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.

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
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

Teaching Assistant in secondary school Manchester

£11280 - £14400 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Teaching a...

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits