On the road … joyfully
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On the road … joyfully

Jamie Bernstein preserves her father’s legacy while developing her own

Jamie Bernstein (Steve J. Sherman)
Jamie Bernstein (Steve J. Sherman)

Jamie Bernstein is a busy woman.

The author of “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” — the father in this case being famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein — Ms. Bernstein now is in the midst of a book tour.

Concert narrator par excellence — she had a front row seat when her father conducted his iconic Young People’s Concerts — she narrates concerts for audiences of all ages, appearing everywhere from Beijing to Vancouver.

A proud champion of her father’s legacy, she and her two siblings, Alexander and Nina, are working feverishly to attend the many events being held all over the world to honor their father — who was a conductor, composer, and social activist — on his centennial.

So, she said, sipping a cup of coffee between flights, she is frequently on the road, “traveling like mad.”

What did it mean to grow up Bernstein?

“It’s a long answer,” she said. “That’s why I wrote the book. I had parents who were incredibly engaging and delightful; all their friends, too. It was full of people and dogs — very noisy.” It was only later she learned that those friends — indeed, the people she often considered her extended family — “were amazing people, enriching and fun. I had nothing to compare them to. I didn’t know they were something special, the epicenter of American 20th century culture. They were just family friends.”

If these friends were noisy, so too are the seders Jamie hosts each year, often including the children of these same luminaries. In addition to Jamie and her two children, her two siblings and their children, and the children and grandchildren of her Uncle Burton — her father’s younger brother — “we have a lot of satellite families,” she said. “Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s families,” for example. “Adolph’s children are like cousins, and Betty used to have the seders at her house because she loved gathering us there.”

Then, of course, there are always guests, such as the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. “We love our seders,” she said. “We’re passionate about it. It’s where we most express our Jewishness.”

Judaism in her home, growing up, “was palpable as cultural things — literature, theater, music, movies, especially jokes,” Ms. Bernstein said. “Good Jewish jokes contain the DNA of Jewish culture. They’re as precious as family jewels.” Prized family jokes, those told and enjoyed over and over again and recognizable just by their punch lines, were called “life jokes.” (She wanted a joke appendix to her book but her editor made her cut it. Apparently, he felt something was lost when they were written down.)

“My father was raised in a very traditional Jewish environment,” Ms. Bernstein said. His own father, a businessman, “was also a talmudic scholar. Both parents were from Ukraine. He was very much in an immigrant environment.” This, however, was not the son’s chosen path. “He found a different way to express [his Judaism] in adult life, culturally, and exploring spirituality through music. You can hear it in his music.”

“My mother was raised Catholic. So in marrying her, he was already clearly going about it in a different way than earlier generations. Our Chanukah candles were across the room from a Christmas tree. And our noisy fabulous seders were followed by egg-hunts.”

As Ms. Bernstein details in her book, she enjoyed the perks that came with having an uber-recognizable father — first-class plane tickets, fancy rooms in five-star hotels, prime tables at famous restaurants, and so on. Still, she said, she never felt entitled.

“Our parents didn’t take it for granted,” she said. “They loved it and thought it was a delicious piece of luck to get into first class on a plane. I observed and inherited their sense of delight. It was not just another day of privilege.” Her father, she said, did not grow up in a world like that, and he never got over his own delight in having such indulgences.

Ms. Bernstein is an unflinchingly honest storyteller. Clearly, being a “famous father girl” brought with it a number of challenges. If the average child feels the need to make it on her own, outside the force field of her parents, how much more so the child of an acclaimed musical genius? Still, the fact that her father loved the Beatles as much as she did made for a powerful bonding experience, and, she says in her book, he was unstinting in his praise of the birthday songs she wrote for him each year.

Ms. Bernstein spent many years trying to carve out her own musical niche. But while she loved writing songs, “performing made a mess of me.” It was not until she turned 50 that she found what has now, joyfully, become her career. Growing up, Jamie thoroughly enjoyed her father’s Young People’s Concerts. Now, in preparing her own narrated concerts, “I design it much the same way,” she said. “The first time I did it was becausse my assignment was to create one like that, but about dad’s own music.” Now she has the opportunity to write narrations about other topics.

The eldest of the three Bernstein children, Jamie always has been close with her siblings, who, like her, are now pursuing education-related careers. They are so close that while she was writing her book, “I told them they had total veto power,” she said. “If they objected to something, I would take it out.

“In the end, they didn’t object. They just said, ‘Go with it.’” In fact, were it not for her siblings and the ability to “trifurcate and go all over the world,” she would not be able to handle all the celebrations for her father’s centennial, she said.

In the meantime, her book tour has been very well received and she does particularly well in Jewish venues. “This is basically father’s fan base,” she said; JCCs and organizations like Hadassah have shown real interest in his career, concerts, and records and she’s delighted by “how attentive, enthusiastic, and engaged they are.”

“I’ve always been a writer, and I was thinking about writing a memoir, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it,” Ms. Bernstein said. “I was invited by a book agent to chat about it and I told him my ideas. He said, ‘Do you realize that if you key it in and it comes out during the centennial it will sell?’ I thought, ‘He’s right. This is it. I ran home and started writing.’” The book, she said, is doing very nicely and “still selling. It will be coming out in paperback.”

Going around the world, speaking about her father, Ms. Bernstein has come to appreciate even more her father’s work as “a lifelong activist and humanitarian. He spent his entire life advocating against injustice.” He would speak out, donate money, put on benefit concerts, and — as a result — “he attracted the attention of the FBI, starting in his 20s. Four decades later, through the Freedom of Information Act, we could see his file. It was 800 pages long. That’s a badge of honor. It shows how dedicated he was to trying to make the world a better place, and why his music has so much emotion.”

As centennial events continue, Ms. Bernstein continues to be surprised by their diversity. “We worked hard to remind the world it was coming,” she said. “Then it was up to everyone else to decide how to celebrate. We’re thrilled by the response. I realize now that he was the perfect guy for this kind of celebration. His compositions alone can be celebrated by orchestras, theater companies, and film festivals.”

She was even more surprised to learn that “a biopic of him is being made, starring and directed by Bradley Cooper. There’s also going to be a remake of “West Side Story” — produced by Steven Spielberg. There’s so much coming up.

“My seatbelt isn’t coming off yet.”


Who: Author Jamie Bernstein

What: Will speak about her book, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”

When: March 28, 7 p.m.

Where: Bacari Grill, 800 Ridgewood Road, Township of Washington

Cost: Tickets are $36 in advance, $40 at the door and include a copy of Ms. Bernstein’s “Famous Father Girl.” Buy tickets online at www.jccnnj.org/bernstein, email events@jccnnj.org, or call (201) 470-6268.

And also: Bernstein vocal selections will be performed by soprano Kristen Plumley accompanied by pianist Ron Levy. The evening also will include a book signing, wine, beer, and hors d’oeuvres, followed by coffee and dessert.

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