Sam Stern, longtime S.F. violinist, raconteur, dies at 98

Professional violinist and amateur raconteur Sam Stern was talking to a newspaper reporter at the Jewish Home about three weeks ago when a visitor interrupted.

"Excuse me, are you Sam Stern?" the man asked hesitantly.

Stern, chewing on a bagel, gave the man a once-over.

"Yeah," Stern finally said. "What's it to you?"

"Well, you played at my daughter's bat mitzvah 20 years ago, and I'll never forget it."

"Oh yeah," Stern said, grinning. "Why did you hire me?"

"Because you're the best," the man said."

"You see that?" Stern told the reporter triumphantly. "I didn't even have to pay him to say that. Write that down."

Stern, who rarely shied away from the stage, either personally or professionally, made his last exit on Sunday at the age of 98.

For many years, the violinist was a fixture in the Jewish community. In fact, while still a youth, Stern began placing classifieds in the Emanu-El — the pre-cursor to the Jewish Bulletin — to advertise his expertise as a musician.

Stern was 11 at the time; the date was 1912, the same year the Titanic sunk. It was a tradition Stern repeated on and off for many years.

His final ad appears in the last Jewish Bulletin of the century, on Page 46.

For almost nine decades, Stern performed at countless community events, b'nai mitzvah and weddings. He specialized in Eastern European music, specifically that of his homeland.

"I could play a lot of different styles," Stern recalled in the interview shortly before his death.

"But I always liked playing the music of the Old Country."

Born in the Ukraine in 1901, Stern came with his family to San Francisco shortly after the 1906 earthquake.

He worked as an insurance agent during the Great Depression and then served for many years as a clerk in the San Francisco court system.

But he always supplemented his income by playing the violin. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a performer who combined style with generosity.

Next year, in fact, the Jewish Home will host yet another party with funding provided by the late violinist.

"Every year, Sam would pay for the Jewish Home to have a party. He did it because he was a generous soul, but also because he wanted us to save him a room with a view," Marc Friedlander, the Home's director of activities, said laughing.

"Sam was a true celebrity," Friedlander added. "All the native San Franciscans at the Home were thrilled that he was staying there. So many of them had grown up with his music. And so did their children and grandchildren."

Stern's fellow musicians also remembered him fondly as the consummate performer — both on and off the stage.

"Sammy was something else, a real character. You could never get Sammy off the stage. You had to think of an excuse to leave because Sammy would forget to take a break," recalled Israel "Izzy" Rosenbaum, a violinist who played occasionally with Stern for almost half a century.

"Many times, I lied about having to use the restroom, just to cut out of there," Rosenbaum added. "But Sammy looked out for the people he played with. His favorite expression was, 'Remind me to pay you.' He took care of the details. He always made sure we were paid right away."

Noting Stern's penchant for details, Jerry Levine, the executive director of the Jewish Home, expressed regret that the violinist would no longer be observing one of his annual rituals.

"For almost every one of the 30 years I've been here at the Home, Sam has performed for us. He had more flavor than a dozen people combined. It's really hard for me to believe he's gone."

Stern was the husband of the late Selma Cohen Stern and father of the late Shirley Feiner. He is survived by his son, Dr. Earl Stern of San Francisco; grandchildren Grant, Allison and Marshall Stern, and Howard Feiner; and great-grandchild Jason Feiner. The family held a private service Tuesday at Sinai Memorial Chapel.

Contributions can be made to the Jewish Home, 302 Silver Avenue, S.F., CA 94112.