Leonard Bernstein was an American conductor, composer and pianist who became one of the most renowned figures in American musical history and world-famous as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the composer for such Broadway musicals as West Side Story.
Born to Jewish immigrants in 1918, Bernstein immersed himself in music from an early age, eventually studying music at Harvard University. Some of Bernstein’s musical compositions have clear associations and references to Jewish themes. One of the most obvious is his first symphony, which he conducted at its premiere in 1944. Titled Jeremiah, it follows the life of the biblical prophet. In addition to a soloist singing lines in Hebrew from the book of Lamentations, the second movement’s music is instantly recognizable to Jewish ears as based on the cantillation of the Haftarah.
From early on, Bernstein felt a strong connection to and passion for the people and land of Israel. Deeply affected by his first visit to Israel in 1947, he wrote to his mentor Serge Koussevitzky, “I am simply overcome with this land and its people.” In 1948, Bernstein led the Israel Philharmonic on a whirlwind tour of 40 concerts, conducting under the threat of artillery fire from nearby enemy forces. At one concert, after being called offstage and informed about a possible incoming air raid, Bernstein immediately sat back down at the piano and continued to play.
His most important moment in Israel came on Nov. 20, 1948. The previous day, the United Nations ordered Israel to withdraw its forces from Beersheva, which they had captured a few weeks earlier. Israel refused, and the Israel Defense Forces remained entrenched in this strategic southern city.
The next day, Bernstein and the Philharmonic arrived and put on a concert for the thousands of soldiers holding fort. Held on a makeshift stage at the site of an archaeological dig, the concert was a moving experience for many of the soldiers and for Bernstein as well. Remarkably, the incident also had military consequences. Taking note of what seemed to be a massive buildup of forces in Beersheva, Egypt withdrew some of its forces from Jerusalem to support its southern position, helping to ease the pressure on Israel’s Jerusalem front.
Bernstein maintained his close relationship with Israel throughout his life. Visiting almost every year, he helped develop the Israel Philharmonic into one of the world’s premiere orchestras.