Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

Leonard Bernstein's Jewish Boston: Cross-Disciplinary Research in the Classroom



Leonard Bernstein is most often perceived as the quintessential New Yorker—music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and composer of Broadway shows that made New York their focus. Yet his grounding in the greater Boston area was powerful. He was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and raised in various Jewish neighborhoods within Boston. The young Leonard went to Boston Latin, a prestigious public prep school, and graduated from Harvard in 1939.

This article explores a team research project, made up of Harvard graduate students and undergraduates, which delved into the urban subcultures and post-immigrant experiences that shaped Bernstein's youth and early adulthood. It considers the synergy between an individual and a community, and it examines the complexities of blending pedagogy with research, analyzing the multilayered methodologies and theoretical strategies that were employed.

Given Bernstein's iconic status, his life and career illuminate a broad range of questions about the nature of music in American society. Fusing the techniques of ethnographic and archival research, our team probed Bernstein's formative connections to Jewish traditions through his family synagogue (Congregation Mishkan Tefila), the ethnic geography that defined the Boston neighborhoods of his immigrant family, the network of young people involved in Bernstein's summer theatrical productions in Sharon, Massachusetts, during the 1930s, and the formative role of the city's musical venues and institutions in shaping Bernstein's lifelong campaign to collapse traditional distinctions between high and low culture.