An Illustrated Letter for Mother’s Day

First page of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Jennie Bernstein from Israel, illustrated by Jossi Stern, 1948. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

In anticipation of Mother’s Day weekend, I decided to focus on something from our collections that celebrates “mom,” and, for me, there is one item that stands out among the rest. In 1948, 30-year-old Leonard Bernstein visited Israel for the second time (his first trip was just a year prior), conducting the Israel Philharmonic in a series of concerts. Israeli audiences embraced Bernstein’s concerts, and the conductor-composer developed an affinity for the country as well. In the late 1940s, Israel was also at war; likely in an effort to reassure her of his safety in the country, Bernstein wrote his mother, Jennie, a letter about his exciting and beautiful travels. The nine-page letter, digitized and fully available for download on the Library’s website, tells of his adventures including lunch in Nazareth, giving a memorable concert with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, riding camels, and his favorite stop of all in Eilat. He remarked about his time in Eilat: “After a marvelous swim in the Red Sea (which is the bluest thing you ever saw) and a hard-tack dinner we drove up into the hills + entertained the soldiers stationed there. Jennie sang Carmen, of course – and this place at night really knocked me out. If you can imagine an intimate desert, where every rock + dune seems familiar, this is it.”

Page 8 of Bernstein’s letter. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

But what really makes Bernstein’s letter stand out is the gorgeous watercolor illustrations that bejewel it. These watercolors were painted by then 25-year-old artist Yossi Stern, a Hungarian refugee who relocated to Israel in 1940 and became a noteworthy artist in Israel, ultimately earning the title “painter of Jerusalem.” The illustrations bring Bernstein’s narrative to life and relay the vibrancy of Israeli life and culture that Bernstein so clearly appreciated. Explore Stern’s charming and beautiful watercolors on all nine pages of Bernstein’s letter! The digitized letter includes a typed transcription following the actual letter, in case you have any difficulty reading Bernstein’s handwriting.

Perhaps this Mother’s Day, when many are quarantined and eager to connect with loved ones whom they cannot see in person, we might consider sending a similarly illustrated letter to our mothers, grandmothers, and friends describing how we are spending our time these days. While you may not have a celebrated artist available at home, the artistic attempt can only make your Mother’s Day cards and letters more fun and personal – and there’s still time to get those letters in the mail!

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