Throughout the last year, American cultural institutions have been celebrating the life of Leonard Bernstein. The celebrated composer, conductor and educator who died at the age of 72 in 1990 would have turned 100 on Aug. 25, and his centennial has produced a torrent of retrospective praise and appreciation for one of the musical giants of the 20th century.
That means more opportunities to see shows like “West Side Story,” his many brilliant ballets and to hear some of his more ponderous creations like “Mass” or his symphonies. But it’s also an apt moment not merely to assess his enormous impact on American culture, but to understand his life and career as a symbol of all that is great—and fallible—in the American Jewish community that produced him.
Not only was Bernstein the composer of beloved musicals, as well as one of the most admired classical conductors of the post-war era. He was also America’s music educator-in-chief via his long-running series of televised concerts explaining the art form to young people. His ability to bridge the already yawning chasm between popular and classical music with his Broadway hits proved unique. And in an era of only a few television channels—when the classics were not yet cordoned off as a preserve for only the small niche of consumers—Bernstein’s perch at CBS, which regularly broadcast his New York Philharmonic concerts in prime time, gave him the sort of influence that no artist of any kind could possibly attain today.
But Bernstein was more than just a famous maestro, composer and television personality. He can also be seen as the symbol of 20th-century American Jewry, whose accomplishments exemplified the communal drive for secular achievement, along with a social conscience that was self-consciously rooted in Jewish tradition. Perhaps no other American Jew became quite so accepted on his own terms by the secular world while at the same time demonstrating loyalty to Jewish causes, including Israel. Yet he also would become known—to his sorrow—as the quintessentially foolish Jewish limousine liberal and the poster child for what writer Tom Wolfe memorably and devastatingly labeled “radical chic.”
Like so many composers of his era, Bernstein traced his musical roots to the melodies of the synagogue he attended as a child, even if religion played little role in his life. He was not only a product of Jewish culture; his life and work symbolized the striving of a largely immigrant community for achievement and acceptance that would lead Jews from the margins of society to positions of eminence. His public persona was also a product of a Jewish culture that saw promoting social and political causes as being part of the obligations of citizenship.
One of the causes he embraced throughout his career was support for Israel.
While we live in a time when celebrity visits to Israel are clouded by controversy and debate, Bernstein’s willingness to go there in times of war as well as peace is remarkable. As a young conductor, he journeyed to what was then still the British Mandate for Palestine in 1947 to conduct the orchestra that would soon become the Israel Philharmonic at a time when Arab attacks on Jews were escalating. A year later, he would return during the War of Independence and perform during air raids and artillery fire. Indeed, Bernstein’s arrival in Beersheva to conduct a concert for Israeli troops shortly after Egyptian invaders had been pushed out actually had an impact on the fighting. According to historians, the Egyptians interpreted the massing of thousands of troops in the town to come hear the music as a prelude to an attack and withdrew their forces deeper into the Negev. As Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann said of the incident, it never occurred to the enemy that so many Jews “would take time in war to listen to a Mozart concerto.”
Just as memorable was the concert he conducted in July 1967 to commemorate the unification of Jerusalem—one that produced an international best-selling album called “Hatikvah on Mount Scopus,” whose opening anthem still gives listeners chills. Among his many compositions that deserve to be heard again is his “Halil,” a wonderful chamber work that paid tribute to the life of a talented young Israeli flutist killed in fighting during the Yom Kippur War so that the Jewish state might live.
Sadly, after years of activism on behalf of civil rights, Bernstein would also succumb to the radicalism of his era. When he and his wife hosted a fundraiser in their Manhattan apartment for the Black Panthers, a violent gang of thugs posing as activists, the blowback dealt a cruel blow to his image and even earned him an editorial rebuke from The New York Times. But the real damage came from Tom Wolfe’s June 1970 New York magazine article, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” a 25,000-word skewering of the maestro and his guests from which Bernstein never entirely recovered.
In this way, it’s easy to see that Bernstein embodied all of the strengths, in addition to some of the weaknesses, of a community that didn’t abandon pride in its Jewish heritage, but also fell prey to secular ideologies that would play no small role in undermining Jewish identity in the decades that followed.
Still, it would be wrong to remember Bernstein principally for this folly. In many ways, his life symbolizes the best about 20th-century American Jewry. He brought the passion of music to generations of young Americans and created great works that will probably live forever. The same goes for his many recordings as one of the great conductors of this or any era. And he lived his life as a proud Jew and a friend of the Jewish state in a way that should serve as a model for contemporary artists. At 100, may his memory be for a blessing.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.