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Public History Review: "Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music" Touring Exhibit, created at the National Museum of American Jewish History, March 16-September 2, 2018.


This first entry in the Public History reviews section of American Jewish History opens a foray into sites of scholarly discourse that range beyond the written volume. While these sites of discourse have long been a part of the American Jewish historical landscape, questions about their permanence and their accessibility, as well as their very status as citable scholarship, have largely kept them out of the pages of this journal. These reviews, therefore, seek not only to document significant works and events relevant to Journal readers, but also to offer ideas about the nature, production, and dissemination of scholarly work in the twentyfirst century.


The National Museum of American Jewish History's exhibit "Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music," mounted as part of the Bernstein centennial, assembles objects, images, and media into a multilayered narrative that serves as both a tribute to twentieth century American liberalism, and a more conventional portrait of the composer-as-Jew. Curated by Ivy Weingram from a wide range of archives and collections, and with the active involvement of Bernstein's family, the Leonard Bernstein Office, and a substantial list of foundation-based supporters, the exhibit taps into Bernstein's status as an American celebrity whose public expressions of Judaism seemed to emanate from him as naturally as his musical talent. Aptly, this exhibit and its numerous associated events face a balancing act that dovetails with the NMAJH's own mission. On one hand, the exhibit largely respects Bernstein's own exuberant statements of Jewish identity and support for Israel as part of his larger program promoting diversity and the vision of a "great" liberal democratic society. Its embrace of music along the same lines effectively avoids the potential trap of Jewish essentialism (i.e., that Bernstein subconsciously channeled Jewish tradition in his compositions). And yet in making this connection, the exhibit brings up rich questions about the primacy of liberalism in its presentation of the "American Jewish experience."

"Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music" recounts the messy restlessness of Bernstein's engagement with American Judaism. Clearly informed by recent research, the exhibit presents Bernstein's story in a Jewish context, but sagely lets the artifacts themselves do most of the explaining. In other settings, displaying the frontispiece dedication of a Talmud volume given to Bernstein by his father, or a newspaper clipping noting Bernstein's pride in his son's bar mitzvah, might seem overly suggestive; but when assembled by a museum of American Jewish history, these objects are fair game, a meaningful attempt to gather Bernstein's scattered references to Judaism into a coherent narrative.

The exhibit packs a good deal of information into a relatively small space. The twisty, largely ovoid path on the museum's fifth floor introduces large-print topic headings in general chronological order every ten feet or so. As per current standards of museum narration, patches of printed text give way to handwritten documents, objects both large (one of Bernstein's pianos) and small (a set of his score writing pencils), select images, and well-chosen video clips. Most effectively, the exhibit reproduces Bernstein's redacted FBI file and an illustrated letter from Israel, which, set on opposite ends of the same wall, offer a stark juxtaposition.

Two particularly innovative sections of the exhibit offer thoughtful introductions and interpretations of Bernstein's music. Just past a section on Bernstein's childhood, which emphasizes his contacts with Jews and Jewish life in Boston, sits a table with nine cubes, each representing a Bernstein composition. The visitor can then place any side of each cube face down on a light table-style square cutout to conjure a set of pre-selected texts, images, video and audio examples that reveal some kind of Jewish context to the composition. About three-quarters of the way through the exhibit, meanwhile, a pair of small theatres offer innovative interpretations of two key large-scale Bernstein works: in one theatre, two screens treat the 1961 film West Side Story as a kind of meme, syncing clips of the film with pop culture reproductions of its distinctive music and choreography; on the other side of the wall, clips from a 1973 performance of Bernstein's 1971 Mass alternate with slides of world events thought to have influenced Bernstein's thinking. These rewarding additions to the main narrative illustrate Bernstein's cultural reach and point toward the larger goals of the exhibit.

The last stretch of the exhibit seeks to tie together the many strands of Bernstein's life--including a frank if encapsulated discussion of his homosexuality--by presenting liberalism and social justice as values closely connected to Jewish identity. A display of the Bernstein family's Jewish ritual objects, Bernstein's 1972 quote fashioning himself a rabbi of sorts, and a final letter summarizing his work as reflecting "our search for a solution to the 20th Century crisis of faith" offer some illustration of the exhibit's central theme. Indeed, Bernstein's own advocacy for progress and self-realization give this conclusion some weight. Yet this view also hews so closely to the museum's own core narrative--"Social Justice" is the big theme of the exhibit's outreach materials--that it can come off as an overly neat and comforting summation of a complicated, passionate, and tumultuous life. This neatness is echoed in the larger set of public events surrounding the exhibit including the museum's decision to devote National Jewish Heritage Month (i.e., May 2018) to "Jewish Music," complete with a special exhibit packet for cantors.

Then again, there is good cause for such claiming of Bernstein. During and after his lifetime, Leonard Bernstein attained the status of a cultural Jewish icon, embraced by institutions and organizations for his support of Israel, his celebrated refusal to change his name, and his drive to normalize Judaism as part of the American musical landscape. Magnified in his hundredth year, Leonard Bernstein continues to embody the long-sought ideal of the "Jewish composer": proud, brilliant, and a product of an American story where Jews could have the freedom to become, well, Leonard Bernstein. And in this manner, the exhibit presents more of an institutional reminder of the Jewish progressive vision than a dramatic rewriting of Bernstein's life. Passing by the huge, enraptured image of Bernstein's illuminated face and hands in the hallway leading to the exhibit, the "bigness" of this life-as-exemplar becomes clear, beckoning us (back?) to his exuberantly liberal outlook in a way that might seem downright nostalgic today.

"Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music" is meant to be a travelling exhibit, with stops at Brandeis University (October 4-November 20, 2018) and the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, OH (September 22, 2019-January 17, 2020); and it is available for further display through at least August 2020. A virtual version of the exhibit, based on its form at the National Museum of American Jewish History, can be found at
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Author:Cohen, Judah
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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