This Saturday would be the great composer Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. But Sunday is the anniversary of the death of his brother Burton, who died last year at the age of eighty-five. A gifted writer, Burton—in Allan Arkush’s opinion—ought to be remembered as a perceptive chronicler of American Jewish life:
Apart from his long and distinguished career at the New Yorker, Burton wrote eight books, including a marvelous one on the Sinai desert. I have read a fair amount of his work, but I would probably have forgotten him by now had he not written an outstanding history of his family. I read what became Family Matters when it was serialized in the New Yorker, loved it, and have been quoting from it for decades. At least a couple of times a year I recommend it to students as an excellent and enjoyable introduction to 20th-century Jewish history.
For me, the most memorable figure in Family Matters is Leonard and Burton’s father, Sam. Born in 1892 into a pious, learned, and poor family in a Ukrainian shtetl, the one-time yeshiva student crossed the Atlantic alone when he was sixteen, like so many others, and immediately found backbreaking work in New York’s Fulton Fish Market. But he didn’t stay there long. With help from an uncle who owned a barbershop in Hartford, hard work, and good luck, Sam made his way up the ladder in the beauty-supplies business. By the late 1920s, he owned his own business in Boston and had 50 people working for him. . . .
He didn’t think much of musicians either and was deeply troubled when Leonard fell in love with music. “A musician to Sam was a klezmer. The klezmer was an impoverished musician, usually a fiddler, who wandered from shtetl to shtetl, playing at weddings or bar mitzvahs for a few kopecks, some free food and wine, and a night’s lodging. In Sam’s eyes, he was a disreputable character of the Old World, a rootless profligate who would die young of starvation or the worst diseases. The American version of such a person wasted his life away playing in cocktail lounges or with dance bands. Where would the nakhes be in that?”