Tangled Up in Jews

Of Bach, Bernstein, Brahmins and Brachas in the Berkshires

That Soggy Plain: Patrons try to stay dry on the Tanglewood lawn in 1955.
Photo by Plouffe Studios
That Soggy Plain: Patrons try to stay dry on the Tanglewood lawn in 1955.

By Raphael Mostel

Published August 10, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
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It’s deeply ironic that Tanglewood, which is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of America’s largest music festivals — was essentially the creation of Jews in a place largely resentful of their presence.

During the 1930s in America, hostility to Jews was common, especially in rural areas, and the Berkshires were best known as a place of old-line Yankee farmers, famous American writers and high-society types. My uncle Zero, who broke into show business around the same time Tanglewood was founded, used to joke that back then, Jews didn’t go to the Berkshires — they went to the Catskills, which he called the “circumcised Berkshires.”

A Farewell To Lenny: Leonard Bernstein conducted his final concert at Tanglewood in 1990.
Photo By WAlter H. Scott
A Farewell To Lenny: Leonard Bernstein conducted his final concert at Tanglewood in 1990.

Read about The Jews of Tanglewood on our Arty Semite blog.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had rented a house in Lenox, Mass., in 1850 to write in seclusion — and wound up hating the place — coined the name Tanglewood. In Lenox, Hawthorne wrote “The House of the Seven Gables” as well as the lesser-known “Tanglewood Tales,” in which he retold Greek myths for children.

The Tanglewood festival itself began in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Robinson Smith, the privileged daughter of a fabulously wealthy New York family who summered in the Berkshires, wanted to bring orchestral concerts to the country. Smith was an efficient sort. During World War I, she and her friend, writer Edith Wharton, organized medical supplies for France, even traveling to the country in a blacked-out ship and flying over the front lines. Smith was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her efforts. So, when she decided to start a music festival in 1934, she was up to the challenge. She introduced her festival in a cow pasture, under an August full moon, featuring musicians from the New York Philharmonic. Smith organized another festival the following year, but she wasn’t pleased with conductor Henry Hadley’s choice of repertoire: too light, not enough substance.

Check out Five Things You Never Knew About Tanglewood.

Enter Serge Koussevitzky, the “hot” new conductor of the BSO, who had been wowing audiences and critics not just with his conducting, but also with his “aristocratic, European” bearing that simply bowled over the Boston Brahmins — so much so that the BSO advertised itself as “the aristocrat of American orchestras.” Koussevitzky’s reputation, however, concealed his humble origins: He was actually the son of two Jewish klezmer musicians from a Russian shtetl. As a teenager he had been required to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church in order to be admitted to school in Moscow, and so to the Boston Brahmins he appeared to be merely an exotic Christian.


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