As part of CMI’s ongoing focus on diverse and multi-cultural communities, we regularly feature music and music-makers from those diverse communities. It is important to us that our work be reflective of the many communities we seek to reach. In recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month in May, we hope you enjoy this light-hearted look at Leonard Bernstein by one of NOTE’s newest contributors – Michael Silverstein.
How to Pronounce My Name
People used to have no trouble pronouncing my last name, Silverstein, with the last syllable pronounced steen. They also had no trouble with Goldstein, Bernstein, Weinstein, and all the other -steins, which were all pronounced with the same steen ending. The only time anyone used to address me or the other -steins with a stine ending was when they wanted to be offensive; such a pronunciation amounted to a backhanded ethnic slur.
And then Leonard Bernstein came along. He didn’t cause trouble in this realm right away. As a young man from a small town near Boston, he was known as Lennie Bernstein, with a steen ending.
But then he began to be recognized as a talent, moved to Manhattan, and started hanging around with a more culturally oriented crowd. You didn’t go by a nickname like “Lennie” with these folks. So he became Leonard Bernstein, though still with that steen ending.
Lennie’s fame continued to grow with the years, as he moved beyond writing music for popular stage productions such as West Side Story and became the conductor of a major symphony orchestra. It was a nice professional evolution for a kid whose father ran a small bookstore, and he deserved the many plaudits that came with this new post.
Alas, plaudits apparently weren’t enough for the man. He needed a more outward sign of his elevated status as a cultural icon. And that’s where our paths crossed – when he made introductions so much more onerous for people like me.
If a Bernstein such as Leonard were now a cultural icon in this country, he seemed to feel, then such a person should somehow be more closely associated in people’s minds with European cultural icons. And since Leonard was now in the classical music business, the natural linkage was with the great Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein – pronounced Rubinstine. So it was that Lennie Bernsteen ultimately became Leonard Bernstine.
Bernstein’s moniker metamorphosis also happened to coincide with an ethnic-identity surge that had afflicted many Jews in recent years. They seemed to feel that pronouncing their names the way they were pronounced in European countries from which their grandparents fled in horror was a worthwhile endeavor. Go figure.
I don’t see this identity crowd as primarily to blame for the pronunciation hassles I must now endure, however. In my view they have simply done collateral damage in this regard. The steen/stine confusion is primarily due to that Lennie guy.
It’s gotten to the point that I’ve toyed with the idea of changing the spelling of my name to “Silversteen” to eliminate, or at least lessen, opportunities for mispronunciation. Or maybe even going whole hog and changing my name to Smith. If I did go the latter route, though, I just know some public figure named Smith would start pronouncing his last name Smythe, the Anglo-Saxon ethnic-identity crowd would sign on, and the hassles would start again.
Michael Silverstein is a Philadelphia-based writer and can be reached at [email protected]