This year would have marked the 100th birthday of superstar conductor, composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein, and like Jewish communities around the world, Philadelphia is celebrating Bernstein’s incredible legacy. The Philadelphia Orchestra is performing Bernstein’s works this season, including on its June tour and mission to Israel in partnership with our Jewish Federation. And beginning March 16th, the National Museum of Jewish History will host the first-ever large-scale Bernstein exhibition, Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, examining Bernstein’s life and work through a Jewish lens. Before you see this landmark exhibition, here’s a primer on the American treasure who was also a true Jewish Gem.
Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 to Ukrainian Jewish parents, and grew up listening to traditional Jewish melodies and folk tunes as well as classical music. He studied at Harvard University and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia before becoming assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1943. His debut came with no notice when a guest conductor fell ill, but the concert was nationally broadcast on CBS, and Bernstein’s exemplary performance made him an overnight sensation. At the same time, his compositions were also receiving acclaim: his Jeremiah Symphony, written in response to early reports of the Holocaust, premiered in 1944; shortly followed by the musical On the Town. He would go on to compose even more famous works, including West Side Story and On the Waterfront, which would help him become a household name.
Mentors had encouraged Bernstein to change that Jewish-sounding name, but he refused, retorting that he would “do it as ‘Bernstein’ or not at all.” His Jewish identity was deeply ingrained, informing his compositions and unique style, such as his Kaddish Symphony No.3, a Hebrew oratorio he dedicated to the memory of President Kennedy; Dybbuk Ballet, based on a classic Yiddish story; and Chalil, a nocturne he dedicated to the memory of an Israeli flutist killed in the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur War. Bernstein’s Judaism even informed some surprising musical details. He once told a reporter, “‘The gang call’ — the way the Jets signal to each other — in West Side Story was really like the call of the shofar that I used to hear blown in temple on Rosh Hashanah.”
Bernstein was also an early and passionate champion of Israel. He first conducted the Palestine Philharmonic in 1947. He returned in 1948 at the height of the Arab-Israeli war and, determined to show support for the IDF, rounded up musicians to perform for the troops. He would go on to conduct the Palestine/Israel Philharmonic in 25 different seasons. But perhaps no performance was more memorable than when Bernstein arrived for a concert on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus just after the 1967 Six-Day War. Yitzhak Rabin would later describe it as his greatest life experience: watching the Israel Philharmonic play as Bernstein, tears streaming down his face, conducted Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.
Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music will be on display at the National American Jewish Museum March 16th-September 2nd. For tickets visit here.