Jewish Currents December 1990 44:11 (488) p54
Tribute to Leonard Bernstein, with (subsequent) letter from and reply to Eric Gordon

Leonard Bernstein (Aug. 25, 1918--Oct. 14, 1990), composer, conductor, pianist, was not only the worldwide personification of American music and probably the greatest musician of our century but also one of the most important Jewish public figures of our age. Proud of his liberal Jewish background, he refused to change his name for the sake of career advancement, even when his mentor Serge Koussevitsky suggested it.

Jewish consciousness suffused both his music (from the Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies to The Dybbuk, Halil, and the incomplete Holocaust work-in-progress) and his world-view, which manifested itself both in self-expression and social causes. His critics would seize on his self-indulgence in the former, in order to try and smear the latter. Thus, Yiddishists like Lazar Weiner found him not Yiddish enough (wishing he would set more Yiddish poetry to music). Some Zionists found him not Zionist enough (criticizing him for criticizing Israel, although his criticism was combined with a passionate love for Israel). And journalists jumped on the anti-radical chic bandwagon by taking him to task for his wife's raising funds for the Black Panthers, at a time when the defense of civil liberties seemed a more urgent issue than then-unproved allegations of Black anti-Semitism.
More recently, his homosexual promiscuity was attacked as callous in the face of AIDS. (His Trouble in Tahiti, later elaborated in A Quiet Place[this should have read: His A Quiet Place, an elaboration of his Trouble in Tahiti,] deals with both homosexuality and the disintegration of the suburban American family.) He did personally support the medical treatment of at least 20 friends who were victims of AIDS. And it was Leonard Bernstein's N.Y. Times Op-Ed article (perhaps just a bit too late) that helped turn the Dukakis campaign around by reminding Democrats that the liberal (Jewish and American) tradition of helping rather than shunning the disadvantaged was one of which to be proud, not ashamed -- right-wing baiting notwithstanding.

The world has lost a man who made three generations of us proud to be in music, to be Jewish, and to be socially concerned.

--Leonard J. Lehrman

About Promiscuity [January 1, 1991] Jewish Currents April 1991 45:43 [sic] (492) p36:

In Leonard J. Lehrman's brief tribute to Leonard Bernstein (Dec. 1990), Lehrman--and the editors--allowed to stand, without qualification, explanation or refutation, the statement, "More recently, his [Bernstein's] homosexual promiscuity was attacked as callous in the face of AIDS."

The reader does not know from what quarters such attacks came, nor why Lehrman chose in such a short article to repeat the charge. Does he, by not countering the attack, as he does with other criticism leveled at Bernstein over the years, thereby support such a charge?

How is Lehrman defining "promiscuity" anyway? And what is the difference between homosexual and heterosexual varieties of promiscuity?

For gay men--and Leonard Bernstein was gay (and, unmentioned by Lehrman, he married and fathered three children as well)--a challenging aspect of the AIDS crisis, beyond the immediate health questions, is to maintain a vital interest in sex, to affirm its pleasures and comforts, yes, "in the face of AIDS." In an atmosphere of generalized condemnation of homosexuality, with gays taking a large share of blame for the AIDS epidemic, many gays have internalized self-hatred to the extent of denying themselves the right to have sexual relations.

Heterosexuals can be awfully smug and righteous about pointing the finger at gays and condemning their sexual behavior. Gays and straights all need to remember it's not how many people you have sex with--how "promiscuous" you are--but what you do with them, if you want to avoid infection.

We live in sex-negative enough a culture already without reinforcement in the pages of Jewish Currents, thank you!

Eric Gordon

Leonard J. Lehrman comments [bracketed words did not appear in print] [Jan. 19, 1991] Jewish Currents April 1991 45:43 [sic] (492) p37:

Dr. Gordon knows very well the most public and widely-read source critical of Leonard Bernstein's sexual activity: Joan Peyser's Bernstein, reviewed by him for Jewish Currents (Dec., 1988) and by me for American Music [7:2 Summer 1989 p207-209]. There are many private sources as well. In my short article I drew upon the latter in order to try and show, however, that Bernstein's behavior was not (as Peyser accusingly implied) devoid of concern for young men he might have infected; he did, as I mentioned, finance the medical care of at least 20.

"Promiscuity" may be defined as a multiplicity of sexual partners, and seems to be rather important in the spread of AIDS, especially before the concept of "safe sex" was introduced, relatively recently. Bernstein's choice of his many sexual partners happens to have been predominantly male. This is all documented fact, and nothing pejorative was intended.

Rather than quibble over questions of semantics, smugness and self-righteousness, let us celebrate the man and his music, as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine did New Year's Eve [(where it was revealed that the great Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky had been asked to translate Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony for a Moscow premiere next spring), and as Helene Williams, Janis Sabatino and I have done and will be doing this year at the Hewlett-Woodmere Library February 14, the Bryant Library August 27, and the Bethpage Public Library October 27.


Leonard J. Lehrman]