Sixteen years after his death, Leonard Bernstein can still draw an audience. A recent Bernstein festival at Harvard University, his alma mater, attracted hundreds, including Broadway luminaries, his three children, colleagues and childhood friends. The festival highlighted the research of a group of Harvard students whose yearlong immersion into Bernstein’s Boston roots sheds new light on the influence of Congregation Mishkan Tefila, his family synagogue, and specifically the influence of Solomon Braslavsky, Mishkan Tefila’s vocal director and organist during Bernstein’s youth.
“One of the big holes in our knowledge about Bernstein are real details of what his childhood was like,” said Kay Kaufman Shelemay, professor of music at Harvard University, who, with fellow music professor Carol Oja, taught a seminar at the conference on Bernstein’s childhood years.
Shelemay, an ethnomusicologist whose specialties include Jewish music, said Bernstein was very much a product of Boston. She points to his connection to Congregation Mishkan Tefila, from his bar mitzvah in 1931, to his marriage 20 years later to Felicia Montealegre Cohn, and the bar mitzvah of his son, Alexander, in the late 1960s.
“Everyone assumes he was a New Yorker from the get-go,” Shelemay said. “We knew the basic facts and dates of his childhood but no one had really talked to people who grew up with him.”
“As the seminar progressed, I think we all realized that Bernstein’s identity as a Jew was more deeply embedded in his music and in his early network of professional connections than we had expected,” Oja said.
Who knew that Bernstein spent several summers at his family’s lakeside home directing childhood friends in his own productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and an all-male, mock production of “Carmen,” sprinkled with Yiddish lyrics?
Or that, in 1937, while working as a music counselor at Camp Onota, a camp for Jewish boys in Pittsfield, Bernstein penned an arrangement to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue?”
The premiere of Bernstein’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was performed at the opening concert of the festival, held Oct. 12-14, one of two conducted by Judith Clurman, director of choral activities at the Julliard School in New York. Clurman also conducted Bernstein’s “Kaddish” as part of the closing performance, 16 years after his death on Oct. 14, 1990.
Bernstein’s Boston and Jewish community ties are also evident in his connection to Brandeis University, where he taught with composer Harold Shapero, whose Four Hand Sonata for Piano, was featured in a student performance led by Clurman. In later years, Bernstein established the Festival of Creative Arts at Brandeis, and created a scholarship for music students.
Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Mass., to Ukrainian immigrants Samuel and Jenny Bernstein. Samuel Bernstein led his family on a fast-paced, upwardly mobile trajectory as owner of the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company.
A talmudic scholar, the elder Bernstein joined Mishkan Tefila, the Conservative synagogue dominated by Boston’s well-to-do Eastern European Jews. It was a pioneering congregation in the Conservative movement and possessed an enormous organ, noted Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, who participated in a panel at the festival.
Arriving in the United States from Vienna in 1928, Braslavsky, a trained musician, was intent on introducing beautiful Jewish music into the synagogue.
In letters students found in the Mishkan Tefila archives, Sarna said Bernstein described the music of his synagogue days as some of the most beautiful he had ever heard. Noting the complexity of Braslavsky’s “Adon Olam,” Bernstein wrote, “This is when I discovered that there was such a thing as counterpoint. It was a great composition. It was like an opera.”
In 1973, Bernstein presented a copy of his “Jeremiah Symphony” to Mishkan Tefila.
“I never forgot the tremendous influence your congregation made on me when I was a youngster,” Sarna quoted from the letter during his presentation.
“One wonders if, without Mishkan Tefila, whether Jewish music would have played such a significant role in his life,” Sarna said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.