Veterans: The music man

Not everyone loves what they do for a living, but Bernie Marinbach has found his calling.

The music man (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
The music man
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
To open your front door and have a klezmer musician, dressed in full regalia, serenade you with “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” on his clarinet is vaguely surreal.
But that’s what happened when Bernie Marinbach, visiting his sister in Kfar Saba, appeared on my doorstep one morning recently.
Passersby and neighbors enjoyed the impromptu concert. Marinbach is an accomplished musician who has carved out a niche for himself as one of Israel’s best-known klezmer musicians. For 21 years he was member and concert master of the Israel Police Band. This often entailed being out on the street in his police uniform, where people assumed he was a real policeman.
“I was often asked the things people ask policemen, and I never volunteered that I was only a band member,” he says. “I tried to look fierce.”
This would not have been an easy task for the genial Marinbach, who strongly feels that his mission in life is to bring happiness through his music.
He made aliya in 1975 and had no idea he was going to be able to make his living through music, no matter how good he was. He had another string to his bow, so to speak, with a doctorate in history, and he taught history for a while. But music is his life and to this day he can barely believe he is making his living doing something he loves so much.
Marinbach was born in 1946 on New York’s Lower East Side. His whole family is musical and his father was a cantor, as Marinbach is today in the synagogue where he prays in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood.
Later the family moved to Boro Park in Brooklyn, and he describes a turning point that occurred in his life when he was 12 years old. A certain Sam Meltzer walked into his Hebrew day school and offered to start clarinet classes. The principal agreed and the children began learning to play on rented clarinets.
When the year was up, Meltzer told all the children to carry on renting next year but said “Bernie, you buy a clarinet.”
By the age of 16 he was playing professionally and eventually had his own band.
“To this day I thank the principal for taking up the suggestion of Mr. Meltzer,” he says now.
When he decided to make aliya in 1975 he planned to carry on teaching history and make music in his spare time. He taught in Givat Washington High School and later at Tel Aviv University in the Overseas Students’ Unit, but he also used connections he’d made in New York to contact hassidic bands here and offered to play for free so they would hear him.
“With my 15 years of experience I figured I would get in easily, and I did. I got recommendations and after some time joined up with another immigrant, Shalom Brody, and we played together for seven years in the Shalom Band,” he says.
Then in 1980 a traumatic incident brought about a change in his life. He fell from a ladder, badly injuring his right hand. During months of treatment he worried he would not be able to play any more and became increasingly depressed.
“I kept telling myself I still had the history teaching but I realized that all I wanted to do was to play. I made a little vow to myself – if I ever get out of this I’m going to play full-time,” he recalls.
After extensive physiotherapy he was able to play as well as ever and soon after joined the police band, staying with it for 21 years until he retired in 2001.
“After I left the police, I really wanted to play my own music – klezmer music. It means something to me because of the neighborhood I grew up in and the family background.”
Klezmer music has enjoyed a revival in Israel for many years now. Marinbach defines it as music that has developed over the past few hundred years primarily in Eastern Europe and in places where Jewish immigrants settled around the world who originated from Yiddish-speaking cultures.
A good klezmer musician can make his instrument laugh or cry. Marinbach is proficient in saxophone and clarinet, and listening to him is always a delight. He’s recorded many discs and has often appeared on television. He also has a oneman show in which he plays and tells stories, and he is almost as good a raconteur as he is a musician.
“Some musicians play for the art of music, but I come from a different angle,” he says. “Music is to make people happy and that’s one of the reasons I picked klezmer, because it is mostly happy music.”
Today he lives in Jerusalem with his second wife, Yehudit, and their four children.
He is pleased that one of his sons, Assaf, seems to have inherited his musical talents.
An older son from his first marriage is a physiotherapist.
He often goes abroad for gigs but he’s happiest playing his joyful music in Israel where he feels he can alleviate some of the hard times, if only briefly. For Marinbach, it’s his contribution to the country he loves.