The Trifecta: Bernstein, Faith, and Music

Yes, Bernstein was born Jewish and fully admitted to his Jewish roots. Even Serge Koussevitzky, his longtime mentor, urged Bernstein to change his last name because it sounded “too Jewish” but Bernstein resisted and said, “I’ll do it as ‘Bernstein’ or not at all” (1).  However, his attitude towards religion was still quite complicated and a mysterious part of his identity. Nevertheless, many of his composed works symbolized religious and Jewish elements — and the interplay of faith and humanity. Specifically, the “Kaddish” symphony magnifies his convoluted journey with religion, but the underlying tension between himself and his devout father is strongly understood as the main focus. The symphonic foundation of the piece allows for the theatrical and conversational elements to come to life: “…in a sense the symphonic form is hardly there for its own sake, but as a kind of stage set, in front of which a dramatized debate—or interior monologue—takes place” (2). However, does the “Kaddish” only illustrate an inner dialogue and intense conversation between father and son…or something else entirely?

Leonard Bernstein (L) and his father celebrating his opening night concert at Lincoln Center. (Photo by Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

“Every son, at one point or other, defies his father, fights him, departs from him, only to return to him,” Bernstein expressed at the 70th birthday party for his father (3). Although Bernstein candidly spoke to the news media and interviewers about his work, his composed music expresses deeper, more intimate and raw emotions. For instance, the text of “Kaddish,” which Bernstein wrote himself, exposes Bernstein’s contested relationship with his father and dives deeper into the meaning behind his off-the-cuff quote from his father’s 70th birthday.

Ironically, the Kaddish is the traditional Jewish mourning prayer — but the prayer never mentions the term death, only “the word chayei or chayim (“life”) three times” (4). Moreover, the prayer praises God and the spirit of life, not the absence of life. This symbolic dualism runs throughout the piece; chromatic textures (twelve-tone techniques) contrasts “simple expressive diatonicism — for instance, during the Din Torah section (literally meaning judicial trial of two Jewish parties), the Speaker has an outburst of emotion “in which God is accused of a breach of faith with humanity” (5). Moreover, the dualism appears when human immortality by God’s divine power contrasts humanity’s imminent suicide by reality (6). The dualistic and contrasting undertones purposefully emphasize the lows and highs, mountains and abysses of his turbulent father-son relationship but also of American life. 

Album Cover – Bernstein – Symphony No. 3 Kaddish

The “Kaddish” is viewed as an argument with God, as the Speaker “takes him on in the prosecutorial manner of an angry Job,” but his father’s discontentment and disappointment are obvious throughout the text (7). Bernstein’s father hoped he would leave his music aspirations behind and pursue something more respectable, like carrying on the family business. Although his father eventually came around to his son’s career choice, the beginning of “Kaddish” (Part I – Invocation) emphasizes the Speaker’s despair and bitterness towards his father, as the Speaker addresses God as “angry, wrinkled old majesty,” — perhaps this is Bernstein’s disobedient voice coming alive (8). However, is the Speaker only addressing his familial pressures and rollercoaster relationship, or is he also making accusations against God and humanity? Perhaps, Man and God are dueling on the battlefield of life, amidst all the conflict, chaos, and evil of reality. Prior to Bernstein finishing the piece, JFK had just been assassinated and he was taken aback by this horrendous act; a wave of hurt and despair settled over the world, adding another powerful dimension to this already tense and passionate piece before it premiered in Israel only three weeks later (9). Bernstein’s “Kaddish” is trying to illustrate the internal struggle between ourselves and any higher power (moral, spiritual, physical) but also … the cognitive dissonance we experience every day. He wanted the audience to look within and reevaluate their interaction with reality and the politically charged environment. 

Beyond the higher power, regardless if it does or does not exist, the piece also tried to ignite a conversation around the internal struggle with oneself and all the isms: racism, sexism, socialism, capitalism, etc. It is not just Jews or religious people that need to look within and reflect, but all of humanity — the moral struggle is areligious, apolitical, and appears in all facets of life. The pure beauty of this piece is broken down into two components or takeaways: 1) faith and relationships are neither cookie cutter nor black and white, but moral behavior isn’t either and, 2) it transcends time and place, as the principle or idea does not change (i.e. morality and cognitive dissonance between our actions and beliefs) but the subject certainly does (i.e. ourselves and the world around us).

By Mollie Goldfarb

  1. “Reckoning with Leonard Bernstein’s Faith on the Centennial of His Birth,” Religion News Service (blog), August 22, 2018,
  2. Neil Levin, “Symphony No. 3,” Milken Archive of Jewish Music, accessed October 14, 2018,
  3. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival,” The New York Times, November 12, 2017, sec. Arts,
  4. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein,” accessed October 14, 2018,
  5. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein.” 
  6. Jack Gottlieb, “Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein.” 
  7. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival.”
  8. Anthony Tommasini, “Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival.”
  9. Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” accessed October 14, 2018,

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