Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein

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A Time of Angels Book CoverWhat the Book is About:

This is the inspirational story of young Leonard Bernstein, who was devoted to music from early childhood and clung to his dreams despite his father’s opposition. The book details his life growing up near Boston and leads to his triumphant debut conducting the New York Philharmonic at just 25 years old. The book is entertaining and very well researched, and includes many photos, quotes and anecdotes. Music Was IT! won the Sydney Taylor Book Award and was a National Jewish Book Award finalist as well as a finalist in the YALSA Awards for Excellence in Nonfiction for young adults. 

Jewish Content and Values

  • Bernstein's Jewishness and Jewish influences are apparent all through this book. His earliest musical influences came from the synagogue, and he credits the arrangement of “Adon Olam” heard there on Shabbat as his first exposure to real music. Bernstein thought seriously about becoming a rabbi for some years. 

  • Bernstein experienced antisemitism at Harvard, which at the time had a quota for Jewish students, and, as a Jewish American, it was difficult for him to break into conducting, a field that was dominated by European Christians.   

  • Bernstein was friends with many Jewish musicians and composers including Aaron Copland and Adolph Green, composers of musicals. 

  • Bernstein’s parents were from the Ukraine, and in 1940 his father, Sam, tried to convince his own parents and siblings to move to the United States. Leonard’s grandparents moved to live with their Orthodox daughter in Brooklyn.  

Positive Role Models

Leonard Bernstein didn’t give up on his dream of becoming a musician even though his father disapproved. But he didn’t have a falling out with his father because of it; instead, Lennie was determined to persuade his father to accept that he was destined to be a musician. Bernstein showed perseverance in holding onto his dream as well as respect for his father.   

Content Advisory


Talk it Over

What would you do if you had a career you dreamed of and your parents wanted you to do something else with your life? How would you handle the disagreement?  

More For You

Jews in Musical Theatre: As well as his conducting, Leonard Bernstein was a composer. He wrote the music to the musical West Side Story, which is based on Romeo and Juliet. Jews have played a huge role as composers in musical theater, from George and Ira Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), to Rogers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma), to Jerome Kern (Showboat), Lionel Bart (Oliver), Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods), Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and more.