Leonard Bernstein: Jewish America's Favorite (Musical) Son

A celebrated American composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist who infused his work with his Jewish heritage

Print this page Print this page

At least one point that Bernstein wanted to prove was that the Catholic liturgy had clear antecedents in Jewish tradition. The Sanctus section of the Mass has the boys choir singing "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts"--in Hebrew. Barukh haba be-shem Adonai (Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord) takes on a very different meaning in the context of Catholic worship, but Bernstein accomplished an important educational mission by juxtaposing the two traditions.

The Dybbuk Ballet

Bernstein realized a long-held dream with his 1974 ballet suite, Dybbuk. For years he had toyed with the idea of writing a composi­tion based upon Anski's play. He had also been eager to work again with choreographer Jerome Robbins, with whom he had collabo­rated on West Side Story. By the time he approached the project he added another ingredient to the mix, one that derived from the premise of the story itself and that Bernstein later claimed infused every note of the music--Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism]....

It is impossible for the listener to hear Bernstein's kabbalistic... machinations in the music. What one does hear is a remarkable work, at once contemporary and original, yet infused with the folk spirit of Eastern Europe. Its movements honor the pro­tagonists in Anski's play, but they also pay tribute to Bernstein's fore­bears and to his strong sense of connectedness to his Jewish heritage.

The workaholic Bernstein was often criticized for not focusing on one musical pursuit. Many felt that he would have achieved even greater success had he focused exclusively on either conducting or composing (and excluded the teaching and piano performance that remained an important and fulfilling part of his life). Bernstein's admirers recognized the multiple interests that drove the man throughout his life and the unique combination of talents that enabled him to succeed in so many venues. The Jewish community benefited as much as any segment of the music world. In particular, Bernstein made an important contribution to concert repertoire, demonstrating convincingly that music can have a decidedly "Jewish" agenda while retaining its "universal" appeal.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.