Poems and Letters

Bernstein’s Poem for Yom Kippur (Audio)

In the late 1940s, Leonard Bernstein wrote three poems in Hebrew for Yona Shamir, while studying with him in Tel Aviv.

“Poem for Yom Kippur,” read below by actress Laila Robins, captures Bernstein’s devotion to and struggle with his Jewish identity and faith.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish year. Also known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is solemnly celebrated 10 days after Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year).

For all celebrating, tzom kal — have a safe and easy fast.

Laila Robins reads Bernstein’s “Poem for Yom Kippur” [0:50]:

Poem for Yom Kippur

From the left and from the right I hear:
“We have sinned, we have dealt treacherously, we
have slandered.”

But I hear another song in my heart:
I believe in the truthfulness of art
In being energetic, in being sensitive, in the essentials

Today I believe in prayerfulness
I believe in the man to come
who will give water to the barren areas
But first and foremost I believe in Love

And until we stop shedding blood
I live in a dream
Waiting for the day of love (and), understanding, the day (today).


By almost all accounts, Bernstein wrote these poems in 1948 when he was 30 years old. The one exception? Shamir’s handwritten English translation of “Poem for Yom Kippur” appears to show Bernstein’s teacher calculating the date as 1946, when Bernstein was age 28.

About this content

Poems by Leonard Bernstein used by permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

Laila Robins audio recorded for WGBH/The Bernstein Experience on Classical.org by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on April 24, 2018. Special thanks: Lawrence Rock, audio director; Mark Travis, production director; and Margaret Mercer, producer.

Archival photos courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division.

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