Obituary: Phil Bernstein

For over 60 years Phil Bernstein provided the tragedies, comedies and romances of the Yiddish Theatre in Britain with their common and essential element: the distinctive music.

His association began in the 1920s as a violinist at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, east London, under the musical director Ferdinand Staub. In 1936 he became first violinist at the Jewish National Theatre in Adler Street under the musical directorship of Isidore Berman (the founder of the Jewish Male Choir).

My father, the actor Yidel Goldberg, was the unwitting instrument of his next appointment: while waiting to make his entrance on stage he realised that he had absent-mindedly forgotten to bring with him the overcoat needed for the next act. He looked around and saw a good Crombie hanging up. He tried it on, found it fitted and made his elegant entrance. In the pit an astonished Berman saw Goldberg come on in a very familiar coat - his own. At the end of the act he stormed out of the theatre in a fury and Phil Bernstein had to assume the baton for the rest of the performance.

Berman never returned and Bernstein took over the post of musical director permanently. This accidental promotion lasted some five years until 1941, when he was appointed musical director at the most famous Yiddish theatre in London, the Grand Palais in the Commerical Road, where he remained for the next 30 years.

During the course of his extended career he collaborated with all the great actor- managers of Yiddish Theatre including Madame Fanny Waxman, Meier Tzelniker and the American Maurice Schwartz, for whom in 1935 he had been musical director for a season at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End of London.

Phil Bernstein's parents were immigrant Jews from Russia, and he was born in Mile End in 1910. Reluctant to see his son follow him into the tailoring trade, his father insisted on his taking music lessons from a very early age with the well-known local teacher Victor Vorzanger. Phil's talent was immediately apparent and his father's bar mitzvah present to him was the violin he played and cherished for the rest of his life. In 1941 he married Anna, the actress daughter of Meier Tzelniker. Their life together was mirrored by their professional partnership which lasted until Bernstein's death.

During the 1930s his ventures widened in scope. He had played for the silent cinema in the 1920s, and when sound was introduced recorded the musical soundtracks for many films including Land Without Dreams (1936), starring Richard Tauber, in which he is clearly visible as first violinist in the orchestra. Together with three friends he formed his own musical comedy band, the Four Chassidim, which performed music and sketches all over London. During a week at the Mile End Empire they shared the bill with the comedian Ted Ray, who was so enchanted with their antics he pleaded to be allowed to join them with a contribution of his own. The Four Chassidim were delighted to oblige, teaching a joke with a Yiddish punchline.

In the early years of the Second World War Bernstein joined up with Leon Cortez and his band. They toured the nation in a variety talent show called Bryan Michie and his Discoveries. Among the "Discoveries" were a young Eric Bartholomew (Eric Morecambe) and Ernie Wise.

Meanwhile, Yiddish theatre in London continued to flourish during the war. Throughout most of 1944 audiences at the Grand Palais were thrilled by The King of Lampedusa by S.J. Harendorf, which was unprecedentedly popular with both Jews and non-Jews and which received extraordinary notices in the national press. It starred both Tzelnikers, but it was Bernstein's music which set everybody's feet tapping.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the arrival in Britain of many new Yiddish actors, refugees from Nazi persecution on the Continent. Their heads were full of the music and songs from home but having barely escaped with the clothes they stood up in they usually had nothing written down. They would sing what they knew to Bernstein, who would transcribe and orchestrate it for performance, thus saving for posterity much material which might otherwise have been lost.

As a violinist Phil Bernstein was exceptional. His bow could convey all the traditional merriment as well as the sweet poignancy of Jewish music without ever descending into the vulgarity of schmaltz. During his decades as musical director he gently encouraged young talent. But he also quietly watched the occasional prima donna-like absurdities of more experienced artistes with amused and affectionate tolerance. It was this cool observation which turned him into a charming raconteur with a wicked line in back- stage anecdotes.

After the Grand Palais finally closed its doors as a Yiddish Theatre in 1970, the company took to the road, travelling to venues all over the country to bring Yiddish plays and concerts to ever-loyal audiences. Bernstein continued to support his adored wife, Anna, and her dwindling band of colleagues with his unique music well into the 1990s. In later years he was joined by their daughter Ricky, an accomplished pianist.

This rotund, smiling, kindly man was fortunate in that throughout his life he was able to combine his two great loves, his music and his family, of whom he was immensely proud. Until he became ill last November he still practised his violin every day.

Rosalind Gold

Philip Bernstein, musician and musical director: born London 23 December 1910; married 1941 Anna Tzelniker (one daughter); died London 31 May 1996.

footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Paul McCartney backs the
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone