“Maestro” – A Model for Our Times

Board Meeting “Dvarling” from Rabbi Jan

Tuesday, December 26, 2024 / 14 Tevet 5794 (full moon)

Jaimie Bernstein ruminates in an article in the online blog, Kveller, this past week about her father, Leonard Bernstein, and the new film biopic, Maestro, and her own autobiography about to be published.

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Ukrainian Jewish parents — his early exposure to music was on Friday services at his family’s shul. His father Sam owned a successful garment company and was a Talmud scholar by night. “The cherry on top of his whole immigrant success story was going to be to hand over his successful business to his son Leonard to run,” Bernstein says. Sam was not an early supporter of Leonard’s choice to become a musician, as Jamie explains: “In the old country, a musician was a klezmer shabby vagrant with a beat-up fiddle who would slip on foot from shtetl to shtetl, and play at a wedding or a bar mitzvah for a few kopecks and a bowl of gruel.”

After Bernstein had his Cinderella-like conducting debut and he became famous overnight, some journalist got wind that his father was so desperate to discourage his son that he wouldn’t even pay for his piano lessons,” Jamie recalls. “So the journalist confronted the father saying: ‘Is it true that you wouldn’t pay for your son’s piano lessons?’ And Bernstein’s father immortally replied, ‘Well, how was I supposed to know he would turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?’”

Jamie Bernstein chronicles in her book her father’s lifelong struggle with his spirituality and his lifelong argument with his spiritual maker through his musical compositions all the way through his life. So many of his pieces engage in a kind of fist-shaking at the heavens, as if he were reproaching God, crying out in frustration: “You know, if you’re up there taking care of us, why is everything such a mess down here? And why are we also horrible to each other? And what are You gonna do about it? And, You know, who’s minding the store anyway? Of course, this is a very Talmudic thing to do, to argue with God.”

“The maestro went back and forth a lot between being optimistic and feeling like humankind was getting better, and then getting very pessimistic and feeling like we weren’t getting anywhere… the act that made him feel like it was possible to go forward was, in fact, the act of making music. That’s what made him feel like he could go on.”

One thing is clear to Jamie: Leonard Bernstein — the known activist, the man who stood against the Vietnam War and nuclear armament, who raised money for AIDS research and fought for civil rights; the man who, towards the end of his life, conducted a symphony as the Berlin Wall came down — would have a hard time witnessing the state of the world, the war in Ukraine, the Trump presidency, the stripping away of reproductive rights, the anti-gay legislation rearing its head, and the horror and tragedy of October 7. 

Leonard Bernstein’s legacy to his daughter is reminiscent of a story about an 18th-century Hassidic sage, Zusya of Hanipol.  When Rabbi Zusha was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”

Let’s find models and heroes wherever we can in this moment.  Let’s find ways to cope with our sadness, fear, frustration, and powerlessness.  Let’s find ways to empower and propel ourselves toward tikkun olam, even in the midst of our existential calamity.  Let’s show up, speak our mind, walk the talk, and practice our skills in listening and embracing those we love and those who we hope and pray will learn to love us back, a tough but necessary path forward.