THE THREE LENNYS + 11 Leonard Cohen films at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, May 7-15, 2011


A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein,
Leonard Cohen, and Lenny Bruce

From April 27, 2011  leonardcohenforum

“I never thought my son would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein”
—Sam Bernstein

It may be a cute gimmick—spotlighting three artists named Lenny—and naming a film series after them. But besides their names, and the fact that all three are Jewish, the “Lennys”—Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and Lenny Bruce—have more in common than at first appears evident. The word “genius” is too often and too easily applied, but in all three cases, the use of this terminology is not an exaggeration.

The Three Lennys offers a rare opportunity to follow these artists at various stages of their lives and careers— through a series of rarely-screened documentaries, live-inconcert films, shorts and a feature biopic, as well as a live musical component and guest speakers. The Festival is honored to welcome Alexander Bernstein (son of Leonard Bernstein) and Kitty Bruce (daughter of Lenny Bruce) as special guests.

The three “Lennys” are linked, in part, by their mastery of language, and by the artistry of their music (in the case of Lenny Bruce, in an indirect way; his routines, which incorporated stream-of-consciousness riffs, were consistently compared to jazz). Another similarity concerns the role of the artist in the social/political realm—each of the Lennys passionately embraced causes of social justice (a famous Lenny Bruce quote: “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls”).

Perhaps more revealing than any thematic connections to emerge from the film series, however, is the nature of the art itself. Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and Lenny Bruce have not just influenced subsequent generations of artists; their individual works of art continue to resonate and to endure.

Bibliographic material on the “Lennys” can easily be found on the web. For the purposes of this brief introduction, we’d like to touch on how the Jewish heritage of each, influenced his perception of the world and informed his work in distinct ways.

Leonard Bernstein was truly a larger-than-life figure. A world-renowned symphony orchestra conductor, composer (of Broadway musicals—most notably West Side Story— film scores, classical music and opera), Bernstein was regarded by many as the most influential musical force of the 20th century. Lenny was exuberant, with an amazing, wide-ranging talent. His legacy of teaching and communicating the joy of all kinds of music—through his groundbreaking television appearances and his Young People’s Concerts— continue to delight and inspire awe.

“There’s a Hebrew phrase that makes me think of my father,” writes Bernstein’s daughter Jamie on the website, “Torah Lishmah, and it means, loosely translated, a raging thirst for knowledge ... and Leonard Bernstein had it about almost everything, not just music ... His brain was on fire with curiosity. And what he loved most was to communicate his excitement to others”.

Leonard Bernstein took great pride in his lineage. He referred to his foray into teaching as “being a rabbi”, and attributed his life-long love of learning to his scholarly, Talmudic background. Lenny’s first musical influence was hearing his father singing cantorial prayers in the shower, but his formal study of music came surprisingly late. Samuel Bernstein discouraged his son’s choice of profession, equating musicians to little more than beggars (the way they were regarded in the Russian ghetto from which the elder Bernstein escaped). In the 1940s, because of rising anti-Semitism, Bernstein was encouraged by his mentor Serge Koussevitzky to change his name. “Leonard Bernstein will never be displayed on a Carnegie Hall marquee”, Koussevitzky declared. Bernstein refused.

Many of Bernstein’s compositions, including “Jeremiah”, “Kaddish”, “Dybbuk”, and even “West Side Story” (originally conceived as “East Side Story”, depicting the rivalry between New York Jews and Italians), illustrate his incorporation of Jewish themes and cadences. In his stint as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Bernstein re-introduced the musicians to their countryman and founder, Gustav Mahler, whose music had been banned by Hitler (despite Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity). Lenny had a special place in his heart for Israel and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, performing, without a fee, in the country he felt exemplified his roots. It was a loving association that lasted from 1947 until the time of his death in 1990.

The legendary singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen—an international phenomenon at age 76—recently wrapped up a triumphant, two-year world tour that attracted euphoric, sell-out crowds wherever he appeared. Cohen is also a novelist, and first and foremost, a poet ... in temperament, and in his art.

Leonard Cohen grew up in a middle-class home in Westmount, Montreal, part of a vibrant Jewish intellectual community that produced such esteemed writers as A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, and Mordecai Richler. Like Leonard Bernstein, Cohen’s background was steeped in talmudic, scholarly traditions. Cohen’s maternal grandfather was Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, a fellow writer. Cohen’s books of poetry, including The Spice-Box of Earth and Book of Longing are filled with images from the Old Testament and with allusions to Jewish rituals. In 1973, Cohen travelled from his then-home in Greece to Israel, to entertain the IDF troops close to the front in Sinai.

Cohen’s writing and his life have incorporated many influences, but even when he retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Center for five years and became a Buddhist monk, he continued to observe the Sabbath and other Jewish customs. “Cohen’s life has been taken over by the most complicated and indescribable kind of spirituality,” wrote Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail, 2001. “He has always embraced the responsibility of the cohenim, the Jewish priestly class who kept the fires burning; his practice of Zen has only enhanced this. ‘I certainly wasn’t looking for a new religion— I was very happy with my own ….’” At other times Cohen has referred to Judaism as “the natural language of prayer for me”. Two examples from the many Jewish elements in Cohen’s work: “Last Dance at the Four Penny”, a poem which begins with the words, “ Layton, when we dance our freilach under the ghostly handkerchief …”, and “Who By Fire”, a musical interpretation of Unetanah Tokef, a Hebrew liturgical poem recited on Yom Kippur.

Lenny Bruce (1925–1966) was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and Lenny moved in with several relatives throughout his childhood. His mother, Sally Marr (née Sadie Kitchenberg), a vaudeville stage performer, had a profound influence on his career.

Lenny Bruce performed comedy routines and social commentaries that satirized social, political and religious hypocrisy, and paved the way for comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin. An iconoclast, he was misunderstood by many and labeled “shocking” and “obscene”. “The point about Bruce is that he wants us to be shocked, but by the right things”, wrote Kenneth Tynan, “not by four-letter words, which violate only convention, but by want and deprivation, which violate human dignity”. Bruce’s views on the ugliness of racism are well documented, but his own words best describe how he defined his Judaism:

“If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish. If you’re from Butte, Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re still goyish. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyish. Rye bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyish. Eddie Cantor is goyish, George Jessel is goyish. Coleman Hawkins is Jewish.”

According to Alexander Gelfand in The Forward, Lenny Bruce had a gift for disguising social criticism as comedy: “Bruce’s Jewishness was a central theme in his comedy; a way of establishing himself as an outsider … few performers better embodied the easy wit and critical function of the Jewish comedic tradition”.

Like previous TJFF sidebar series, The Three Lennys is ultimately meant to engage and to entertain, and to celebrate the work of extraordinary artists.

The Three Lennys. All of them: Icons.

View the films (click here)


Leonard Bernstein

• Bernstein: A Musical Travelogue
• A Journey to Jerusalem
• Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace
• Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note
• Leonard Bernstein’s Candide
• The Making of West Side Story
• Omnibus—The Art of Conducting
• Trouble in Tahiti
• The Unanswered Question
• Wonderful Town
• Young People’s Concerts: What Does Music Mean?


Lenny Bruce

• Lenny
• The Lenny Bruce Performance Film
• Lenny Bruce: Without Tears
• Looking for Lenny
• Thank You Mask Man

Leonard Cohen

• Angel
• I Am A Hotel
• I'm Your Man
• A Kite is a Victim
• Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen
• Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
• Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
• Leonard Cohen: Live in London
• Night Magic
• Poen
• The Song of Leonard Cohen

From: Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2011 Curator Notes (click here)ELLIE SKROW, CURATOR, SPECIAL PROGRAMMES

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