Robert Gottlieb reviews a volume of Leonard Bernstein’s letters in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books:
[W]hat really mattered to him?
He’s not going to tell us, but the Letters, read in conjunction with Humphrey Burton’s excellent 1994 biography, Leonard Bernstein, suggest that there were three things that motored him: music, of course; his family, despite (or because of) the conflicts; his Judaism (and his belief in Israel). The money, the celebrity, the sex were front and center, but not, in the long run, central.
So Israel was a motor of Bernstein’s actions. But in the rest of this review, there is not another word about the place, and a lot about sex, music and family. We learn about Bernstein’s likely affairs with Aaron Copland and Dmitri Mitropoulos, about the understanding that his wife Felicia expressed to Bernstein after she married him in 1951 that he was gay and he was going to have affairs; and about his busting loose in the 1970s and leaving her for a young man and her cursing him to die a lonely feeble man.
Don’t get me wrong. This is fascinating stuff. But the omission is the psychological fallacy, Jewish intellectual indifference to our political conditions alongside keen interest in our social ones. Here was an American celebrity who took Israel more seriously than his flings, who spent a lot of time going out to Israel even as he was hosting fundraisers for the Black Panthers back in the U.S. I’m interested. How do you support a Jewish state far from here that you don’t have to live in and that discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens and support a revolutionary black group in the country that you do live in? Bernstein’s stance is the essence of what is today a terrific malady in the Jewish community: PEP (Progressive Except Palestine). But Gottlieb and The New York Review of Books editors are in the bubble. Israel’s a great good thing established long ago and it’ll be here forever, and meanwhile let’s gossip about other members of the elite. (The review contains delicious morsels about Martha Gellhorn, Jackie Kennedy, Paul Bowles and Ernest Hemingway.) When actually we live very much in history, and Bernstein knew it, and he figured it out wrong. And that’s a problem.
P.S. The article is very hard on Bernstein and contains a great line about Bernstein’s mysterious psyche worth taping to the wall: “The confusion between genius and narcissism, heroism and self-pity, generosity and exploitation remains unresolved.”