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Lovely grave, Leonard Bernstein, but what’s with the flag?

The concert violinist Misha Keylin nipped round to his nearest cemetery after reading our report on the restoration of the tomb of America’s first pianist. Pausing only to take a few pics of the reinstalled Louis Moreau Gottschalk monument,

Misha moved on to pay respects to Leonard Bernstein, who lies in the same Green-Wood grounds.

The Jewish tradition is for graves to be plain and unadorned. That custom has been observed here to the letter. But someone felt the need to add a flag, which disturbs the harmony of the space and the  universality of the life beyond. Bernstein had a complicated relationship with his country.

At one point, his passport was confiscated by Washington because of his supposed left-wing views. Would he want that part of his complex identity to be proclaimed at his grave, to the exclusion of all others? Can someone please tell me what the flag’s doing there?

And while we’re on the subject, if Bernstein gets a flag, why not Gottschalk? He was a fierce supporter of the Union during the Civil War.

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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    That looks like a flag that Veterans groups usually put on graves for Memorial Day in the USA. To my knowledge, LB was never in the army because of health problems. That simple stone looks like the typical WWII veteran marker. My opinion: some well meaning soul put it there last Memorial Day who didn’t have a clue.

  2. It seems likely that the flag is the result of some well-intentioned but misguided attempt to honor Mr. Bernstein. I find that people tend to make gestures that align with their values and preferences rather than those of the intended recipient.

  3. Robt. Switzer says:

    The grave marker is not one that is issued by the U.S. government for veterans. I agree with the thoughts expressed by Ms. Razon in her post. I would only add that the Jewish tradition is for visitors to a grave to mark that they were there by leaving a small stone on or by the marker. In the photo of Mr. Bernstein’s grave, several small stones can be seen around it (with several somewhat obscured by the ribbon to the left of the marker).

  4. John Parfrey says:

    Cemeteries are public places. I’m guessing someone — who knows who — put it there. I think you’d have to ask them why. In my view, hardly worth a mention. Nice to see the new statue atop Gottschalk’s grave.

  5. I was just visiting Bernstein’s grave a couple weeks ago and there were no flag or ribbons there. This must be a new addition. Probably someone considers him an American hero and didn’t think much about the symbolism beyond that.

  6. Lighten up, my friend.

    You don’t have to let you anti-American sentiments get in the way of clear eyed reasoning. Either someone – probably not Jewish – thought it was a nice thing to do (Lenny was an American original, you know?) or he did it just to mess with your head.

  7. “II like to be in America, Ok by me in America…”
    “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town, The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. The people ride in a hole in the ground…”
    “I’d like to write the American opera.” LB
    “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time..” LB
    “There’s a place for us…peace and quiet and open air, wait for us, somewhere…”

    • Jeep Gerhard says:

      Four wonderful quotations from Bernstein shows, but these are NOT Bernstein’s words. Rather, they were written by Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — all brilliant!

  8. As others have said, someone left a tribute. That’s all. Some Americans leave flags as tributes to those they honor.

    He’s American and adored.

    I doubt most non-Jewish Americans would think of Bernstein as Jewish before American. They’d just want to honor Bernstein the American man.

  9. harold braun says:

    I think he was a proud ,liberal,gay ,Jewish American!.The one doesn`t exclude the other!

  10. Religion is a choice. Nobody is born religious. You choose to believe or not. Nobody is born jewish, christian, muslim or anything else.

    Religion is human made.

    in most cases, people are born gay or straight, you cannot choose your sexuality.

    Being born in a certain place only determines your nationality for identity and control purposes. It does not stop you being a person of the world.

    • Elmira Darvarova says:

      Being born in a certain place DOES NOT always determine your nationality. People relocate to other countries all the time and make the choice to change their nationality to reflect their immigration/naturalization status. Most people in the world can control the status of their nationality, therefore being born in a certain place is not an absolute measure or a determining factor for nationality/identity.

  11. Martin Bookspan says:

    I met a disconsolate LB on a street in Boston on a cold January day in 1942. “You look terrible,” I said. To which he responded: “Yeah, I’ve just been classified 4F, rejected for service in the Armed Forces.” I think it was asthma or some respiratory ailment. Ironically he was a chain smoker his entire lifetime

    . The last time I saw him was in the Tanglewood broadcast booth—indeed it was the last concert he ever conducted. It consisted of the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” (he had conducted the American premiere of it in 1946 right there at Tanglewood), his own Arias and Barcaroles, and the Beethoven 7th. He was to have conducted the entire program, but because of his frail health he asked the then Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony, Carl St. Clair, to conduct Arias and Barcaroles. During the performance of that work LB came into the broadcast booth to listen, inhalator in one hand, cigarette in the other!

  12. Jeep Gerhard says:

    Mr. Lebrecht,
    I have visited Mr. Bernstein’s grave at Green-Wood several times, and thank goodness have never seen it sporting the “stars and bars”. I would agree with you that he might not have appreciated the presumably kind but misguided gesture on the part an anonymous visitor. Usually, though, there are several small stones on his grave marker, which i gather IS a Jewish tradition. A German friend of mine who used to work with Bernstein told me of the tradition, and he brought a small stone from Jerusalem to place on the grave during a visit a dozen or so years ago. The Bernstein marker would be under a mountain of pebbles by now if the Green-Wood personnel didn’t clear them off from time to time!
    Like lucky Martin Bookspan, I also attended that final concert led by Mr. Bernstein. As it turns out, the recording Deutsche Grammophon published from the Boston Symphony’s tape seems to be the only recording of Bernstein and the Boston Symphony ever released.

    • Not so, Jeep – there’s a fantastic recording on DG of Bernstein conducting the BSO in Liszt’s Faust Symphony taped around 1976. There are also a couple of BSO/Bernstein DVDs that have been released in the last couple of years, but you’re right, generally speaking: there aren’t many recordings of the pairing (which is a surprising – and a pity – considering the long relationship LB had with the BSO).

    • Jeep, just FYI so that you can avoid any confusion in future: the US national flag’s nickname is “the Stars and Stripes”. The moniker “Stars and Bars” usually refers to one of the flags used in the Confederate States of America (i.e., the South in the US Civil War). Putting the Stars and Bars on someone’s grave – especially Lenny’s – would be making a rather different statement than putting the Stars and Stripes there.

  13. What’s the flag doing there? Well, what are the stones doing there? ….
    I don’t understand the sentiment of the opening statement. What’s the difference of placing a flag or putting pebbles on his grave? Is there really a reason to allow one and deny the other?
    Bernstein was not less American than he was Jewish. Both attributes of his heritage were problematic for him. He was first of all a great human being and considered himself as such.
    And had no intention of limiting himself to the narrow definitions of racism or nationalism, as they can be represented in above mentioned attributes. They are just attributes to the human condition. Bernstein conducted the Beethoven 9th in Berlin when the wall fell. He fully identified as a human being with the message “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. So please, if you remove the flag, remove the stones as well.

    • Robt. Switzer says:

      According to the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, the tradition of leaving a small stone at a grave site is a modern twist on ancient burial practices, when the dead were interred in the ground wrapped only in a shroud. After earth covered the body, large stones were placed on top of the grave to protect it from wild animals. Family members would return periodically to check on the integrity of the grave, adding new stones as necessary. Today, with bodies buried in coffins and wild animals not the threat they once posed, leaving a small stone on the grave marker is a symbol of the mourner’s respect for the deceased.

      Although there is no Jewish tradition of leaving flags of any kind, I doubt that Mr. Bernstein would have been offended by someone’s wanting to honor him with one. (I met him at a party once and chatted only for as long as I could suffer the cloud of cigarette smoke that enveloped him all evening. When we spoke, he was passionate about his love for his country but not for the president at that time, Mr. Reagan.) As for another’s comment that should the flag be removed so should the stones, I hope it is rooted in nothing more than ignorance, rather than intolerance.

  14. It’s kind of amusing that in Israel more often than not, particularly on the classical radio station, Bernstein is referred to as Le-o-nard. I don’t think he would have minded the flag…

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