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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

November 25, 1963: Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Tribute to JFK and His Timeless Wisdom on the Only True Antidote to Violence

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“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.”

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Three days later, as a devastated nation processed its shock and grief, the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York transformed its 25th annual fundraising gala, “Night of Stars,” into a memorial. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson had been scheduled to speak, but canceled. Instead, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein delivered the address to 18,000 of the country’s most distinguished artists, writers, and other public figures. His speech was not only a passionate tribute to JFK and his vitalizing support of the arts, but also a piercing meditation on violence, tussling with the same eternal questions that Tolstoy and Gandhi pondered in their correspondence on why we hurt each other and which Einstein and Freud addressed in their letters on violence and human nature.

Bernstein’s beautiful speech that November evening, which was eventually included in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library | IndieBound) — the fantastic volume gave us the revelations of Bernstein’s dreams and his prescient vision for crowdfunding the arts — forever entrenched Mahler’s symphonies as a symbol of mourning in the popular imagination.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

New York, NY
November 25, 1963

My dear friends:

Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony — the Resurrection — in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the Eroica? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.

I know of no musician in this country who did not love John F. Kennedy. American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth. We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols. This reverence for the life of the mind was apparent even in his last speech, which he was to have made a few hours after his death. He was to have said: “America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.” Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet. Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power. Learning and Reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it. And where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred — the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason. Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive. This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.

A month later, Bernstein premiered his next major symphony with the Israel Philharmonic and dedicated it “to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” Half a century later, in times as troubled as ours and a world as war-torn as today’s, his message of Learning and Reason endures as a potent and urgently needed antidote to the hatred and ignorance that drive the impulse for violence.

For more of Bernstein’s timeless wisdom, see his meditation on motivation and why we create.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Eating Delancey: A Love Letter to Jewish Food and Its Iconic New York Bastions

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A warm celebration of knishes, kasha, lox, and the people and places of which collective memory is woven.

If it is true that we are what we eat and that telling stories is what makes us human, then at the intersection of these two adages lies an immutable truth about the stories we tell about the food we eat. That is why the greatest books of all time are full of memorable meals, why we find food so sensual, and why the best cookbooks tell the stories of their time and place.

That’s what food photographer Aaron Rezny and magazine creative director Jordan Schaps explore in Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food (public library | IndieBound) — a delectable compendium of recipes, mouth-watering photographs, profiles of legendary establishments, jokes, and food-related sentimental stories by some of New York’s most interesting Jews about the beloved foods their immigrant ancestors transplanted from Europe to the Lower East Side in the early 20th century: knishes, kasha, dill pickles, bagels, lox, pastrami, whitefish, egg creams, and more.

The project, which features contributions by luminaries like violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, graphic designer Milton Glaser, artist Debbie Millman, and music legend Lou Reed, does for edible memories what Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for wearable ones.

Lower East Side pretzel vendor in the early 20th century

Joan Rivers writes in the introduction:

My mother was a very chic woman, very well read, a great hostess, and a horrible cook. She literally couldn’t cook anything beyond just a few dishes. And we weren’t kosher but she always went to kosher butchers. She thought the meat was better quality—not that it mattered since she didn’t know what to do with it in the first place. You know how they butcher kosher meat, right? The cows aren’t slaughtered. They’re nagged to death.

There’s an old joke: What does a Jewish woman make for dinner? Reservations. That was my mother. She did cook a few things: kasha varnishkes, eggele (or eyerlekh, which is Yiddish for “little eggs.” These are creamy, flavorful unhatched chicken eggs, either cooked inside a chicken or in a soup), and gribenes, which I just loved until I was about 13 and realized how fattening they are. And we always had challah.

So how did I develop my love for good Jewish food when it wasn’t on our table daily? I’ll tell you. My father was a doctor with a huge ethnic practice in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Obviously, most patients paid him but some could not afford to, and so they’d bring food in exchange for medical services. We got soups, blintzes… you name it. Stuffed derma was a big one for fixing a burst appendix. Oh my God, the food… it was just terrific and this is how I grew up — eating such food cooked with love and delivered by infirm and dying patients.

Joan Rivers, age 5

In a sentiment rendered inevitably poignant by Rivers’s recent death, she adds:

If I had to choose, my last meal would be a good piece of gefilte fish with some fantastic freshly grated horseradish on it.

In his 1968 homage to the true potato knish in general and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery at 137 E. Houston Street in particular, legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and one wise soul, writes:

Although the knish has played an active role in many New York political campaigns, some readers may still never have seen or eaten one.

The authentic hand-made knish made at Yonah Schimmel’s is an irregularly shaped, fat, bun-like amalgam of mashed potatoes, flour, and onions, all encased in a thin, crisp, brown pastry skin, and as a food contains great stomach-filling properties. As is the custom with simple dishes, the knish is at its best when fresh, hot and made of ingredients of good quality. The mass-produced commercial knish most often encountered in New York delicatessens lacks these essentials. It can be recognized immediately by a thick, embossed surfaced of an unnaturally yellow hue. Another clue of its identification is its hard-edged rectangular shape. Because the commercial knish is often kept on a hot grill for days at a time, the potato filling tends to go sour. The real tragedy of this abuse is that many people brought up on this inferior product have never known a real knish. Yonah Schimmel’s is perhaps the last bastion of the genuine item.

Milton Glaser as a child

The humble bakery, Glaser notes, is the stuff of legend — a waiter who worked there for forty-five years recalls the fateful day when Eleanor Roosevelt walked in and bought a bag of knishes for her presidential husband.

In an touching essay titled “Grandma Lillian’s Cookies,” artist, author, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman explores how we imbue food with the comfort and love we long for:

I didn’t see my dad for a long time after he and my mother divorced. One day she told me he wasn’t coming home, and I saw him only one time again in the next five years. I remember seeing his car down the street where we lived when he was visiting the woman he left my mother for. But he didn’t visit us. I must have missed him, but I don’t remember thinking about it much. My father stopped paying his alimony and child support so my mother had to take him to family court to get him to pay. My mother took my little brother and me to court with her, and I got all dressed up because I wanted to look nice when he saw me. I wore an orange and pink dress with puffy sleeves and white rubber boots and I remember feeling both excited and nervous about facing him. We waited and waited but he never showed up and we went home without ever seeing him. Then my mother met a new man, and shortly thereafter they got married.

Everybody loathed my stepfather except my mother. Her mom and dad — my grandparents — disliked him so much they moved to North Miami to be as far away from him as possible. This devastated me, as my grandmother was my favorite person in the world. Grandma Lillian was a feisty little lady with coiffed silver hair and shimmery pink fingernails. She made mouth-watering meals whenever I came to visit her Brooklyn apartment on McDonald Avenue: melt-in-your-mouth pot roast with fluffy kasha varnishkes, crunchy potato pancakes, and the softest, sweetest cheesy blintzes with cold sour cream. Every meal ended with my grandmother’s famous butter cookies. Shaped like daisies with a single, perfect chocolate chip in the center and baked to a golden perfection, my grandma’s cookies were the very definition of happiness to my 10-year-old self.

All that ended when my stepfather moved in. He was short and thick and had the stubbiest fingers I’d ever seen. He was curt and violent and I was terrified of him. My brother braved it in our home until he was 13. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called my father and he came and took him away. I didn’t see much of my brother for the next ten years. Neither did my grandmother.

Every couple of months Grandma mailed me a care package filled with cookies. I was gleeful when it arrived — I could always recognize her loopy script and the 50 two-cent stamps haphazardly stuck on the box. I’d take my time opening my precious package, and I would ration the cookies so they’d last as long as possible. I’d imagine her with me as I slowly ate them, fantasizing what it would be like to hear her laugh or feel her hand. I missed her.

Years later, after Grandma Lillian died, my mother, my brother, and I met at her funeral. I hadn’t seen my brother in a long time and we were both cautious and glum. We tentatively talked about our memories, and I waxed sentimental about our grandmother’s cookies. Suddenly he perked up. “Hey!” he said. “Grandma sent me a box of cookies when I was at school. But as I opened them up, I realized that mice had eaten through the box. I had to throw the whole thing away. What a waste.”

I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him and tried to find the years between us. I wasn’t sure if they were there.

Debbie Millman, age 10, with her Grandma Lillian

The great violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman recounts moving from Israel to attend Julliard in New York and rediscovering a childhood favorite in Manhattan:

In Israel, my family didn’t go out to eat. For dessert, my mother used to bake a two-layer cake with yellow cake, chocolate butter cream filling, and chocolate butter cream frosting on top — it was delicious.

My mother’s cake was probably the reason why I wandered into Cake Masters on the Upper West Side. Cake Masters made cakes for Liberace, President Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor and was known by its slogan, “where baking is an art.”

Cake Masters made the best seven-layer cake that I ever had. It tasted just like my mother’s! Their seven-layer cake was layers upon layers of yellow cake and butter cream frosting. Each layer had a nice soft texture and wonderful taste. I still remember how they used to sell it by the slice with each slice separated by wax paper. Cake Masters was close to my parents’ home so I would stop by again and again and again.

Nestled between the profiles of legendary establishments and stories of family memories are also a number of recipes that reveal the secrets behind beloved treats:

KATZ’S DELI EGG CREAM

by Jake Dell, owner

Alright, so the perfect Katz’s egg cream is really simple. The oldest recipe in the book for egg creams is a little Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup—although if you’re kinda a chocolate wuss you can use a little vanilla syrup instead, but let’s be honest, chocolate egg creams are infinitely better in my humble opinion — fill that up about an inch or so. Put an equal amount of milk in there. Top it off with a little bit of seltzer and as you’re pouring the seltzer you stir vigorously and that’ll get you the nice head on top. Voila! You have the perfect egg cream.

Eating Delancey is a treat in its totality. Complement it with Liberace’s little-known cookbook, the Modern Art Cookbook, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, some real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books, Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction, and Andy Warhol’s forgotten illustrated recipes.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Maria Merian’s Butterflies: The Illustrated Story of How a 17th-Century Woman Forever Changed the Course of Science Through Art

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A heartening homage to a courageous woman who fought superstition with science and love.

While putting together the annual omnibus of the year’s best children’s books, I was reminded of how woefully rare inspired children’s books about science are in our culture — as rare, perhaps, as are homages to pioneering female scientists and celebrations of the intersection of art and science. The confluence of these three rarities is what makes Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (public library | IndieBound) so wonderful. Writer Margarita Engle and artist Julie Paschkis — the talent behind the gorgeous illustrated tale of Pablo Neruda’s life — tell the story of 17th-century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Merian, whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis are among the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science and forever transformed natural history illustration.

There are many ennobling and empowering threads to the story of Merian’s life — how she began studying insects as a young girl, two centuries before the dawn of science education for women; how she trained tirelessly in art, then brought those skills to illuminating science, all while raising her daughters; how she traveled to South Africa with her young daughter in an era when women had practically no agency of mobility; how she continued to work even after a stroke left her paralyzed.

But perhaps most pause-giving of all is the reminder of just how much superstition early scientists had to overcome in the service of simple truth: In Merian’s time, people considered insects evil and found the “supernatural” process of metamorphosis particularly ominous, believing it was witchcraft that transformed the insect from one state to another.

By meticulous and attentive observation, Merian proved that the process was very much a natural one, and beautifully so. She was only thirteen. Her groundbreaking work was a prescient testament to Richard Feynman’s famous assertion that science only adds to the mystery and the awe of the natural world.

When people understand the life cycles of creatures that change forms, they will stop calling small animals evil. They will learn, as I have, by seeing a wingless caterpillar turn into a flying summer bird.

On her site, Paschkis shares her research process and offers a fascinating history of insect illustration.

For a grownup take on Merian’s legacy, complement Summer Birds with Taschen’s lavish volume Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.