Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918 to Sam and Jennie Bernstein, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. Lenny grew up in the Boston area, his family moving frequently—first to Mattapan, then Allston, Roxbury, and Newton. Summers were spent at the family home on a lake in Sharon.
Bernstein was a musical prodigy. As a child he loved to play the piano and organize impromptu concerts and even musicals and operas, featuring himself, naturally, as the star, and with his family and friends taking the supporting roles.
Bernstein said that the first time he heard great music was as a child, listening to the organ, cantor and choir at Congregation Mishkan Tefila under the direction of Solomon Braslavsky. He also attended Hebrew School at Mishkan Tefila and celebrated his bar mitzvah there.
His father Sam came from a long line of rabbis, and Sam himself was deeply involved in the study of Jewish texts, especially the Talmud. But while his passion was Talmud, his work was the beauty supply business, The Sam Bernstein Hair Company. Naturally, Sam wanted Lenny to go into the family business, or if not that, then he should be a rabbi. He simply couldn’t understand his son’s interest in music. Years later in an interview, Sam and asked why he discouraged his son from pursuing a career in music. He replied, “How did I know he would grow up to become Leonard Bernstein?”
In 1957 Bernstein was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, becoming the first American-born music director of any major symphony orchestra. Bernstein was a great conductor, but he was also a great and devoted teacher, a brilliant concert pianist, and a successful composer of both Broadway and “classical” music.
Bernstein also strongly identified Jewishly and was a passionate supporter of Israel. He was a frequent visitor to Israel, guest conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. And many of his compositions have Jewish content, including his Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies, settings of the prayers Hashkivenu and Yigdal, arrangements of Israeli songs Simhu Na and Reena, a piano suite entitled Four Sabras, the Dybbuk ballet, a chamber work entitled Hallil, and the Chichester Psalms. In 1948 Bernstein and Jerome Robbins were working on a musical that was to be called East Side Story. It was to be “a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in the slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Juliet is Jewish. Street brawls, double death—it all fits.”