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Maria Rosa Menocal

Maria Rosa Menocal is a R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She is also the author of the new book: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown). Menocal details Andalucia, Spain from 786 to 1492 where literature, science, and tolerance flourished.


Other segments from the episode on May 14, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 14, 2002: Interview with Maria Rosa Menocal; Interview with Jamie Bernstein.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Professor Maria Rosa Menocal discusses her book, "The
Ornament of the World"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Imagine a time when Arabs, Jews and Christians lived together for centuries in
peace, when religious tolerance was encoded in the laws of government, and
literature, science and art flourished. Was there ever such a time? There
was, and what's more, it all happened in the dark, barbaric Middle Ages. From
the 8th to the 15th century, in Andalusia, Spain, the world's three dominant
cultures forged a stable, enlightened Muslim civilization far more advanced
than anything in northern Europe at the time. This often-overlooked era is
the subject of Maria Rosa Menocal's new book, "The Ornament of the World: How
Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval
Spain." Menocal is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.
In the year 711, Muslim armies crossed the straits of Gibraltar from northern
Africa into Spain. But Menocal says that the Muslim empire of Spain didn't
begin to take shape until decades later.

Professor MARIA ROSA MENOCAL (Author, "The Ornament of the World"): Then this
remarkable event takes place in 750 and that is that the caliph, who is, of
course, the ruler of the entire entity of Islam--the caliph actually means the
successor to the prophet, and so he is the temporal as well as the spiritual
leader of the entirety of the community. The caliph in Damascus at that point
is overthrown and in a bloody coup his entire family is wiped out, except for
one young man, who was, in fact, the grandson of the caliph. And it's this
wonderful Anastasia-like story except that, unlike Anastasia, he actually
turns up and he turns up five years later over in Morocco. But, of course, by
the time he gets out there, all of--you know, most of the interesting and
important people had themselves already migrated over to the other side of the
Strait of Gibraltar. So he goes over and he realizes that here is a place
where he cannot only find refuge but set up his own universe, in effect a
court in exile, in Spain now, we're talking, after about the middle of the 8th
century, and he does so.

And for me, this is the far more important date, which is really 755, '56,
because if this had not happened, this would always have just been an outlying
province, but what this man does is he arrives and he says, you know, `I am
the heir to the caliphate,' and towards the end of his life, already, he
begins to build what will become, and what is, the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
So he lived for a long time and he transformed. You suddenly see this is not
just some province. This is the new center of a dynasty and a vision of
culture in exile. So it completely changes the vision.

BOGAEV: So what was the makeup, then, of this early empire? There were
Christians, there were Jews, there was this rising Islamic caliphate, this
young, dynamic ruler out there on the frontier. Who controlled what and what
rungs on the socioeconomic ladder did each group occupy?

Prof. MENOCAL: Well, clearly the Muslims were the dominant political force.
And the results of this were very different for the Christian community and
the Jewish community. The Jewish community, the results were almost
unambiguously positive. The previous era in Spain had been dominated by the
old Germanic Visigothic government which was, you know, the continuation of
the Germanic tribes that had, you know, sacked Rome, literally. The Visigoths
are the tribe that sacks Rome in the 5th century. And so when the Muslims
arrive, both as settlers and then with the coming of this new leadership, they
find a place that is, I think, hungry for a different vision of society. And
the truth is that the vast majority of Muslims in the peninsula after a fairly
short period of time are all converts from the original populations who might
have been Christians or might have been, you know, so loosely Christians that
they may, in fact, have only been Christians in name.

There's some evidence that out in the countryside, in particular, they may
still have been pagans and so forth. So the Christians converted in very
large numbers, and this created problems for the Christian community. But the
Jews had been in a virtually enslaved situation during the last years of the
Visigoths and so they were suddenly not only not enslaved but were protected,
encouraged to become Arabized, in fact, without, as far as we can tell, any
particular defections from the religion itself. And by the early part of the
10th century, i.e., within a century or so after all of this starts to happen,
it's clear that the communities of Jews are thoroughly integrated into the
upper echelons of the Muslim society.

BOGAEV: Now you write what helped the Jewish minority assimilate and live in
harmony with their Arab neighbors, and also, to a great extent, the Christian
minority, also, was a culture of tolerance that the--that Islam fostered.
What was that based on? What was the foundation of that?

Prof. MENOCAL: The foundation for it is something that is called the Pact of
Omar, which is a very brief statement of protection for Peoples of the Book.
And this appears very early on in the history of Islam. It's based on a
couple of things. It's explicitly based on the recognition of the fact that
unlike pagans, or polytheists, in that sense, that Jews and Christians are, as
they are called, the Peoples of the Book, i.e., they share a scriptural
tradition with the Muslims. So it's rather explicitly a recognition that
these three religions, even though they're monotheistic and thus necessarily
contradict each other, are, nevertheless--have a special, intertwined history
and are distinguished from others by having sacred books. So this puts them
in a very special category which entitles them to protection within an Islamic

BOGAEV: So what did that mean? How was this--you call it the dimmy.

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes, it's called the dimmy.

BOGAEV: Is that...

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes, it's...

BOGAEV: ...a series of teachings or...

Prof. MENOCAL: Well, no, dimmy means Peoples of the Book...

BOGAEV: The book.

Prof. MENOCAL: ...and thus protected peoples. And technically, what the law
says is that they are protected. They may not be executed or persecuted and
they do not have to convert. It's a very different attitude, by the way.
Pagans, you can execute, you can force to convert. So forced conversion is
prohibited vis-a-vis these two groups but permitted for others. And they are
not, however, equal, because they're not Muslims, and it's a Muslim regime.
And the major limitations or the major differences are first of all that they
have to pay a tax, which the Muslims do not have to pay. So you're taxed, in
that sense. And the other limitation, which is very interesting, is that
they're not allowed to build new religious monuments or proselytize among
others. Again, this last one, as you can--because, of course, actually,
building new monuments can be seen as being a form of proselytizing, can be
interpreted that way. The question of to what degree this was enforced during
different periods is much discussed.

BOGAEV: What were the long-term effects of this tolerance? Did it mean that
the Jews and Christians and Arabs shared a common culture, and something that
you see in the architecture of Spain, in the poetry, in the shared language?

Prof. MENOCAL: Right. Well, what's interesting is that the first several
centuries, from about--if we say roughly from 750 to 1,000 it's--actually, is
a period in which Islamic polity does have this formal tolerance that is based
on the principles that we've discussed. But what happens as a result of that
is that you begin to develop a very important cultural tolerance. In other
words, what takes root during this period of time is this wonderful idea,
which is really for me what that culture of tolerance is about is this
wonderful idea that culture, itself, which means everything from the language
that you speak to the architecture of the house of worship that you are in, to
the literature and philosophy that you read, is not something that ought to be
determined or judged on the ideological grounds of your religion so that in
fact they have a shared cultural identity which does not, of course, prevent
religious intolerance or political mayhem or all sorts of things. But I think
sometimes it slows it down. In fact, I mean, I think, it suggests that the
shared everyday things trump these theological constructs, which may be
difficult for everyday people to think are more important.

BOGAEV: Well, you write that also--this was a golden age of Jewish culture...

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes, it is.

BOGAEV: ...and that one of the things that was contributing towards this
tolerance was an ability among the Jewish people to accept contradiction in
one's own identity...

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes.

BOGAEV: ...that that was very much a force in leading thought of the time
and religious thought in the arts. Can you talk about that?

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes. Well, it is a very interesting fact that, of course, the
Jewish community did blossom because it was able to be an assimilated part of
the civic community around themselves without feeling that this made them any
less Jewish in any way, although, of course, the voices contradicting this
posture would eventually arise. Which is what I--why I say that the really
interesting struggles are not among the groups but, so to speak, for the
hearts and minds of whether it's Jews or Muslims or Christians. So the
question for the Jewish community, which was, in fact, not asked for a very
long time what would eventually be posed as something like `Well, can you be a
good Jew and, you know, know Greek philosophy inside-out? Or is an acceptance
of philosophy a contradiction with being a Jew? Or can you be a good Jew and,
you know, sing songs or write poetry that, even if it's in Hebrew, is so
thoroughly, clearly Arabized?'

BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Maria Rosa Menocal. She's a professor Spanish and
Portuguese at Yale University. She's also the director of the Whitney
Humanities Center there. Her new book is "The Ornament of the World: How
Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval
Spain." Maria, we're going to take a break now. Then we'll talk some more.



(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Rosa Menocal. She's a
professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. And her new book is
about a period of medieval history in which Jews, Arabs and Christians lived
together in peace in Spain. It's called "The Ornament of the World."

Can you talk about some of the ways that medieval society differed from ours
today, which would account for the ability to tolerate each other's religious
differences? For instance, this idea of nation-states.

Prof. MENOCAL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: That didn't arise till much, much later.

Prof. MENOCAL: That's right.

BOGAEV: And I think borders were so much more fluid...

Prof. MENOCAL: They were.

BOGAEV: ...than the Middle Ages. And that must be a factor.

Prof. MENOCAL: One of the things that happens during that period is the rise
of the modern nation-states, and one of the things that that ends up
crystalizing, is a far more homogeneous notion of cultural identity than the
one that it replaces because it does come to define your citizenship in a
given entity as that of the state, and it's a state where everybody else who's
a member of that community speaks the same language and is of the same
religion, and perhaps is even, or at least you pretend, is of the same ethnic
group. And so you have the beginnings of the development of these far more,
in my opinion, limited notions of what people are and what they can be,
certainly within Islamic Spain and in the Mediterranean. I think the
circumstances are really very different in northern Europe.

This shared culture and the fact that you did have not only Muslims and Jews
and Christians that did live side by side, not necessarily always in peace,
but also not necessarily believing that they were living in different
communities, either, in that sense. There was an ability to be multiple
things at the same time. So you could be a good citizen of the city of
Granada and be a good Jew. And, in fact, you might even be the leader of the
Jewish community and be the right-hand man to the ruler of that city. And, of
course, you could also believe in Greek philosophy at the same time.

And so there is a greater richness and variety, particularly in the
Mediterranean area, which I think can breed and can thrive in a culture of
tolerance. It can also, of course, if lines get drawn, produce the opposite.

BOGAEV: So what brought about the collapse of the culture?

Prof. MENOCAL: Well, as I said, the tension was always there. The collapse
of the culture of tolerance inside of Spain? I think there's several
different things that happened. One is that the Islamic state, as a unified
peninsular government, was destroyed in the year 1000. The political fate of
that went downhill from then on in. It's a complicated political history, but
it basically has, first, about a hundred years when it's broken down into
these feuding city-states. And then it went from there to one where you had
these Muslims who came in from Morocco who were very fundamentalist and who
thought that the Andalusian Muslims were these decadent people who did all of
these things that they didn't approve of, including their interpretation of
the demahn(ph) and so on and so forth, who colonized them, basically, for a
hundred years.

And so on the one hand you had the Muslim government in retreat and becoming
more and more hard-line. I mean, meanwhile, within Spain and in the north,
the imposition, or the bringing to the peninsula of these basically Roman--and
I use that to mean the rest of the church--notions of Christianity that were
by nature, I think, theologically more intolerant, but also by cultural
practice were ideas about the interpretation of what the church should be that
had been developed within communities that had never known what it was to live
with a Muslim or a Jew--the combination of all of these factors, so that by
the time you get to the 14th and 15th centuries the number of people who are
still in a position to maintain tolerant civil states, or diminish, the
culture itself is still there, but it's in danger because, you know, the lines
in the sand have been drawn.

BOGAEV: If we can talk just specifically in terms of Israel and Israelis and

Prof. MENOCAL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: ...right now today...

Prof. MENOCAL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: ...I think some--I guess I can't say many--but some Israelis and
Palestinians would say that as recently as even four or five years ago...

Prof. MENOCAL: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...that they shared a common culture...

Prof. MENOCAL: Yes.

BOGAEV: ...and that peace was attainable...

Prof. MENOCAL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: large part because of that and that rather than it being this
long historic enmity, peace has disintegrated in a very short time.

Prof. MENOCAL: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: I'm curious what your perspective on that is, given that you take a
very long view in history.

Prof. MENOCAL: Well, maybe that's another positive way of looking at it is to
look at the long view and to understand that when you're, you know, in a given
moment it can look very terrible and negative and so forth. And yet for me
part of the reason history--the recent events, I should say--has allowed me to
understand the history more that I couldn't understand before because it used
to seem to me so mysterious of, you know, how could you have one year, this
one really spectacular instance of coexistence and great culture and so forth,
and then the next year you'd have a riot that killed, you know, all of these
Jews in one community and so forth, and the frailty of things? And the

BOGAEV: As if there were a tipping point somewhere.

Prof. MENOCAL: As if there were a tipping point. And again, I think that's
something for people who have a voice and decisions to make to understand,
which is the frailty of these arrangements, even when the good is so great and
even when the bad is so terrible that the line is such a thin one.

For me the greatest example of this in the history of Spain is, in effect, the
story of 1492, which is when, on the 1st of January, Ferdinand and Isabella go
and take possession of the city of Granada, which had been the last--and, in
fact, for 250 years had been this little isolated Muslim kingdom. Now 250
years is a long time, but it's like the little footnote at the end of that
whole medieval history.

And the contemporaries tell the story of how Isabella marches up the hill,
dressed in her finest Moorish garb. I mean, she was still dressed, literally,
in the culture. And she wasn't making fun of anyone, and moreover she marches
up there with her Jewish advisers, who were her closest advisers, who, in
fact, had arranged her marriage to Ferdinand. Her Jewish doctor had been the
one who had treated her for, I think, her infertility problem. She
had--desperate to have a child.

So, you know, the march up the hill is in this one cultural mode. Within
three months she was signing the edict to expel the Jews, including those same
men that she had--and within a very short period of time after that the
provisions of the treatise that allowed the takeover of Granada, which
stipulated demi-like protection for the Muslims, where not actually officially
revoked necessarily, but were clearly allowed to be overridden. So within a
very short period of time you went from something where at least the
possibility of a very different future was there to one where that possible
future was really irreparably blown up and was unrecoverable eventually. And,
in fact, the bottom line is she did it because the church had the greater
influence on her.

BOGAEV: Maria Rosa Menocal is the director of the Whitney Humanities Center
at Yale University. Her new book is "The Ornament of the World." I'm Barbara
Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music with singing in foreign language; funding credits)

BOGAEV: Coming up, we meet Jamie Bernstein Thomas, daughter of
composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Later this month, she narrates a
performance of her father's symphony "Kaddish." We'll talk with her about
that and about growing up with the renowned conductor.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jamie Bernstein Thomas discusses the life and music of
her father, Leonard Bernstein, as she prepares for a performance
of one of his works later this month

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Next week, the Cincinnati May Festival presents Leonard Bernstein's "Symphony
No. 3," "Kaddish," as part of its Beethoven, Bernstein and Brotherhood
celebration. "Kaddish" is dedicated to the memory of President Kennedy, who
was assassinated shortly after Bernstein completed the work in 1963. It's
based on Jewish prayers traditionally recited for the dead. Bernstein
envisioned it as a life-affirming plea for universal peace.

(Soundbite of "Kaddish"; music)

Unidentified Man #1: With `amen' on my lips I approach your presence, Father.
Not with fear, but with a certain respectful fury. Do you not recognize my
voice? I am that part of man you made to suggest his immortality. You surely
remember, Father, the part that refuses death, that insists on your divines,
your voice, guesses your grace. And always you have heard my voice, and
always you have answered me with a rainbow, a raven, a plague, something. But
now I see nothing. This time you show me nothing at all! Are you listening,
Father? You know who I am, your image, that stubborn reflection of you that
man has shattered, extinguished, banished. And now he runs free, free to play
with his newfound fire, avid for death, voluptuous, complete and final death.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Lord, God of hosts, I call you to account! You let this
happen, Lord of hosts! You with your manner, your pillar of fire. You asked
for faith. Where is your own? Why have you taken away your rainbow, that
pretty bow you tie around your finger to remind you never to forget your

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: `For lo, I do set my bow in the cloud, and I will look
upon it that I may remember my everlasting covenant.' Your covenant? Your
bargain with man? Tin god, your bargain is tin! It crumbles in my hands.
And where is faith now, yours or mine?

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: When the "Kaddish" symphony is performed next week in Cincinnati, the
speaker will be a woman. Not just any woman, but Bernstein's daughter, Jamie
Bernstein Thomas. Thomas is a writer, musician and broadcaster. She's
written several concert narrations, including "The Bernstein Beat," a concert
for young people which features her father's music. In preparing for the
Cincinnati performance of "Kaddish," Thomas made some revisions to the spoken
text. I asked her why.

Ms. JAMIE BERNSTEIN THOMAS (Daughter of Leonard Bernstein): To be perfectly
honest, I have always had a problem with this narration, and I'm not alone. I
think many of us, my siblings, certainly, and I, and many listeners, many
people in the audience over the years, have really had trouble with the
narration that goes with this symphony. It's kind of bombastic, in God's
face. It's a kind of shaking his fist at the heavens. My father wrote it
himself. It's very personal and very over the top and kind of mawkish in
places, perhaps, and it's really hard to digest. And I think it alienated a
lot of people from the symphony and made it even harder to listen to than it
already was. It's quite challenging musically, but this narration, while
accessible because it's in English and is in normal English speech, is just so
kind of hard to sit through. It can make you uncomfortable and embarrassed.
And I, for one, had a lot of trouble with it.

BOGAEV: So for this performance, you've taken a lot of the bombast out. Do
you feel, in a way, though, that, that was difficult in a way, that you're
taking a lot of your father out of it?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, here's what I did, for better or for worse. I didn't
really take anything out as much I just added a layer on top. You know how in
the Talmud, the Hebraic text is in the middle and then one generation of
rabbis wrote their opinions around the edge and then the next generation of
rabbis wrote their opinion around the edge of that until you've got all these
different layers of opinion and argument. And that's sort of what I've done.
And because it's so Talmudic, I feel it's, you know, very much in keeping with
the whole spirit of the symphony.

So what I've done is I've sort of commented on my father's narration in my own
narration. And what I've asked the Cincinnati Symphony to do is to print my
father's text and mine next to each other in the program so that you can refer
to the first one and see how it relates to the one I've written. I'm sort of
commenting on the original text.

BOGAEV: So there's a dialogue there.

Ms. THOMAS: It's a kind of dialogue, and it's sort of yet another layer of
arguing with your father. Because my father's text begins, and is addressed
to, `Oh, my Father.' So he's addressing his god, of course, but it's also, in
a way, an argument with is own father who was a Talmudic scholar, and they had
all sorts of troubles of their own. And now I'm adding my own layer of
arguing with my father and taking him to task for his narration. So it's a
kind of hall of mirrors of fighting with your dad, if you will, all the way
back to the original creator, the father of us all.

BOGAEV: I was thinking as I was listening to a recording of "Kaddish" that
it's about hope in many ways, hope for peace and a testament to art and to
music's power to heal, to heal and to comfort. Do you remember your father
using music as a source of comfort in your life, in your family's life?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, music was sort of like water to a fish for us. It was just,
you know, our ground of being. It was always around. It was beyond comfort,
it was air. So I can't think of a time when it wasn't part of our daily
lives. You know, we listened to pop music on the radio, in the car, and my
father liked our pop music as much as he liked anything else. And, really, he
was just so interested in everything, so curious and so appreciative that it
didn't matter what kind of music it was. Whatever music was around, he was
going to get interested in it. So it was always around us, and very much a
source of comfort.

BOGAEV: So does that mean he'd jump up from the dinner table and go over to
the piano and start goofing around?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, he might not jump up from the dinner table, because he
really liked to eat. So he'd sit there and, you know, we'd finish up. But
then we'd go back to the library for coffee, and that's--in that room, there
wasn't a piano. There was this harpsichord, this very beautiful harpsichord
that had been handmade by somebody whose name was on the harpsichord--I don't
remember anymore. But for some reason, that was the instrument that all the
music discussions wound up being discussed over. So he'd wind up playing any
old thing on the harpsichord and it always sounded so funny. You know, we'd
be arguing about the chords, and we had an endless discussion about how the
chord progressions went in "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by The Supremes. And he
thought it was in--the key he thought it was in was actually the dominant
minor of the real tonic in that song, and we would argue about it endlessly.
It was sort of like a musical equivalent of seeing the vase or the profiles of
the people talking. And so we'd wind up discussing this over the harpsichord,
where it sounded so silly, but that's where it all sort of wound up.

BOGAEV: I was looking through family photos in the Humphry Burton biography
of your father, and there's you as a toddler sitting on Lillian Hellman's lap.
And, of course, there were just parades of celebrities, I suppose, walking
through your house. When you were growing up, what were the dinner parties

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, golly. Well, there were always tons of people in our house.
It just seemed like there was always a lot of people and a lot of drinking and
cigarette smoke and laughing and screaming and playing the piano and racket.
I just thought grown-ups made a big racket and had fun all the time. That's
what I thought being a grown-up meant.

So the dinner parties were pretty convivial, noisy experiences. And I
guess--you know, there were lots of famous people, many of whom I didn't
really know at first, but after a while I started to recognize the faces as I
got older. There was a little phase of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,
and that was thrilling. And then there was the time when the guy who played
Jimmy Olsen on "Superman" actually came to our house. That was the real big
one for us.

BOGAEV: Oh, that stands out.

Ms. THOMAS: I'm sure that's not very impressive to the rest of the world, and
I'm sure our parents wouldn't even remember, but that's what we cared about.
Turns out he was a composer; Jack Larson his name is.

BOGAEV: Uh-huh. I think one of the things most people remember best about
your father is his Young People's Concerts. A lot of us spent many Saturday
mornings--later Saturday evenings--watching them on CBS. And in the concerts,
he introduced young kids to all kinds of classical music, and he also
introduced young performers in the concerts. Did you attend the concerts
yourself as a kid?

Ms. THOMAS: I attended just about all of them. And, in fact, looking back
on the whole thing, I think that he was, in a way, writing the concerts for me
and my siblings. I was about five years old when he started doing the Young
People's Concerts, and maybe it was no coincidence they got more complicated
as my siblings and I grew older.

And then we started listening to pop music when I was about 10 or 11 and The
Beatles arrived and everything, then the pop music started sneaking in as
examples in my father's Young People's Concerts. And I know that came out of
all our discussions about pop music in the car when we would listen to the
radio. And, you know, we might be listening to, say, "Pretty Ballerina" by
The Left Banke, and my father would say, `Hey, that song's in the Phrygian
mode.' `Really? What's that?' So the next thing you knew, we were learning
all about modes, and, by golly, the next Young People's Concert was called
What is a Mode, and he used "Pretty Ballerina" as the example for the Phrygian
mode, and so on.

BOGAEV: Did...

Ms. THOMAS: And, oh, how the kids in the audience loved it when my father
would sing, you know, snippets of "And I Love Her" in his terrible, gravely
voice. And all the girls would scream and squirm, and it was such fun for

BOGAEV: Now did you ever go to concerts with your dad?

Ms. THOMAS: You mean...

BOGAEV: Rock 'n' roll concerts, I mean.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, yeah, we went to a lot of concerts. We went to The Stones
at the Garden. We went to see Michael Jackson together, quite late, actually,
in like--it would have been '88, I think, that we went to see Michael Jackson.
And I took him to the Fillmore a few times. We saw The Who and we saw Blood,
Sweat & Tears. So, I mean, he was a fan.

BOGAEV: Go on. What did he have to say about Michael Jackson?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, he was a big fan of Michael Jackson. They actually met once
in Los Angeles, and hit it off in some bizarre way. I don't quite know what
they talked about--I don't remember anymore--but somehow they admired each
other's larger-than-lifeness, I think.

BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Jamie Bernstein Thomas. She's the daughter of
Leonard Bernstein. She's also a composer, writer, broadcaster. She and her
brother and sister founded the Bernstein Education Through the Arts Fund to
encourage arts in the schools.

We'll talk more, Jamie, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back with Jamie Bernstein Thomas. She's the daughter of Leonard

Your mother, Felicia, was an actress, and later she became a painter and also
a political activist. She protested against the Vietnam War. She helped
raise money for Black Panthers accused of terrorism. They were held on such
high bail that many liberals saw it as a civil liberties issue. And one
particular party that she and your father put together got a lot of flak. It
was a fund-raiser for the jailed Black Panthers, and the party was attended by
Tom Wolfe. He portrayed it in the press as--he just skewered them as posing
as the radical chic. I think you were in your teens then, right? Seventeen
or 18?

Ms. THOMAS: I was 17, yeah. I was a senior in high school.

BOGAEV: Were you at the party?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I was in the house, but I didn't really attend the party.
I remember being up there for just a few minutes, and then getting bored and
sort of drifting off and hanging out with my boyfriend. And so I didn't
really grasp what was going on. It was my mother's thing. My father had
nothing to do with it, but what happened was that he showed up in the middle
of this fund-raising party and took over, as he always did when he walked into
a room, and started having a dialogue with one of the members of the Black
Panther party who was speaking. And this is what wound up in Tom Wolfe's book
as just kind--it's kind of quoted out of context, and it all just sounded a
lot dopier than it actually was.

And, you know, it might have been--the guy was talking about something, and he
ended some sentence with, `You dig?' And my father said, `Well, I dig,
absolutely. But what I'm trying to ask you is blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.' So
taken out of context, `I dig, absolutely'--it made my father just sound like a

BOGAEV: Almost.

Ms. THOMAS: Mind you, it was a little questionable to begin with, but taken
out of context, it sounded a million times worse.

BOGAEV: Your father was a bisexual. And as teen-ager growing up, how much
did you know about that part of his personal life?

Ms. THOMAS: As a teen-ager, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't really
hear about it until, come to think about it, that same year when I was 17, and
I went to Tanglewood for the summer to work as a guide. And I started hearing
stories about his wild youth up at Tanglewood, and I subsequently asked my
father about it and he denied everything. He said, `Oh, there are people who
are jealous of me and they make up terrible stories,' and he told me about
some of these people who really existed who did make up terrible stories about
him. But in fact, some of the stories were true. So I think he was just
trying to cover his tracks. He couldn't deal with it yet back then.

And it wasn't until about five years later that he came out of the closet,
really, and began to not only talk about his past, but be honest about his
present. And my parents separated over it, because at that point, my father
had a lover, and he went off to live with the gay lover and my mother was
devastated, and, oh, golly, what a mess it all was. And in the end, my father
couldn't really bear to live the gay lifestyle. He just couldn't--he was just
a little too bourgeois in his soul to really go through with it. He grew a
beard. He couldn't do that, he cut it off, he went back to my mother. And
this sort of--he just kind of came creeping back to his old life because he
couldn't really sustain the other.

BOGAEV: Where were you in all of this?

Ms. THOMAS: Where was I? I was about 24 at the time. I was in New York,
watching it all happen and trying to juggle being with one parent or another.
And at this point, my mother became very sick with lung cancer. Her breast
cancer of four years earlier--three years earlier--recurred. It came back, it
metastasized. And so by the time my mother and father had their
rapprochement, my mother was already sick. So they, you know, got reunited,
and then a year later, my mother died. So it was a completely awful time. It
was an upheaval for everyone and very sad. And, you know, nobody ever quite
pulled out of that for about--I don't know--it took about a decade for
everybody to get over it.

BOGAEV: Had your mother forgiven your father when she died?

Ms. THOMAS: I think she had. The bottom line was that they were crazy about
each other and they did have this reconciliation. So, you know, that whole
part of it was more or less resolved by the time my mother was dying. So
everybody could concentrate on the fact that she was dying and not so much on
what had preceded it the few years before.

And as for my siblings and myself--you know, in spite of the fact that we had
those awful years and our parents went through this terrible discord, the fact
was that everybody loved each other so much. There was just so much warmth in
our house when we were growing up that we managed to kind of climb over all
the pain and come out the other side and still be happy in one another's
company. So whatever was essentially there that was good and warm survived
all the upheaval.

BOGAEV: What effect did your mother's death have on your father?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, it was terrible for him. He felt so guilty. He felt somehow
that he'd, you know, brought it all on. His Jewish guilt really, really got
him on that one, and it was very hard for him to recover. It took many years.
And I think he exorcised a lot of the pain by writing his opera "A Quiet
Place," in which the wife/mother figure dies and then the--you know, it all
came out in the music. It's very, very tormented music in that opera.

BOGAEV: Jamie Bernstein Thomas is the daughter of Leonard Bernstein. We'll
continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamie Bernstein Thomas. She's
the daughter of Leonard Bernstein.

Since your father's death, you've worked with your family to preserve his
legacy and to continue, in part, his mission to educate kids in music. And
among other projects, you've produced concerts for children and families, I
suppose in the spirit of your father's Young People's Concerts.

Ms. THOMAS: Not just in the spirit, but as an outright tribute, really. The
original idea came from his publishing company, that perhaps a good way to
promote the Bernstein catalog of his compositions would be to create a Young
People's Concert featuring his own music. And I said that's such a great idea
that I volunteered to write it myself. And then once I wrote it, I could
imagine my voice narrating it. And so I did it myself, with Michael Barrett,
who co-devised it with me. And he's a conductor who studied with my dad. So
we did it together.

BOGAEV: So did you go back and listen to the Young People's Concerts and
borrow from that blueprint in terms of audience participation and getting the
kids excited?

Ms. THOMAS: You know, I didn't really go back to watch them so much, 'cause I
kind of had internalized them already. So I just took what I remembered and
what I had internalized myself and wrote them from what I remembered in my
feelings, what it was like to listen to the Young People's Concerts as a kid,
and to use what I loved about music and what excited me as a key to what would
probably work for other kids.

BOGAEV: You took your concert of Bernstein music to Cuba. How did "West Side
Story" go over there? And did they think your father got the Latin beat
right, or do people feel it was presumptuous of the great American composer to
borrow from their tradition?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I worried that they would think that, but they didn't at
all. They were thrilled. And in a way, it was like the music was coming home
to the place where it was, you know, the cradle of all that music. The way my
father got excited about Cuban music to begin with was one time when he was
very young he was in Key West and heard the Cuban music on the radio down
there because, after all, Cuba's only 90 miles away from Key West, Florida,
and the radio waves come right over the water. So he heard all these fabulous
rhythms and was just enchanted, and all those sounds started coming out in his
own music right away. He wrote "Fancy Free" only a year later, and it has
that dans sun(ph) it, which is so catchy, and all those Cuban rhythms. And
they came up again and again.

And "West Side Story" has the mambo in it, of course, and you should have
heard that Cuban orchestra play the mambo. I'd never heard anything like that
in my life. It was thrilling. There were things that those percussion guys
did that I never heard before, like, things that made sense that had never
made sense to me before. It was great.

BOGAEV: Oh, how about the concerts that you brought to Beijing? How much
exposure had the China National Symphony had to Leonard Bernstein music?

Ms. THOMAS: Zero. Zero. And, also, they--I mean, American music, in
general, they knew virtually nothing about. And as Michael Barrett said when
he was conducting those rehearsals, he said it was like dentistry to try and
get those musicians to understand American music and those rhythms. I wish we
could have done the Young People's Concert for them because the concert that
we do is about rhythm, and it would have taught them a lot of what they needed
to know. When they first rehearsed "Cool" from "West Side Story," which we
all know goes, (singing) `Da-da da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da.' (In normal
voice), they played it like this, (singing) `Dun-dun, dun-dun-dun,
dun-dun-dun-dun-dun.' (In normal voice) Like a nice Mao march is how they
played it. So poor Michael had to stop the rehearsal and explain about swing.
And it's very hard to explain swing to somebody who doesn't already know it.

BOGAEV: I bet that took a talented translator.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, it did. Luckily, we had one. Not on the first day, but by
the second day we finally got our translation act together.

BOGAEV: Now do you still compose music yourself?

Ms. THOMAS: I do when I get a minute, which I don't get a lot of, although I
play it. I have two kids, so I--you know, the mom thing all by itself is
pretty time-consuming. And I do these Young People's Concerts and a lot of
radio stuff and narrations and not to mention this "Kaddish" narration that
I'm doing in Cincinnati. So the songwriting seems to take a backseat to all
of that. And, of course, I bring a lot of anxiety and ambivalence to writing
music. I just can't imagine why, but I do.

BOGAEV: Well, Jamie Bernstein Thomas, I want to thank you so much. It was
really fun talking to you today.

Ms. THOMAS: It was fun talking to you, too.

BOGAEV: Jamie Bernstein Thomas is the daughter of Leonard Bernstein. She
performs the role of the speaker in her father's "Kaddish" symphony on Friday,
May 24th at the Cincinnati May Festival.

(Soundbite of "Cool")

Unidentified Man #2: You want to live in this lousy world? Play it cool.

Unidentified Man #3: I want to get even!

Unidentified Man #2: Get cool.

Unidentified Man #3: I want to bust!

Unidentified Man #2: Bust cool.

Unidentified Man #3: I want to go!

Unidentified Man #2: Go cool.

(Singing) Boy, boy, crazy boy. Get cool, boy. Gotta rocket in your pocket.
Keep cooly-cool, boy. Don't get hot, because, man, you've got some high times
ahead. Take it slow and, daddy-o, you can live it up and die in bed.

Boy, boy, crazy boy. Stay loose, boy. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
Turn off the juice, boy. Go, man, go, but not like a yo-yo, school boy. Just
play it cool, boy, real cool.

(Soundbite of finger snapping)


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

(Soundbite of "Cool"; music)

Group of People: (Singing) Boy, boy, crazy boy. Stay loose, boy. Breeze it,
buzz it, easy does it. Turn off the juice, boy.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Just play it cool, boy, real cool.

(Soundbite of finger snapping; music)

Unidentified Man #2: Pow!
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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