On occasion at GetReligion, an essay crosses the threshold that evokes no disappointment or sense of incompletion. Eric Alterman — who writes an always provocative column for The Nation on why the mass media are too corporate, too conformist, too conservative — takes a different turn in “Bruce Springsteen Is Jew-ish,” posted Oct. 1 at The Atlantic.
The hyphen in the headline is not a mistake but a wry concession: Alterman does not argue that Springsteen, a son of 20th-century Catholicism in America, is really a Jew. The point is that he is a cultural ally who draws from Jewish scripture and history.
Alterman’s essay is adapted from “Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen” (Rutgers University Press), which also includes contributions by Martyn Joseph, Greil Marcus, Richard Russo and A.O. Scott.
This sort of writing may be familiar to journalists who take their faith and their rock music seriously. Back in the mid-1980s, I devoted a lot of time to landing an interview with a graduate student at DePaul University who was one of the first to observe Catholicism’s presence in Springsteen’s writing. A famous sociologist, novelist and priest — the Rev. Andrew Greeley — later wrote of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination, and the singer made his divided feelings about Catholicism more explicit in “Springsteen on Broadway.”
To his credit, Alterman acknowledges the uphill nature of his argument straight away:
Bruce Springsteen is the son of Catholic parents and grandparents. There is no ambiguity on this point. And yet, in much the same way that New York football fans have casually annexed the stadium across the river to root for what they like to pretend is their “home” team, some Jewish Springsteen fans are devoted to proving that New Jersey’s favorite Irish Italian son is, if not actually Jewish, nevertheless somehow Jew-ish. Perhaps you thought young Bruce was mostly singing about cars, girls, and getting the hell out of town before he switched gears to focus on the dignity of working folk, the broken promises of the American dream, and more cars and girls. But amid the empty factories, crowded barstools, and swimming holes that constitute the foundation of the Springsteen oeuvre, some detect a whiff of the Chosen.
What’s most refreshing in this piece by a pundit of the political left, writing about a musician of the political left, is the minimal degree of politics used when making this argument.
There is this brief segment, but it is grounded in what Springsteen has said about himself:
Sounding like a spiritual salesman for tikkun olam —t he Jewish concept of “repairing the world” — Springsteen told David Remnick in 2012, “We’re repairmen, repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.” Max Weinberg once made this connection explicit. Preparing for an evening at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in 2012, he emailed the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that drumming in Bruce’s band was “my way of living a life of tikkun olam.”
The most persuasive portion of Alterman’s case is not only personal but also even liturgical.
Alterman does not seek a chance to talk with Springsteen, but he acts on the chance when they both gather at a reception for Steven Van Zandt’s video series, Lillehammer:
What I decided to tell him, I kid you not, was the story of my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I explained to Bruce that I had written the service myself, and that he was the only Gentile whose writing had made it into the program, because one of his lyrics had convinced me, in my 38th year, that maybe I did want to have a kid after all. It’s from the song “Living Proof,” which Springsteen wrote after the birth of his son Evan. The key lyric went:
In a world so hard and dirty
so fouled and confused /
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy /
I found living proof.
I won’t pretend that the song by itself changed my mind about procreating. But it haunted me over time, forcing me to turn the matter over and over in my mind. Living proof of God’s mercy. That sounded pretty damn compelling, and I trusted Bruce, as I trusted few people in my life, to tell me the truth.
When I told Bruce this story, he hugged me. Now, I’m not a hugger, but I let this one happen. We talked a little more about our kids and then, at about the 12-minute mark, I told Bruce I was going to have to cut things short. I couldn’t take the risk that he might say something that might, somehow, interfere with my relationship with the music. He put his arm around my shoulder and said something like “See you down the road, friend.”
Alterman had precious few hurdles to clear in persuading me of his case. Still, a reader would have to be pretty clueless about songwriting, modern Judaism or Springsteen to deny that Alterman delivers on his thesis.
Photo: Bruce Springsteen, backed by Max Weinberg, performs at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Aug. 15, 2008; by Craig ONeal, via Wikipedia