“Are You Listening, Father?”

Wrestling with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3: Kaddish

By Amy Handelsman

Is Leonard Bernstein the most “Jewish” composer? It’s not an easy question to answer, but his third symphony is certainly packed with Jewish themes.

In January, I was privileged to sit in on LABA Fellow Alex Weiser’s three-part lecture series on seminal Jewish composers at the Center for Jewish History’s 2019 Yivo-Bard Winter Program on Ashkenazi Civilization. Weiser, who is also Director of Public Programs at Yivo and himself a composer, highlighted the careers of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

While focusing on their musical influence, Weiser also examined the composers’ work through the prisms of time, place and Jewish identity. Mahler, a late-Romantic Austrian composer, was born a Jew but converted to Catholicism—by most accounts, to secure a position as the director of the Vienna Court Opera. Schoenberg, also Austrian, converted to Catholicism, then back to Judaism, and bridged the Old and New Worlds as an expatriate in Los Angeles.

Leonard Bernstein, from Lawrence, MA, was 100% American (although greatly influenced by both composers, especially Mahler), and arguably had the least problematic relationship to Judaism. He grew up going to synagogue; his father was a Talmudic scholar; and Bernstein cites liturgical influences on his musical compositions. Listen, for example, to the first three notes of the score for West Side Story—you’ll hear the shofar.

Bernstein’s embrace of Judaism is nowhere more evident than his Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, named for the well-known Jewish prayer. It is not simply that the prayer is in the original Aramaic. It is also that it foregrounds a very Jewish narrator—argumentative, angry, frustrated, plaintive, soulful, and, ultimately, hopeful, tender—even loving.  

Kaddish premiered in Tel Aviv in 1963 shortly after the assassination of the composer’s friend President John F. Kennedy. Bernstein dedicated it to his memory.

While lauded in Israel, Kaddish met with a mixed reception in the States. It is a difficult work, not solely in its use of a Schoenbergian 12-tone scale, but also with regards to the accompanying spoken text. Bernstein wrote it himself (after commissioning two poets) for his actress-wife Felicia Montealegre, insisting that a female perform it. When that proved too constricting, he relaxed this edict; it is now performed by both men and women, including one version rewritten and delivered by his daughter, Jamie.

The narration is clumsy at times—purple, on-the-nose—and Bernstein was never satisfied with it. The Kaddish, as we know, is a prayer for the dead that famously never mentions death or dying. Rather, it extols the magnificence and benevolence of the Almighty. Bernstein’s Kaddish, however, in the tradition of Abraham, Moses and Job, argues with G-d, holding G-d accountable for the sorry state of affairs here on earth.

In this regard, it is very much a piece of its time: post-World War II and post- Shoah; post-Cuban Missile Crisis, in the midst of a Cold War and possible nuclear annihilation. Indeed, the narrator wonders if her time is nigh:

I want to pray
I want to say Kaddish
My own Kaddish. There may be
No one to say it after me.
I have so little time, as You well know.
Is my end a minute away? An hour?
Is there even time to consider the question?

As the choir sings the Kaddish, the first movement concludes with a painful taunt:           

Amen! Amen! Did you hear that, Father?
Sh’lama raba! May abundant peace
Descend on us, Amen!
Great, G-d,
You make peace in the high places,
Who commanded the morning since the days began,
And caused the dawn to know its place.
Surely You can cause and command
A touch of order here below,
On this one, dazed speck.
And let us say again: Amen.

In the second movement, “Din Torah,” the narrator continues reproaching the divine, even insulting G-d: “Your bargain is tin! It crumples in my hand!”

Then, after a chorus of Amens, the narrator laments her stridency and apologizes to the Almighty, as one does to an intimate relation:

Have I hurt you? Forgive me.
I forgot You are too vulnerable.
The second movement concludes with a harmonic lullaby:
Rest my Father, sleep, dream.
Let me invent your dream,
Dream it with You, as gently as I can.”

The third and final movement, “Scherzo,” makes an appeal that G-d and man can create a new covenant, as this one has broken. It is almost as if G-d stopped believing in His Glory:

Don’t turn away.
Look. Do You see how simple and peaceful
It all becomes, once You believe?

As the choir intones “Yit’gadal, v’yitkadash,” the narrator implores the Lord to stay asleep and dream—until the Finale, when He rouses and the narrator shifts to a comforting tone, encouraging G-d to join forces with humanity:

We are one, after all. You and I
Together we suffer, together exist.
And forever will recreate each other!
Recreate, recreate each other!
Suffer, and recreate each other!

I spoke to Weiser about the remarkable intimacy and role reversal in Bernstein’s Kaddish, that man does not just argue with G-d, but offers solace. Here is what he had to say:

Man is consoling G-d. The moral of the piece is reconciliation. Man was created in G-d’s image. We are G-dly. In that, there’s a responsibility to create conversation with G-d and acknowledge G-d’s fallibility. This rhetorical shift is very important. The G-d-  wrestling is very clear, and so is the sympathy for G-d.

You can hear excerpts from Weiser’s opera about the life of Theodor Herzl, State of the Jews, Saturday, February 2nd at LABAlive. Tickets available here.