Bernstein Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bernstein Surname Meaning

When Jewish people were obligated to take surnames in the early 19th century, they often chose ornamental names.  The German word stein or “stone” was a popular suffix, as with Bernstein – meaning “amber” plus “stone.”

Bernstein and Berenstein were surname variants in Lithuania. Some Bernsteins only became Bernsteins after they had made the long journey from their home country to America.

Bernstein Surname Resources on The Internet

Bernstein Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, England and South Africa

Bernsteins emigrated to America from Germany, Russia, and Poland, the main countries of Jewish settlement and Yiddish culture in central and eastern Europe in the 19th century. Well-known Bernsteins in Russia have been the chess grandmaster Ossip Bernstein and the neurophysiologist Nikolai Bernstein. The Bernstein name is invariably Jewish in America but not necessarily.

America. The peak years for Bernstein immigration into the United States were from 1890 to 1910. They came mainly to the cities of the East.

New York drew many Bernsteins, such as:

  • Meyer and Anna Bernstein, who arrived in New York from Ukraine in the early 1880’s. Their first-born Harry was born in 1885.
  • Morris and Frieda Bernstein, who came from Poland in the mid 1880’s and settled in Brooklyn.
  • the writer Herman Bernstein, who came from Russia in 1893. He was an editor of the Jewish Tribune and later a correspondent for the New York Times.
  • Joe Bernstein, who was one of the first great fighters to emerge from the Lower East Side of New York. Nicknamed “the pride of the ghetto,” his fighting career lasted from 1894 to 1902.
  • while later came Edward and Selma Bernstein. Their son Elmer Bernstein, born in New York in 1922, became a well-known composer for scores of film and TV productions over a fifty year career.

Al Bernstein, born in New York in 1911 to a Bernstein immigrant tailor, graduated from Columbia Law School and moved to Washington DC in 1937.  There he he became a prominent trade union and civil rights activist, investigated in the 1950’s for suspected Communist leanings.

His son Carl Bernstein, a reporter with the Washington Post, became famous with Bob Woodward in the 1970’s for their role in revealing the Watergate scandal.

Elsewhere.  Samuel Bernstein came to Massachusetts from Ukraine in 1908. His son Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence ten years later, was the much acclaimed music composer and conductor.  His career breakthrough came at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1943.

In 1922 Mandell Bernstein began practicing law in Detroit. He has been followed by three generations of Bernstein lawyers.

England. One Bernstein family from Poland made it to the milltown of Stockport in Lancashire. Their son Harry, born there in 1913, was raised on a poverty-stricken street where Jews and Christians were strictly divided. He later became a writer and described his brutish upbringing.

“Bernstein recounted his childhood experiences at the hands of his rough-dealing harsh father who once dragged his sister Lily through the streets by the hair and forced her to forgo her educational ambitions and work for almost slave wages at a tailoring shop.”

Alexander Bernstein had arrived in London from Latvia in the 1890’s and did well as a property developer who was an early venturer into cinemas. His son Sidney Bernstein achieved fame and success as one of the founders of commercial TV in Britain in the 1950’s.

Meanwhile another Bernstein immigrant family, this time from Lithuania, found themselves in Merthyr Tydfil in the coal valleys of Wales. Mark Bernstein had arrived there in 1910 and started a market stall. His five sons all became involved in the business.

Dr. Robert Bernstein is the fourth of five generations of doctors in his family who have studied medicine at Cambridge and University College Hospital and trained in London.

South Africa. Lionel Rusty Bernstein was born into a Jewish emigrant family in Durban in 1920. With his wife Hilda he became an outspoken critic of apartheid and spent much of that time in exile.

Bernstein Surname Miscellany

Stein and Company.  Bernstein ranks #3 among the Jewish Stein names in America.  The table below shows the eight most common Stein names in America, listed according to their frequency.

Surname Meaning A Notable
1. Stein stone Joseph Stein, writer of Fiddler on the Roof
2. Goldstein gold + stone Vida Goldstein, Australian
3. Bernstein amber + stone Leonard Bernstein, American
4. Epstein boar + stone Jacob Epstein, British sculptor
5. Silverstein silver + stone Abe Silverstein, American
pioneer in the space program
6. Finkelstein carbuncle + stone Norman Finkelstein, American
Holocaust expert
7. Feinstein fine + stone Moshe Feinstein, American
Orthodox rabbi
8. Rubinstein ruby + stone Arthur Rubinstein, famous pianist

Other famous -steins are Einstein, Eisenstein, and Hammerstein.  Stein also appears as a prefix in surnames, such as Steiner, Steinitz, Steinbeck, and Steinway.

Bernsteins in America.  Bernsteins emigrated to America from a number of countries.

Country Numbers Percent
Russia   470    44
Germany   412    38
Poland   118    11
Elsewhere    79     7

Alexander and Sidney Bernstein.  Alexander Bernstein was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who had come to the East End of London in the 1890’s and prospered.

He had been what would nowadays be known as a property developer; and, in an effort to make the various housing estates he built seem attractive, he usually acquired either a music hall or a picture palace in the vicinity.   In 1906 he built his first music hall, the Edmonton Empire.  By 1914 he had created a budding entertainments group, including a number of early cinemas (the known as ‘flickers’) and a film-renting business.

When his elder sons Sidney and Cecil inherited the business in 1922, they found themselves the owners of two music halls which also ran as cinemas.  They decided to sell the building business and – with the help of two younger brothers – to create a cinema chain across the south of England.  Cinemas made the Bernsteins wealthy and gave Sidney a lifelong interest in show business.

It remains an open question whether – but for the coming of commercial television – Sidney Bernstein would not have drifted into being simply a rich man.  But the opening up of ITV offered him a fresh world to conquer.  In his mid-fifties he was at the height of his powers and the new medium afforded him just the kind of challenge for which all his earlier life now seemed to be a mere apprenticeship.

At long last, he could put the ‘roll-up, roll-up’ audience philosophy of Barnum into creative action, while at the same time demonstrating that ITV could more than match the BBC in quality standards.  Sidney Bernstein created Granada Television and the studio which had its first success with the still-running Coronation Street.

Leonard Bernstein’s Rise to Fame.  He was born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jewish parents.  His grandmother insisted that his first name be Louis, but his parents always called him Leonard.

Despite his surname he was not related to film composer Elmer Bernstein, although the two men were friends.  Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard).

His father Sam initially opposed young Leonard’s interest in music. A shy and sickly child, he had fallen in love with music after a relative gave his family an old, weathered upright piano.  Later the elder Bernstein took him to orchestra concerts in his teenage years and eventually supported his music education.

Leonard got his big break in 1940 when he met Serge Koussevitsky, who was to be his chief mentor during his early years, at the Berkshire music festival.  On Koussevitsky’s recommendation two years later, Artur Rodzinski made Bernstein his assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic.

The suddenness of this appointment was replaced only by the dramatic events of November 14, 1943.  With less than 24 hours’ notice and no rehearsal, Bernstein substituted for the sick Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall and led the Philharmonic through a difficult program that he had barely studied.  By the concert’s end the audience knew it had witnessed the debut of a born conductor. The New York Times ran a front-page story the following morning and Bernstein’s career as a public figure had begun.

Leonard Bernstein the Maestro.  Bradley Cooper’s film Maestro about Leonard Bernstein, released in November 2023, begins in 1943 with Bernstein at home, aged just twenty-five, receiving the phone call summoning him to Carnegie Hall to step in a conductor of the Phiharmonic without rehearsal.

However, the film mainly focuses on the complex relationship between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre.  Bernstein remained attractive to men and had male lovers throughout their marriage.  Felicia had essentially entered into their relationship and its arrangement with open eyes.

Bradley Cooper is unafraid to make Bernstein unsympathetic at times; while Felicia eventually broke down as the arrangement took its toll.

Carl Bernstein and Loyalties.  After Carl Bernstein became famous as an investigative journalist because of the Watergate scandal, he ran wild and this included sleeping with the British Ambassador’s wife.  So no one knew quite what to expect when he wrote his memoir Loyalties in 1989.  It turned out to be a critique on his parents.

His parents were among the many radicalized by politics during the 1930’s. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Al Bernstein went to Washington and threw himself into the movement to unionize government workers. His wife Sylvia was drawn into left-wing politics by the Spanish Civil War. Both felt they were carrying out the principles of the New Deal.

The Bernsteins joined the Communist Party while living in San Francisco.  Whether in the party or out, they spent their lives within the broad Old Left community. Both were interrogated by congressional committees and saw friendships shatter and job prospects disappear. For some years Al Bernstein ran a Washington laundromat.

And Carl Bernstein’s reaction in Loyalties?  It seems that he cannot exorcise the “vast reservoir of anger” that his upbringing created.

He sees the decision by his parents to join the Communist party in 1942 as recklessly endangering the family’s prospects.  Instead of organizing to save the Rosenbergs, his mother should have organized her “chaotic” household.  And his parents should have joined a country club and devoted their energy to some apolitical Jewish youth organization.

Bezbrozh to Bernstein.  Shulem Bezbrozh, born in Ukraine in 1885, was the fourth child of Meyer and Chana Bezbrozh.  He married Sukra Hegelinski there before coming to America.

Shulem was the first Bezbrozh to come to the United States, arriving somewhere between 1913 and 1915, and he sponsored many of the other Bezbrozh relatives who came to the U.S. in the 1920’s.  After Shulem came to the U.S., he changed his name to Sam Bernstein, but many people continued to refer to him as “Uncle Shulem.”  Surka changed her name to Sarah.

Shulam and Surka had two children: Yankel Bezbrozh who became Jack Bernstein and Anna Bezbrozh who became Anita Bernstein.

Herman Bernstein in Albania.  Herman Bernstein had met Herbert Hoover at the Paris Peace Conference and had supported his bid for the presidency in 1928.  In return Hoover appointed Bernstein as the United States minister to Albania in 1930, a position he held until 1933.

He was on good terms at that time with Albania’s King Zog.  Indeed Bernstein was the source of the only autobiographical material of Zog, “the life story of the Albanian ruler told by himself in the third person,” as written down by Bernstein.

Ambassador Bernstein, being Jewish, took a keen interest in exploring Jewish history in Albania.  He did in fact find evidence of a large Jewish community there in the 15th and 16th centuries.  He thought it likely in 1935 that Albania might again offer asylum to the new Jewish wanderers who found doors closed elsewhere. Albanians were in fact proud of their record during World War Two when not a single Jew was handed over to the Nazis.

Bernstein Names

  • Leonard Bernstein was a much acclaimed American conductor and composer. His best known work was West Side Story. He was for a long time the music director and principal conductor for the New York Philharmonic.
  • Elmer Bernstein was an American composer best known for his film scores. He was a friend but no relation of Leonard Bernstein.
  • Sidney Bernstein progressed from show business to being one of Britain’s first TV barons, the founder of the the Granada Group in the 1950’s.
  • Sid Bernstein is an American music producer and promoter, the man who brought the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to America in the 1960’s.
  • Carl Bernstein sprang to fame as the Washington Post investigative journalist into Watergate.

Bernstein Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Bernstein and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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