Ode to My Father

I am the last in a line of visionaries.

My grandfather, Rabbi Moses Steinberg, immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Russia, and felt the need to create a new religion: Americanism. His dream combined Judaism and the Constitution.

In addition to translating the Sermon on the Mount for the Smithsonian Institution Bible, he published a book himself, “The Greatest Story Never Told.” I found long letters to politicians in the many papers left to me when my family died, as lung cancer took them one by one. His letters seemed to transmogrify a miscellaneous political detail into an erupting volcano. They didn’t make much sense to me. I suspect schizophrenia caressed him.

However, the shtetl he fled when the Cossacks burned it down had a tradition. The men studied Torah; the women worked. My grandmother Annie arrived in America on Sept. 19, 1906 on the SS Carmania and saw the Statue of Liberty.

I can only imagine what this meant to her after feeling the heat and fear of the fires that burned her world to the ground. She sewed to support the family.

My mother told me that Annie could make a dress out of less fabric than anyone else she’d ever met because she knew where to cut. There was genius in Annie, and madness in Moses. Their daughter Dorothy was older sister to Benjamin, my father.

All great artists live on the fine line separating genius and madness. My father grew up in a world where immigrant Jews worshiped Heifitz’s mother, who locked him in a room daily for 8 hours to make him practice. Only then could he eat.

Misha Elmann was another star in that world. I have an autographed picture of him calling my father one of his best friends. Everyone wanted their child to be the next Misha Elmann.

My father made his Town Hall debut on the violin when he was 9. On the program was a Hebrew Dance by Achron, and he ended with the Polonaise Brilliante in A Major by Wieniawsky, one of the most technically difficult pieces in the violin repertoire. They marketed him as Little Ben.

But he went on to be in the first violin section of the NBC Symphony, study conducting with Fritz Reiner, conduct the original Music Man, Peter Pan, and West Side Story on Broadway, hire the first African-American musician in a Broadway pit orchestra against the segregation laws in the 1940s, conduct the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and started the first integrated orchestra in America, The Symphony of the New World. Leonard Bernstein wrote the letter recommending the project for the Ford Foundation grant.

Like Moses, my father was also a visionary. He was just not “touched by the angels.” He dreamed of social equality coming to life on the symphony orchestra’s stage.

The first African-American woman timpanist ever hired by the San Francisco Symphony came out of The Symphony of the New World, so did the first woman accepted into the violin section of the New York Philharmonic, so did the first African-American cellist in the New York City Ballet Orchestra.

The Symphony of the New World died because there was a power struggle, and those who won didn’t know how to pay the bills of a non-profit organization. My mother saved all the papers.

It took him a year an a half to die of pancreatic and lung cancer in our one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. On January 4, 1974, my mother held his hand. I went to school. When I came home, he was gone. I will never forget his yellow skin, but I think he died of a broken heart.

Someone he knew back then wrote

Where is your grave —
Or maybe even just a mound —
Benjamin Steinberg?
Where can we put a monument?
There is no grave.
You cannot be frozen into a statue,
Like some docile teacher’s pet.
You blaze
From the pedastals of the world stage,
Benjamin Steinberg.

Thirty-five years later, because I still cannot come to terms with losing the only soul’s reflection I have ever known, I wrote this:

In the name of the father
In the name of the daughter
In the name of justice
Over unnecessary death
Of a broken heart
Of a broken spirit
From a broken dream
By a man who dared

In the name of his symphony
Whose light might shine
On another day
For this generation
To stand for peace
In a world that screams war
In the name of the father
In the name of ideals
In the name of her grief
That has never died

After 35 years
In the name of the daughter
who inherited the spirit
who inherited the faith
In the name of courage
To believe again
That art could stop war

In the name of the father
In the name of the daughter
In the name of justice
In the name of peace
The dream still lives
The grief still kills
In the name of the father
In the name of love.

I wasn’t a good enough violinist to do what my father dreamed for me: make my Carnegie Hall Debut before I was 18, or be in the NY Philharmonic. I never could concentrate to practice enough.

I discovered my art form in 1994. It was online community vision, creation, management, moderation, writing, and multimedia. In that field, no one had to tell me to practice.

There is a Hebrew prayer for Yom Kippur, “In Memory of a Father.” It says in part, “In loving testimony to his life I pledge charity to help perpetuate ideals important to him… May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts he gave me. May these moments of meditation link me more strongly with his memory.”

I have tried to fulfill this all of my life, even though I never knew this prayer existed until I was 50. DNA might be strong in pureblood Russian Ashkenzay Jews, but what can you do when you come from a man like this?

Whether I succeeded or failed, I am the last in line. I don’t have much time. Writing this blog is something. Anything, to pay homage to his name and finally come to terms with who I am, and realize that my whole life has been a love poem to him.

In 1994, I turned on the computer. In 1997, I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and learned that the purpose of online community was to stop war. Then, I based my life on my own words:

The product that an online community gives away is power. Members invest their emotions in one, and the community gives them back a stake in its future, its philosophy and its governance. …to create a stage where you can be understood when society ignores you. …to feel the warmth of someone’s soul imprint through their words, even when they live thousands of miles away. …to find validity when the real world is blind to you. …to find a soul mate when your body is wasting away from disease. These are some of the reasons why people who are involved in online communities are so passionate about them. They can give you the power to control your dignity.

I’ve devoted 15 years to being a member of online communities, helping to create its collective storytelling art, and working in the field. This book is a collection of the essays I wrote as I share the journey of my real and virtual lives, which became intertwined as one inseparable reality.

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6 responses to “Ode to My Father

  1. Dear Barbara,
    What an interesting, beautiful, and profound post. I was led to your blog somewhat randomly, through research I’m conducting on the late pianist/composer, John Daniels Carter (1932-1981). He benefitted from the Symphony of the New World, as they premiered his work “Requiem Seditiosam: In Memoriam Medgar Evers” in NY’s Philharmonic Hall in the late 60′s with Benjamin Steinberg conducting. Mr. Carter’s life has been something of an enigma to many performers and researchers. Most of his music is lost or unpublished, and the circumstances of the last 11 years of his life seem to be unknown as well. I am trying to turn over any stone that may be remotely related to Carter, to see if anyone knew him, has any of his music in their possession, or can provide any insight into his life and music.

    A librarian was trying to correctly catalogue Mr. Carter’s music, and in order to identify the proper Benjamin Steinberg, he found your blog in his own research. Through a series of networked communication, I’ve now come to your blog. My interest is in the papers that your mother saved, regarding the unfortunate demise of the Symphony of the New World. If there would be any record of Carter’s music being performed, that would be helpful, and knowledge of the Symphony itself could be insightful.

    If you think you could assist me in this research, could you please contact me? Sincerely, Casey Robards
    caseyrobards@gmail.com

    Casey Robards – October 8, 2010 at 5:37 pm est

  2. My mother saved every paper of the snw’s demise. I’d have to go through them, photograph each and put them up on http://www.benjaminsteinberg.org. I will try and start that project. I’ll look in my library and see if I have any of Carter’s original scores. I have a lot of original scores. I also have a picture, framed, of my father with another composer, Mr. Walker. There is so much work I have to do for him, and life makes one so busy. But thank you for writing. Helping others will make me do it. It is very difficult for me to go through the end of SNW. He died from it, and it was, and still remains, the deepest wound of my life.

    haircombdiva – October 11, 2010 at 8:05 am est

  3. Hi Barbara… I was googling your father & the ‘Symphony of the New World’, and came upon your blog. I think your mother used to hear me practicing trumpet in the neighborhood, and somehow my brother wound up in school with you, our mothers met… and I was welcomed to attend a few SNW concerts and rehearsals. That was very cool. I really appreciated being so favored as to have had the opportunity to see the behind the scenes reality of the SNW orchestra experience. Just as there were many instances, later in Life… of non white players getting certain jobs, even though they were lesser players, I always saw the SNW ‘change’ as that kind of a move. Regardless of it’s tenure, the SNW was a great idea that really succeeded and had MAJOR impact. I’m glad you’re doing well. Wishing you much beautiful Music… Richie Kessler

    Richie Kessler – October 19, 2010 at 6:06 am est

  4. Richie Kessler? Oh my God. How is your brother Peter? Your father? Thank you so much for your comment. I still have eons of work to do on this project.

  5. Richie, when my father was dying in 1973, your family was living around the corner from us on York Avenue. Your father saw my mother walking home from work and asked, “How are you, Pearl?” He felt there was something wrong by the look of her face. “Benny is dying,” she said and walked on. He was in shock, both at the tragedy and at her strength.

    It is a moment I have not thought about in 20 years, but your note jarred it into conscious memory.

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