Mordechai Spektor—2,056 from the two volumes—in his Hoyz fraynd (House friend, 1888-1889).  In 1908 there was published in Leipzig a magnificent edition of his Yudishe shprikhverter un redensarten (Jewish sayings and proverbs)—in the Yiddish original and a Romanized transcription, with commentary and explanations, and with an index in Yiddish as well as a glossary of Hebrew words in German.  He was assisted in this work by Binyumen Zeger and Dr. Shmuel Poznanski.  This monumental and epoch-making edition was “dedicated to the Jewish people” and included nearly 4,000 sayings.  Spektor published a popular edition of solely Yiddish text in Warsaw in 1908, and a second edition of this work appeared from Tsentral Publishers, also in Warsaw, in 1912.  In 1948 a photo-offset edition of the Yiddish text (329 pp.) was published in New York.  As a manuscript Bernshteyn in 1908 published 227 obscene sayings under the title “Erotica et Rustica,” which was later reissued twice.  He died in Brussels and was buried back in Warsaw.
Bernshteyn was one of the greatest charity and culture patrons in Warsaw.  The Judaic Library in Warsaw (at the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie St.) had much for which to thank him.  His contribution to Jewish ethnography has been analyzed by N. Vaynig in Yivo-bleter (Leaves from YIVO) 8 (1935), pp. 361-63, and by Nokhum Sokolov in Rocznik zydowski (Jewish yearbook) (Lemberg, 1912), pp. 122-28.  The most important bibliography for Bernshteyn can be found in Y. Shatski, Geshikhte fun yidn in varshe (History of the Jews in Warsaw), vol. 3 (New York, 1953), pp. 325-28.

Yekhezkil Keytelman

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