Historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna visited Philadelphia to introduce the new exhibit on the life of composer Leonard Bernstein at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH).
The exhibit traces Bernstein from birth in 1918 in Massachusetts, through his student days, his studies in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, (where he attended the Curtis Institute) and his debut as a conductor replacing the ailing Bruno Walter. Uniquely among Jewish composers, Bernstein took an active interest in Jewish affairs and Israel, according to Sarna. Memorabilia in the exhibit confirm this, including excerpts from Bernstein’s correspondence, speeches, and orchestral and movie film clips. In his own terms and through his papers, Bernstein emerges as constantly striving to achieve more compositions, more performances and at the same time, to maintain close contacts with family, friends and Jewish life.
Bernstein taught at Brandeis for many years. Sarna was able to offer personal recollections of Bernstein’s musical appearances at Brandeis and the excitement he brought to the students. A Brandeis alumna in the audience told of attending a Bernstein class and later being thrilled to meet his parents, who asked if she knew their “musical son.”
On this 70th anniversary of the founding of Brandeis University Dr. Sarna spoke of the history and condition of Jews in America and the world. Of the American experience he quipped, “Give Jews freedom and they don’t do too badly.” Sarna notes that the first reference to our people in history predicted its downfall: an Egyptian inscription from 1243 BCE states “Israel is laid waste, its seed is wiped out.” Yet the Egyptian Empire is gone and we are here. The nature of the community has changed many times, becoming more religious, then more secular, and around again, yet it survives.
Sarna is convinced that Jews are fully accepted here, able to rise in politics to every level. If there is a danger we face, it is intermarriage. This accounts for over half of American Jews marrying since 2000 (and over 70% if the Orthodox are excluded).
The last wave of Jewish communal excitement can be traced to the 1970s, he says, with the environmental movement, publication of the “First Jewish Catalog” to restore a basic knowledge of religious practice, and other indications. More recently the Internet, secularism and the experience of religious wars in other parts of the world have discouraged this enthusiasm. Religion, according to Sarna, is in broad decline. Jews meanwhile have rearranged themselves with 90% living in the First World, primarily in Israel and the United States. Diaspora is part of the Jewish past, not its present.
As we complete our transition, causes no longer enlist us. Jewry, says Sarna, is impoverished by lack of an inspiring mission. Sarna adds that small communities in the United States have often been swallowed up and disappeared through full assimilation.
In a lively question-and-answer round, Dr. Sarna emphasized balance: Jews are increasingly part of the universal aspects of modern life, but we must not abandon the distinctive aspects that make us Jewish.
The Bernstein at 100 exhibit will continue at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Fifth and Market Streets, Philadelphia, until September 2, 2018. Admission to the NMAJH is $15 for the general public with discounts for youths and seniors; members are admitted free. After September the exhibit will relocate to Brandeis University in Waltham Massachusetts. Musical performances of Bernstein works are scheduled around the world over the next year.
Author Dr. Jonathan Sarna received his education at Brandeis University and Yale University. He is a historian at the NMAJH and at Brandeis University, where he is a professor of American Jewish history.