The beginnings of Bronstein Week
Gould explains tradition's origin
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 26, 2012 17:03
In the years since I left Brandeis, I imagine much has been written about Bronstein Day or Bronstein Weekend. To honor the 20th anniversary of the first Bronstein celebration, let me tell you here the true story of the festival’s origin.
Leo Bronstein was my teacher. For me and for hundreds of other students, many of whom had no prior interest in art history, it was a special experience, an hour of grace, to sit in his darkened classroom while images of Rembrandt paintings or ancient Hindu stone carvings shone on the slide screen, and his voice, heavily accented, Russian, Jewish, Spanish, French, intoned stock Bronsteinian phrases like “this unseizable totality,” or “the deerness of the deer.” For some of us, the cosmic consciousness inherent in his teaching dovetailed with our drug experiences of those years. For most of us, the challenge was vaster, deeper: to incorporate the work and human aspirations of these long-dead painters and sculptors into our own lives.
Many of us were devoted to Leo for various reasons. His intense humility stood in contrast to the arrogance displayed by many teachers and students. His atmosphere of asexuality was a relief on a college campus. His pacifism affected us: it was a time of war–in Vietnam, in Israel. Jon Landau (now Bruce Springsteen’s manager) wrote in his rock-and-roll history of the 60’s that “an obscene personality cult surrounded Bronstein.” I would call it now, as I did then, respect and love for a man we allowed to teach us.
It was January 1967. I was having lunch at Dr. Allen Grossman’s house. He said, “Peter, somebody should do something nice for Leo. He is retiring this year.” The instant he said this, a vision of the Usen Castle courtyard done up as a medieval scene sprang into my mind. “I have an idea,” I said. “I think it will work.”
I called my friend Clif Trolin, who is now a Jewish liturgical mime practicing in California. I said, “Clif, you’re a good organizer—I am not. Let’s hold a medieval pageant for Leo. Let’s do it in the Castle courtyard. Let’s serve wine from giant goatskins; let’s roast an ox on a spit. Hire dancers and acrobats. Get in touch with the old Italian wandering hurdy-gurdy man on Salem Street in the North End. Where can we get …”
Clif made that festival happen. Somehow we found a pick-up truck big enough to bring that giant hurdy-gurdy out to Waltham. What an instrument that was! You can still see it, not for sale, in an antique store in Brookline Village. Wine and other recreational substances flowed in the Castle yard from the dawning of that day. A ’67 Mustang was decked with a unicorn’s head and streamers and drove to Cambridge to pick up Leo Bronstein. Afternoon classes were cancelled. The ox turned on the spit. In those days there were no jugglers and acrobats. But some were found. They tumbled in the courtyard. Renaissance instruments played in camerata. Someone raided a garbage shed; 20 empty drums were rolled out and turned over; tree limbs were brought in; we pounded the drums and ecstatic music filled the campus. The Dionysian element of medieval May festivals showed its face: Greek olives, wine and cheese appeared, donated by Dean Peter Diamondopolous.
When the unicornmobile wheeled Leo into the midst of the already-bubbling event, he could not fathom that it was in his honor. Nor did he identify with the “Professor of the Year” award he had just won. But he received, with understanding, embraces from many students and teachers who had never paused to thank him before.
That was 20 years ago. Other people’s memories of that day would flesh out mine. It was a great party. We drove Leo back to his apartment before the rain came, dousing the fire under the long-since empty barbecue. I threw up, many times, in my Waltham digs, and soothed my belly with the cheapest grade of sherbert from the Waltham supermarket. Part of the crowd gravitated to downtown Boston where a Sack theater was offering free admission to some new movie. The theater overflowed; there was a riot; some draft cards were burned; some people were arrested. The next morning in the Castle courtyard, wet crepe paper hung from the stone windowsills, and 20 half-filled garbage drums stood scattered among the puddles. Campus dogs chewed on big bones. The first Bronstein Day was history.
Leo Bronstein’s classroom insights about art and artists–Islamic, Chinese, Indian, medieval European–are a part of what I know. He labored after his retirement that year on writings which are difficult to read. On a pilgrimage to Europe, I believe in 1975, he returned to where he had been found, many years ago, as an orphan. His eyes were failing. He was dazzled by the fabulous Grunewald altarpiece in Strasbourg. Walking out of the dark church into the afternoon glare, he never saw the motorcycle hurtling at him down the street.
Editor’s note: Peter Gould is a professor in the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Department.