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Abraham Moshe Bernstein Collection

Identifier: RG 36

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains papers of Abraham Moshe Bernstein, including his musical works, secular and religious, in both printed and manuscript form; liturgical choral volumes and partbooks; Hasidic songs and melodies assembled for the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society; unidentified musical pieces and fragments; manuscripts of Bernstein’s own writings.

Series I contains published works by Bernstein, including songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, for voice and piano accompaniment, with texts by Menakhem Mendl Dalitzky, Shmuel Frug, and Abraham Reisen. This series also includes Bernstein's teacher's manual of musical exercises for voice, and a collection of synagogal compositions composed by A.M. Bernstein and David Nowakowsky.

Series II contains an article about A.M. Bernstein on the first anniversary of his passing, published by Vilner tog .

Series III consists of six subseries: the bulk of the first subseries consists of synagogue pieces for cantor and choir, and includes a substantial collection of Hasidic religious songs and melodies (nigunim), collected and transcribed by A.M. Bernstein. Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian folk songs composed or arranged by Bernstein make up the bulk of subseries two, and includes music set to the texts of Abraham Reisen, Sore Reisen, Haim Nachman Bialik, Morris Rosenfeld, Yaffe-Silman, M. Shiva, Y.L. Peretz, V. Velyichko, A Ravin, Saul Tchernikhowsky, and others. Subseries three consists of various children’s songs, including Hanukkah songs, Passover songs, folk songs, as well as an operetta written for children. The bulk of subseries four consists of Bernstein’s incomplete works, including cantorial recitatives, liturgical pieces, and children’s songs, while subseries five contains Bernstein’s compiled and transcribed collections of zemirot (Jewish hymns) and Hasidic folk melodies and songs. Subseries six is largely made up of Bernstein’s arrangements of folk songs, Hassidic melodies, and a Hebrew adaptation of a Mendelssohn aria.

Series IV contains liturgical pieces and Hebrew and Yiddish songs — unclear whether composed or arranged by Bernstein or others.

Series V consists of various fragments of songs, solfege musical exercises, and musical theory notes.

Series VI includes Bernstein’s various manuscripts of articles and essays relating to Gershon Sirota, Solomon Salzer, Abraham Baer Birnbaum, as well as a partial Yiddish translation of Ecclesiastes.

Series VII contains Bernstein's correspondence, as well as a document relating to the Vilna Historical Ethnographic Society.

Series VIII contains choral books and partbooks used by A.M. Bernstein and his choir at the Taharat Hakodesh Synagogue.

Series IX contains works by composers other than A.M. Bernstein, including various popular songs, theater songs, Hasidic folk songs, and liturgical pieces.

Series X is made up of two subseries. Subseries one contains secular and sacred works by composers other than A.M. Bernstein, including arrangements for voice, voice and piano, choir, harp, and harmonium. Fragments of liturgical pieces make up the bulk of subseries two, with some notable exceptions such as music for the Russian Empire’s former national anthem, “God Save the Tsar.”

Series XI consists of anthologies of cantorial recitatives and works for cantor and choir.

Series XII consists of manuscripts of Jewish songs and melodies assembled by Abraham Moshe Bernstein in 1926 for the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Vilna. The collection includes Shabbes-zmires (Sabbath hymns and melodies), holiday, religious, ritual, and secular songs, as well as Hasidic melodies (nigunim) and folk songs. Hasidic sources for the nigunim include the Barkover, Gerer, Talner, Czortkover, Libishayer, Lubavitcher, Stoliner, Slonimer, Kosover, and others. More “secular” musical sources were collected from schools, including from yeshivas of Volozhin, Vilkomir, Lechowicze, Nowogródek, Slobodka, Slonim, Kleck,, and others. The bulk of the materials are from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Russia, more specifically from: Aleksandrovsk, Ostrowo, Bialystok, Berditshev, Dabrowice, Dvinsk, Warsaw, Vitebsk, Vilna, Vilkomir, Vladimir, Khomsk, Lomza, Lwow, Swislocz, Stolin, Slutsk, Semiatycze, Pinsk, Kovno, Kolomyja, Kamieniec, Kosow, Krakinove, Krementshug, Radvits, and Ejszyszki. There are also some materials that were acquired and sent from from Breslau, Germany, Boston and New York, as well as Sephardic and Yemenite melodies from Palestine. Several musical scores composed for texts by the poets, Dovid Fishman, A. Zak, H. N. Bialik, and Zalmen Shneur are also included.

Some noteworthy works include: the song “Riboyne-shel-oylem” that the Lubavitch Rebbe sang as he was being released from prison; a melody heard in a production of Sholem Aleichem’s play Mazl-Tov; possibly an original melody in a setting of The Dybbuk by Ansky; the melody “Tsur misheloy” (a “table nigun” sung before the blessing following a meal) that was received from R’Avrom Yankev HaKohen of Vilna, who heard it from his father, R’Shloyme HaKohen, and Vilner who in turn remembered it sung by his father R’Yisroel Moyshe HaKohen; dance-themes annotated by an old musician in Święciany.


  • Creation: 1878-1936
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1898-1931

Language of Materials

The collection is in Hebrew, Yiddish, with some Russian, Polish, and German.

Access Restrictions

The physical collection is closed.

Use Restrictions

The images, documents, film footage, audio materials, and texts displayed in any portion of this web site may be copyrighted. Permission to use this web site is given on condition that the user agrees to follow U.S. copyright laws. The user agrees that they assume liability for any copyright violations resulting from unauthorized use of items appearing on this web site and to hold YIVO harmless from any action involving copyright infringement. It is the responsibility of the user to carry out a due diligence search under U.S. copyright laws to determine the copyright status of items displayed on this web site.

Biographical / Historical

Abraham Moshe Bernstein (Avrom-Moyshe Bernshteyn) was born in the village of Shatsk, in the Russian Minsk province (today Shatsk, Belarus) in 1866 (some sources vary on the year, possibly 1865), the sixth child of moderately well-to-do parents.1 In 1870 he was sent to kheyder (a Jewish religious elementary school), where he experienced an autocratic, clamorous, and overwhelming environment, to the point that he became physically ill. 2 A young student in the town’s beys-medresh (study house) in 1871, Abraham excelled in his studies, and displayed great vocal talent and musical aptitude while assisting his father, an amateur cantor, during religious services.3

In 1875, Bernstein left his hometown to attend the Yeshiva in Minsk, where he crossed paths with the famous khazn (cantor) Yisroel Minsker, a Ba'al Tefillah (the reader of prayers) known for his exemplary diction and sweet hazzanut (cantorial singing and chanting). Deeply inspired by the cantor’s brilliance, Bernstein joined Yisroel Minsker’s choir as a young chorister; however, the less refined behaviors and attitudes of the other choir members troubled him, and he subsequently left the choir. In 1876, he also suffered a great personal loss, the death of his beloved mother. 4

Having left the Minsk Yeshiva in 1879, he spent the next two years studying at the famous Mir Yeshiva in Poland (today Belarus). Greatly dissatisfied with the prevailing lack of idealism, musicality, style, and religious devotion in the hazzanut circles he encountered, he left the Mir Yeshiva and proceeded to search for a cantorial apprenticeship that would better suit his own high standards and expectations.5 In 1884 he arrived in Kovno (today Kaunas) and befriended the renowned Cantor Raphael Yehudah Rabinowitch of the Kovno Khor-shul (Choral Synagogue).6 Under Rabinowitch’s intensive tutelage and mentorship, Bernstein was appointed cantorial assistant and choir master.7 He attended a local music school in Kovno where he studied general music history and musical theory,8 while also focusing on Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and Russian literature. Around this time his compositional ambitions grew more serious, and he completed the musical settings to the songs “Am olam” (Eternal People) with text by Mordekhai Tzvi Mane, and “Zamd un shtern” (Sand and Stars), with text by Shmuel Frug.9

In 1888, Bernstein assumed the role of cantor at the choral synagogue Adas Yeshurun, in Bialystok (Białystok),10 and the following year worked as a choir master for the renowned Cantor Baruch Leib Rosowsky in the Great Choral Synagogue in Riga.11 In 1891 (varying sources mark the year as 1893) he became the first cantor of the choral synagogue Taharat Hakodesh in Vilna (Vilnius),12 and held that position for nearly thirty years. This was a period of great musical growth and development for Bernstein — he not only composed numerous cantorial pieces, but also published a substantial number of religious songs, children’s songs, and folk songs. He married Lina Ansell in 1893, and would eventually go on to father six children.

The turbulence of the German occupation of Vilna (1915-1918) did not impede Bernstein’s professional work and musical output. During this time, he conducted the famous Hazamir Choir (The Nightingale) in Vilna and the student choir of the professional training school for Jewish tradesmen, Hilf durkh arbet (Help Through Work). He also worked as the musical director of the Jewish musical organization and choir Bene asaf (The Sons of Assaf). Some of Bernstein’s compositional highlights of these years included: the musical setting of Y.L. Peretz’s dramatic poem Dos fremde khupe kleyd, (The Strange Wedding Gown) performed several times on local stages; music for S. Ansky’s poems “Mayn lid” (My Song) and “Der shnayderl” (The Tailor); publication of a collection of 150 Hebrew and Yiddish children’s songs, a solfege manual for children, and the song “Herzl’s yortsayt: troyer lid far a gemishtn khor un klavier” (Herzl’s yortsayt: mournful song for mixed choir and piano), with text by M. Shiva, published in a supplement to the weekly Zionist Vilna publication Unzer osed (Our Future). 13

In 1919 Bernstein became involved with the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Vilna,14 the successor of the Society of Friends of Jewish Antiquity founded in 1913 by L.V. Frenkel and the Historic Commission founded by the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah. The Society’s purpose was to document the effects of the first World War on Jewish communities. Bernstein attended a meeting on February 23, 1919 and helped to devise the organization's musical goals and activities.15 That year he also published the music to the song “Tsum hemerl” (To the Little Hammer), with text by Abraham Reisen. On December 8, 1920, he attended a memorial evening for S. Ansky, where under his direction a choir performed his musical setting of Ansky’s poems “Mayn lid” (My Song) and “Der shnayderl” (The Tailor), as well as Lazare Saminsky’s setting of Ansky’s ”Di nakht” (The Night).

A significant shift in Bernstein’s musical career occurred in 1921 when he resigned from his thirty-year post as cantor at Taharat Hakodesh. Although his departure was a result of disagreements with gaboim (synagogal managerial heads) about musical direction, the congregation and Vilna community as a whole remained devoted to him. He taught music in Vilna Hebrew schools and in such secular institutions as the Mefitsei Haskalah school, where he structured special musical curricula. He organized a male choir at the Vilna Teachers’ Seminary, and continued to write musical criticism and articles for various publications, and even composed a children’s operetta titled Snow White, with text in Hebrew.

In 1927, under the auspices of the S. Ansky Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society, Bernstein published what is considered one of his greatest works, the Muzikalisher pinkes, a collection of zemirot (Jewish hymns), and religious folk songs mainly of Hassidic origin. He also translated Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) into Yiddish.

Abraham Moshe Bernstein died on June 16, 1932, in Vilna.


  1. M. Bernstein, pp. 15-17; Sherman, pp.1-3.
  2. M. Bernstein, pp. 15-17.
  3. M. Bernstein, pp. 15-17; Sherman, pp.1-3.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. A.M. Bernstein, “Yidishe shul," pp. 4-8.
  7. Stolnitz.
  8. Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, pp. 367-369.
  9. M. Bernstein, pp.15-17.
  10. M. Bernstein, pp. 15-17; Sherman, pp.1-3.
  11. A.M. Bernstein, "Vi azoy ikh bin," p. 9.
  12. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, pp. 403-405.
  13. A.M. Bernstein, “Di Muzik in Vilne," pp. 683-688.
  14. Shalit.
  15. Ibid.


Bernstein, A.M. “Di muzik in vilne far der tsayt fun di okyupatsye” (Music in Vilna During the Time of the Occupation). In Pinkes far der geshikhte fun Vilne in di yorn fun milkhome un okyupatsie. Vilna: 1922.

Bernstein, A.M. “Yidishe shul muzik un r.y. rabinovitsh” (Jewish Synagogue Music and R.Y. Rabinowitch). Di khazonim-velt, no.7 (1934): 4-8.

Bernstein, A.M. “Vi azoy ikh bin gevorn dirigent bay rosovsky” (How I Became Rosowsky’s Choir Master). Di khazonim-velt, no. 10 (1934): 9.

Bernstein, Maier. “A.m. bernshtayn: zikhroynes iber mayn bruder” (A.M. Bernstein: Remembrances of My Brother). Di khazonim-velt, no.9 (1934):15-17.

“Fule reshime fun a.m. bernshtayns kompozitsies” (Complete List of the Musical Works of A.M. Bernstein). Di khazonim-velt, no. 7 (1934): 8-10.

Koss, Andrew N. “World War I and the Remaking of Jewish Vilna, 1914-1918.” PhD thesis. Stanford University, 2010.

Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature). Vol. I. New York: 1956.

Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of Jewish Literature). Vol I. Vilna: 1926.

Sherman, Pinkhos. “A.m. bernshtayn: tsu zayn tsveytn yortsayt” (A.M. Bernstein: On the Second Anniversary of His Death). Di khazonim-velt, no. 7 (1934): 1-3.

Shalit, Moshe. Preface. In Muzikalisher pinkas by A.M. Bernstein. Vol. I. Vilna: 1927.

Stolnitz, Nathan. Negine in yidishn lebn (Music in Jewish Life). Toronto: Morris Print, 1957.

Zaludkowski, Eliyahu. Kultur-treger fun der yidisher liturgye (Culture Bearers of the Jewish Liturgy). Detroit, Mich.: 1930.


4 Linear Feet


This collection contains papers of Abraham Moshe Bernstein, a renowned cantor, choir master, composer of Jewish liturgical and secular music, music teacher, musicologist, writer, and translator. The bulk of the materials consists of Bernstein’s liturgical compositions and arrangements in both published and manuscript form, as well as a substantial collection of manuscripts and published works by various composers and arrangers. The materials include Hasidic folk songs and melodies, religious songs, Jewish hymns, popular songs, children’s songs, operettas, liturgical pieces, and musical exercises for students; choral volumes and partbooks; unidentified and fragmented musical manuscripts; manuscripts of Bernstein’s own writings; personal correspondence; a photo of Bernstein on his deathbed; secular and religious songs, Sabbath hymns, Hasidic folk songs and melodies, assembled by Bernstein for the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Vilna.


The collection is paginated (except for the Addendum), and is arranged in the following series:

  1. Published Musical Works by A.M. Bernstein, undated, 1898-1931
  2. Published Material About Bernstein, 1933
  3. Musical Manuscripts by Bernstein, undated, 1914
  4. Works Possibly by Bernstein, undated
  5. Fragments and Unidentified Works, undated
  6. Literary Manuscripts by Bernstein, undated
  7. Documents Relating to Bernstein, 1924-1928
  8. Choral Volumes and Partbooks, undated
  9. Published Music by Various Composers, undated, 1878-1936
  10. Musical Manuscripts by Various Composers, undated, 1878, 1912-1927
  11. Supplements: Bound Collections, undated
  12. Addendum: Folk Music Collection From the S. Ansky Historical Ethnographic Society, 1919-1932

Custodial History

The A.M. Bernstein papers were originally deposited at the YIVO in Vilna in 1937. The materials were looted by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (German: Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or ERR) and sent to Germany in 1942/1943. These papers were recovered by the YIVO (Vilna) and sent to the YIVO (New York) in 1947.

Acquisition Information

Materials were recieved from the YIVO (Vilna) in 1947. Supplementary material was contributed by the Punski family in 1974.

Other Finding Aids

The original finding aid created by Albert Weisser and Chana Mlotek, with extensive historical and biographical noes, can be found at Materials donated by the Punski family (found in the original finding aid in Series XII:Supplements C-D: Biographical Materials) were processed, found to be out of the scope of the Abraham Moshe Bernstein Collection, and subsequently removed.

Related Materials

The Abraham Moshe Bernstein Collection contains materials assembled by Bernstein for the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Vilna. The main portion of the Society’s materials are found in the YIVO collection Records of the YIVO Ethnographic Committee (RG 1.2). Materials related to the Taharat Hakodesh Synagogue where Bernstein taught for thirty years can be found in the Vilna Collection (RG 29) and in the Music Vilna Archives (RG 7) addendum.

Processing Information

The materials were initially processed by Albert Weisser in 1969. The addendum was processed in 1984 by Chana Mlotek, as part of the Max and Frieda Weinstein Music Project. The finding aid was completed and encoded by Shayna Goodman in 2011. In 2021, during processing and digitizing for the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project, some of the materials were slightly rearranged. Although the contents of folders were kept largely intact, some items were shifted among folders in order to create a more coherent arrangement.

Abraham Moshe Bernstein Collection 1878-1936 RG 36
Originally processed by Albert Weisser in 1969. The addendum was processed by Chana Mlotek in 1984. Additional processing of materials by Shayna Goodman in 2011. Finding aid edited by Marek Web. Materials further arranged and prepared for digitization by Devora Geller. Finding aid edited and finalized by Beata Kasiarz in 2021.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English, with some renderings of names and titles also in Yiddish.
Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional funding provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through the Save America’s Treasures Grant. Earlier work funded by the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation and the CJH Holocaust Resource Initiative from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany.

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

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