Leonard Bernstein loved Vanillekipferl. A staple in every Austrian household at Christmas time, he was first presented with these delicate crescents of vanilla-scented, nut-spackled dough encased in powdered sugar by an admirer, Renate Wunderer, who never missed a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic when Bernstein was in town. Bernstein became so enamored of Vanillekipferl that not only did he write a poem about the sweets—in German, no less—he insisted they be at his disposal, whether in the Austrian capital or traveling the world with the jewel in Austria’s musical crown.
A symbolic box of Vanillekipferl sits upon the grand piano-shaped table at the center of the Jewish Museum Vienna’s delightful new exhibition, “Leonard Bernstein: A New Yorker in Vienna.” Placed amid joyous photographs of Bernstein at work, the story of the crumbly, sugary pastries makes Bernstein’s relationship with the city sound sickly sweet. Far from it, the exhibit, in fact, shows that though it was a romance, in the end, the love affair between Bernstein and Vienna was a slow burner, fraught with tension and defined by a certain ambivalence, born of the experience of being a Jew in Austria after the Second World War.