Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, the Jewish high holy days, the possibility of atonement and connecting the dots at a concert in Washington, D.C.

Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" tour, which I heard out my hotel window a couple of months ago in Oslo, was in Washington, D.C., this month. And I was struck by what Jeffery Goldberg, who writes for The Atlantic magazine, had to say about it on the magazine's website.

Since Springsteen's concert came just a month and a half before the presidential election, Goldberg looked for political implications. That's what he does for a living. So he noted "Springsteen didn't say much of anything about the race from the stage," but added:

... He is obviously supporting Obama, but so far he has stayed away from campaigning. The set list, though, was like an indictment of every-man-for-himself Ryanism. First he played "My Love Will Not Let You Down," and "The Ties That Bind," both of which could be heard as pleas for community, for understanding that we're all connected, and all responsible for each other (the second song more than the first). Then he wheeled into "We Take Care of Our Own," which served as a bridge to songs of economic devastation: "Wrecking Ball," "Death to My Hometown," and "My City in Ruins." It was pretty obvious to me what he was doing.
And since Springsteen's concert came on the eve of the Jewish new year, Goldberg also found a religious subtext. In fact, he headlined his piece "Darkness on the Edge of Rosh Hashanah."

I think it all fits together, but it wouldn't fit on a bumper sticker or a 30-second political spot. And we need a little translation first. Taking Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, together, the high holy days of the new year are a time of atonement, repentance and new beginnings. Some of the imagery is a little dark, as Goldberg suggested, but no darker than the Christian imagery of sin, repentance, atonement and reconciliation.

This year's High Holy Days are Sept. 16-18, so they were on Goldberg's mind when he went to the Springsteen concert. And he quoted from a Sept. 4 column in Jewish Week, a newspaper in New York City, by Erica Brown titled "Born To Repent: The Boss And The Month Of Elul" (during which the high holy days fall). Brown, who is scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, wasn't concerned with politics. Nor was she concerned with the "Wrecking Ball" album and tour. But Goldberg connected some of the dots in her essay.

Noting that "Springsteen fans, like Dylan fans, can find deep meaning in almost any song," Goldberg quoted Dr. Brown on Springsteen's battle with depression and how she believes the pain he experienced early in life is reflected in his art. Brown said:

Bruce knew what to do with the pain. He translated his struggles into music: "Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose." At one concert, he told his adoring audience: "We're repairmen -- repairmen with a toolbox." The darkness on the edge of town is sometimes so close that we can reach out and touch it. And at times, the darkness within is so palpable that we understand what it means to be born to run. We run away from the scars of difficulty and the encounter with our past and our inadequacies, even as they stare us boldly in the face.
She's quoting there from a profile in the New Yorker at the end of July. I was struck by it, too, and quoted one of the same passages when I wrote about Springsteen's appearances in Oslo in this weblog. In her Jewish Week essay, which is linked to Goldberg's blog post, Brown said this quality in Springsteen's music leads her to repentance (in Hebrew, teshuva), which is the focus of the high holy days:
So this year, in recognition of teshuva’s difficulties, I will be taking Bruce with me to shul [synagogue]. He could probably bring down the house with a moving Kol Nidrei [a traditional, and very beautiful, chant associated with the season]. It is not the music that I will think of as I open my machzor, my prayerbook. It is the man who gets up on stage and smiles widely not because he is hiding behind the pain of problems he never fixed, but because he has found a way to work through them to bring relief to himself and joy to others.
And if it works on the personal level, it might also work on a political level. Brown quoted an early 20th-century rabbi in Jerusalem who said "pain is a universal language," and those artists "who are able to harness it can bring others to a place of solace and change."

I can't be precise about how all of this works -- wouldn't even want to try, in fact -- but think it all fits together, the personal, the redemptive and the political.

When I read the New Yorker profile soon after Springsteen's appearances in Oslo, including one in which he sang "We Shall Overcome" at a memorial concert for the young people who were murdered by a right-wing terrorist the year before, I was struck by the same quote Dr. Brown cited, "we're repairmen ... with a toolbox." And seeing it again in the context of a political analyst's perceptions of a Springsteen concert in the runup to a national election in which issues of pain, atonement and redemption are hovering in the background, I was struck by it again.

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