Michael Granoff

Why Stephen Sondheim Never Made it to Israel

FILE - President Barack Obama, right, presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composer Stephen Sondheim during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, on, Nov. 24, 2015, in Washington. Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, has died at age 91. Sondheim's death was announced by his Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, who told The New York Times the composer died Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at his home in Roxbury, Conn.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
US President Barack Obama presents Stephen Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 (Credit : AP/Evan Vucci)

This Sunday, December 26 marks the shloshim for composer Stephen Sondheim, the conclusion of the 30-day period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. Although not related to him, and thus not halachically a mourner, this period has in fact been one of mourning and deep reflection for myself.

As I wrote about in the days following his passing, from my earliest days Stephen Sondheim was an important part of my life. And he and his work always will be.

Since his passing, many have asked me what, if any, connection Steve had to Israel. I can attest to his interest and curiosity about Israel, based on many conversations, and, in fact, our last correspondence just days before his death (recounted in the post linked just above).

Many times he told me and others, “Lenny always said I should go to Israel,” referring to Leonard Bernstein, the great composer, and conductor with whom he collaborated on his first Broadway credit, West Side Story. Sadly, Sondheim never did take Lenny’s advice.

Here is the story of how I tried to lure him here, was let down by our government, but in the process collected some amazing tributes.

In 2014, not long after our family moved to Israel, it occurred to me how special it could be to find a way to persuade Steve to visit – and also great to add a particularly Jewish honor to the scores of others he received throughout his career. (These include eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a US Presidential Medal of Freedom.) 

While the Israel Prize is an honor bestowed exclusively upon Israelis, I discovered that then-President Shimon Peres had taken to awarding a “Presidential Medal of Distinction” to people around the world who constituted examples of “initiative, innovation, creativity and vision.” In fact, in 2013 Peres gave such an award to the American Jewish film director Steven Spielberg.  And so I set about nominating Sondheim for such an award – and rushed to do so while Peres was the President. 

In the end, following a thoroughly frustrating and opaque process, the application was rejected by Peres’s office without explanation. At the time, I wrote in these pages about what a terrible missed opportunity it was for the State of Israel.

But rather than dwell on the outcome, I’d like to share some of the testimonies I collected during the process, including from the aforementioned Spielberg:

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (former Senator and candidate for Vice President of the United States):

“Only a select few in our profession of public service, and you [Shimon Peres] are certainly one of them, leave an indelible mark… But as Sondheim himself describes in the culminating moments of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, an artist’s contributions are immortal – and are discovered anew in generation after generation, as we have seen in the cases of Mozart, Beethoven, and Shakespeare, to name a few. I am convinced that Stephen Sondheim’s name will be in that pantheon. And when future generations of playgoers and music lovers become acquainted with his unmatched canon around the world and throughout time, let them stop to note that among the many distinctions bestowed upon him was one from the Jewish State of Israel.”

Sheldon Harnick (lyricist of many Broadway shows including Fiddler on the Roof):

“Having known Stephen for over half a century, I can attest that he is not only a remarkable artist but a remarkable human being. His name has become synonymous with the best that theater has to offer… I think it would have special significance for him, in light of his Jewish heritage, to have his work recognized by the one and only Jewish state.”

Ambassador Michael Oren (at that time Israel’s Ambassador to the United States):

“By any standard, and according to all estimates, Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living theater composer and lyricist – indeed one of the most outstanding creative artists of modern times… Honoring him with the Presidential Medal is not only fitting but will also bring distinction to Israel and the House of its President. It will make a critical statement about Israel’s commitment to the arts and about the contributions of the Jewish people to music and the theater.”

Mandy Patinkin (actor of stage and screen, including originating the lead role in Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning show Sunday the Park with George):

“I am one of Steve’s messengers – I think of myself as a mailman, one of the guys who delivers Steve’s words, ideas, wishes, and prayers for anyone listening to hear. For me, Stephen Sondheim is the Shakespeare of our time. Stephen Sondheim is one of the wisest sages who ever lived. His words are my Torah. He embodies everything I wish of Israel and the Jewish people.” 

Stephen Spielberg (Acclaimed film director, including the 2021 movie of West Side Story):

“Last year [2013] it was my honor to be the recipient of your Presidential Award. Now, I would like to nominate a fellow American Jewish artist to join me in that distinction. Stephen Sondheim is the foremost composer for the American theater. His genius to use music and lyrics to explain the depths of a character, and to move a story forward, are unmatched in the long, rich history of American theater. As someone who has played such a role in the unfolding of history over these last decades, it would be especially fitting and moving for you to grant this high distinction to Mr. Sondheim. And I hope that you will”

What amazing tributes from incredibly accomplished people. And what a shame these testimonies did not achieve their objective and bring Steve to Israel.

But Israel’s missed opportunity doesn’t change the fact that a great Jewish artist was among us until one month ago, and it doesn’t stop new fans today, or a century hence, from experiencing the joy of immersing themselves in his work, as millions, no doubt, will continue to do.

About the Author
Michael Granoff is the founder of Maniv Mobility, a venture fund based in Tel Aviv that invests in advanced automotive and mobility startups globally. He has sat on more than a dozen corporate and non-profit boards, including those of Securing America’s Future Energy and Better Place. He emigrated to Israel from the New York area in 2013 with his wife and four children.
Related Topics
Related Posts