101 Memories of Leonard Bernstein

August 20, 2019

This year, for what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 101st birthday, we celebrate the maestro’s legacy by sharing 101 stories from you, our community.

The many celebrations of the past year much was shared about the life and legacy of one of the leading composers and Jewish figures of the 20th century. At that time, we invited you to share your own memories of Leonard Bernstein.

In all, we received over 1,000 submissions. We expected to get some interesting stories, but we could not have anticipated the number of touching, personal experiences that so many of you submitted, shedding light on his life, his career, his personality, and his connection to Israel and to Judaism.

View All 101 Memories of Leonard Bernstein

Seeing these stories all together paints a portrait of Leonard Bernstein in the context of American, Jewish and world history of the 20th century. It also illustrates the profound personal influence that his work had on so many lives.

The following is a small sampling of the beautiful memories that you shared. Join us on Facebook and Instagram to read all 101 Memories of Leonard Bernstein.

Browse by topic:

Being Jewish West Side Story
Global Impact Inspirational
Israel Tanglewood
Young People's Concerts Personal

Being Jewish


The fact that Leonard Bernstein was proudly Jewish doesn't come as a surprise today, but in the time when his star was rising, that wasn't an easy assumption to make. Many aspiring entertainers changed their names to more American-sounding variations in order to escape discrimination and glass ceilings. Bernstein never shied from his heritage and even infused several of his most notable works with Jewish motifs and references.

"The opening notes to the overture of West Side Story, and how it reminded my sister and I of the t'kiya call of the shofar during Rosh Hashanna. We would learn much later in life that that's exactly where his inspiration came from!


Daniella Lednicer

"In March 1986, I met Maestro Bernstein back stage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I introduced myself, and I told him that I was conducting the Chichester Psalms at my congregation, Beth Sholom Congregation of Elkins Park, in a few weeks. He said, "Of course, you are presenting the small version," referring to the reduced accompaniment arrangement for organ, harp, and percussion. I said, "NO, Maestro! I am conducting the full orchestration with my Beth Sholom Chorale. He grabbed my face with both hands, rubbed my cheeks with great energy, and said, "ATTA BOY!" This was a memory I shall cherish forever."


Hazzan David F. Tilman

"Singing the Bernstein "Kaddish" with the L.A. Zimriyah Chorale at the 1998 World Choir Festival in Jerusalem in 1998."


Bobbi Jacobsen

"I grew up in Mexico City and remember vividly the first time I got to see Leonard Bernstein in concert at Bellas Artes. I remember the passion and energy with which he conducted. This was THE event. My parents and grandparents were all excited about the music and proud of the prominent Jewish Maestro, more so since they had fled the pogroms and pre-Nazi aggression on Jews in Eastern Europe."



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Global Impact

Leonard Bernstein in Bersheeba, 1948.

Whether performing his own music or conducting that of others, Bernstein’s participation in historic events created a legacy that spans borders, race and religion.

"Listening to West Side Story in East Germany - Living in New York today, this was my very first encounter of New York. I love to think back to that memory."


Sylvia Kay

"When he conducted Beethoven's 9th in Berlin just after the Berlin Wall came down. 'Freiheit!'"


Geoffrey Wieting

"Watching his back as he conducted the New York Philharmonic, in the then Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center c. 1967, going to a political event at his and his wife Felicia's sumptuous apartment with Civil Rights leaders; Black Panthers, and all... 'Lenny' was never far from the center of contemporary issues, he was an activist!"


Deborah Elizabeth Lotus

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Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia in Jerusalem, 1948.

Bernstein's pride in the State of Israel was visible, if not palpable, manifesting in numerous visits and concerts that inspired similar pride in Jews around the world.

"In 1967, July, I was at the kotel hamaaravi. All rubble after Zahal cleared the area. Very crowded with many people who came to see the miracle. As I was standing next to the Wall, a group of people were moving towards where I was standing. Very strange looking group following the leading man who was obviously in great awe and waving his hands in he air. The group had a man with a movie camera, a boom, and they were filming the leading man. They were moving towards the wall brushing other people aside. I turned to the man next to me and asked him if he knew who that was coming with the group.

'Oh,' said he, 'that's just Lenny. He always does things like that.' I took a better look at the man to whom I had spoken and I was shocked when I realized that he was Isaac Stern. I realized that 'Lenny' was his friend, Leonard Bernstein, who was filming his visit to Israel after the Six Day War. That's how how I shook hands with the worlds greatest violinist and met Leonard Bernstein."


Amnon Orent

"While I loved the children's programs, what I remember most is his conducting of the Israel orchestra on Mt. Scopus when the State of Israel was created. That was unforgettable!"


Phyllis G. Weinstein

"Music class in my Israeli high school introduced me to Bernstein's music. I remember dancing in class to the Latin rhythm of 'America' from West Side Story and being deeply moved by 'Kaddish.' His ability to express emotion and connect to cultures through his music remain with me."



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Young People's Concerts

Harpist Heidi Lehwalder and Leonard Bernstein, Young People's Concert 1963. (Source)

Most popular in your hearts and minds were the series of Young People's Concerts that so many people attended in person, watched on television, or listened to on the radio around the world. The concerts inspired everything from a love of music, to careers in music and education, to a way of simply looking at the world through an inquisitive lens.

"The Young People Concerts were something that we were allowed to watch whenever they were on. I'd lost my father several years previous and, in many ways, Leonard Bernstein became a father figure for me. During one program Bernstein was discussing Beethoven's 3rd Symphony and how, after the first 3 notes, how did Beethoven decide what the 4th note would be. It became a discussion of making the next best choice. This concept became key to my life. Thank you, Maestro."


Leslie A. White

"Attending the Young Peoples series and having him explain what you need to be a conductor. I remember he was keeping 4 different measures of time on his feet and hands. That was about 55 years ago, and I have never forgotten it."


Stuart Leeman

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West Side Story

West Side Story original Broadway cast singing "I Feel Pretty", 1957. (Source)

Not surprisingly, West Side Story was the most-mentioned composition that touched people at various points in their lives. 

"My dad got a copy of West Side Story, and for a couple of years our family would sit at the dinner table and sing excerpts. The best ones were when my mom, an Irish immigrant, sang 'I Like to Be In America', and we would all fall out when she sang/shouted 'I know a BOAT you can GET ONNNN!'"


Richard Keena


"Watching West Side Story as a young girl. I am Latina and it was thrilling to see young Spanish-speaking men and women dancing and singing in a modern-day opera!"


Lidia T Pines

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Composer David Amram with Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein's passion for music was infectious, inspiring generations of musicians, composers and teachers. He championed new composers and gave much credit to his mentors and his peers.

"Receiving a personal letter from him as a 10-year-old."


Ofer Ben-Amots

"Bernstein was a born teacher. His dynamic presentation of facts others could make dull was one of the inspirations for me when I became a music teacher."


Judy Heller

"When my uncle, who was part of the NY Philharmonic under Bernstein, died suddenly, Bernstein gave my aunt a significant personal gift to help provide for my two cousins' college education."


Mike Galos

"I have a telegram from Leonard Bernstein recommending my dad, Philmore Gilbert, for a job as a tympanist with the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra. My parents had a young baby and the circumstances seemed too unsure at the time, so he declined the offer. My dad was one year older than Lenny, but they knew each other from playing together. They both also attended the first year of the Tanglewood Music Center and I have an amazing photograph of all the luminaries that were there."


Paula Rosenstock

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Over the course of 50 years, Bernstein studied, taught, composed and conducted at Tanglewood. Each summer, those fortunate enough to be near the Massachusetts estate could see Bernstein working and honing his craft, as well as teaching and emboldening the next generation of musicians and composers—all while delighting audiences.

"I saw Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and when he did Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony it looked like he began to levitate off the podium! He also conducted the Haydn 88 with only his face and no hands! After the concert although he was visibly tired, he shook hands and signed autographs for everyone!"


Anthony Torelli

"Thrill of a lifetime: playing violin in the student orchestra at Tanglewood—conducted by Bernstein himself!"


Ruth Hurwicz Markovitz

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Crossing all other categories above were the personal stories of how the life and work of Leonard Bernstein impacted our lives and even our relationships to our families.

"Seeing and hearing the maestro perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony live in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in the middle 1960s. At the end of the performance I stood up absolutely stunned and declared to my new young wife...we are getting a stereo!!!!"


Jeffrey Hazan

"In November of 1989, I attended a special program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in which Bernstein himself dedicated a performance of his music, "in memorium to those I love who have died to AIDS." His appearance had enormous resonance to me and my family because my husband and I were, and still are, AIDS researchers and physicians and our daughter, aged four at the time, had already been educated about Bernstein."


Barbara Weiser, MD

"My husband was offered a full scholarship to Boston U. because he had played for Leonard Bernstein as an extra in the Israel Philharmonic. Later Lenny remembered him when he played at Tanglewood, and invited him to play for important teachers. So it's all because of Lenny that my husband came to North America and we met!"


Peggy Walt

"Saturday afternoon many decades ago. Mom was vacuuming the living room, I'm a bored adolescent. TV is on but I can't hear it. Suddenly, Mom turns off the vacuum, turns up the TV; she's seen WHO is on the screen and together we watch and listen, enchanted and transported, as the great conductor talks and then brings us the concert. Bonus: I began flute lessons, played in youth orchestras and have had a lifetime of beauty, thanks to Leonard Bernstein coming into our living room."


Linda Arking

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Thank you to all who shared your love and memories of Leonard Bernstein with us. And thank you to all who share our love of Jewish music and culture as it continues to be a positive force in the world—simultaneously celebrating personal identity and rejoicing in the universality of the human condition.

View All 101 Memories of Leonard Bernstein

Happy 101st birthday, Mr. Leonard Bernstein.

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Bonnie Somers
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(310) 570-4770


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