Posts Tagged 'leonard bernstein'

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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