Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Running Down A Dream

You might recognize the phrase as the title of a track from Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever.  The rock and roll world lost one of its greats when Petty died at the (relatively) young age of 66 just a couple of weeks ago.  I was never a huge Petty fan, never even bought one of his records, and saw him live only once, on July 4th 1986.  But his music was always around, ubiquitous, part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, his songs constantly on the radio, so many hits, so many catchy licks, so much good music for so long.  Like all great song writers Petty loved a turn of phrase, and ‘running down a dream’ is a wonderful example.  Although the lyrics of the song are mostly bright and cheery, the title evokes the edginess of dreams, and perhaps also the difficulty of attaining them.  You have to chase after a dream, work for it, hunt it down.  Only then, over time, might it become reality.  And the chorus of the song reminds us that often, ultimately, dreams are out of our reach:  “running down a dream, that would never come to me..”

It reminds me a bit of navigating the fall holiday cycle in the Jewish calendar.  The introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to lead to the festive joy of Sukkot and the celebratory release of Simhat Torah.  That is the dream, and throughout the holiday season those of us who work in the synagogue world chase that dream with everything we have.  But the truth is it always feels slightly out of reach, ephemeral, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.  To paraphrase another great rock and roller, Bruce Springsteen,  ‘you can look but you cannot touch.’  Part of clergy work is simply the expenditure of personal energy – bringing your spirit to the service, to try in some way to heighten the atmosphere, to make things feel festive, warm, worthwhile.  You are chasing that dream, running it down.  But sometimes in the chase, it runs you down instead.

And the truth is you rarely, if ever, get there.  You know the old joke – the mother wakes up her son on Shabbat morning and says ‘you have to get up, it is time to go to shul!’  The son responds ‘I don’t want to go!  I am tired of shul!  I went yesterday! I am not going!’  ‘But,’ responds the mother, ‘you are the rabbi!’  Most rabbis, if being candid, will tell you they are just as tired of shul at the end of the holiday cycle as their congregants.  That energy gets more and more difficult to muster, the dream of joy and celebration more and more elusive.  The protagonist in Petty’s song never finds his dream.  Here is the last stanza:

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

And there again you see the great song writer at work.  Just a few words, but what it captures!  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  We can’t see the road ahead, but we always believe that something good waits for us there.  We hurry forward, picking up the cards we are dealt, chasing that dream, hoping against hope that at the end of the road we will find joy, maybe even ecstasy.

Of course what Jews learned long ago is that joy is almost always tempered.  When found it comes about through hard work, through effort and energy, often blood, sweat, and tears.  But on the rare occasions when it is found, the difficulty of the journey makes the taste sweeter and the appreciation deeper.  In the meantime we continue down the road under darkening skies.  Just beyond the next mile marker the clouds may part and the sun might shine.  Put the convertible top down!  Here is the first stanza of Running Down A Dream:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’…

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Born to Run, Born to Rabbi

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –

I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run!  The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues  playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.

What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father.  Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son.  But his father was an entirely different kind of person.  Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War.  He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories.  He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night.  And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.

In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years.  Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work  watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar.  The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.

At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book.  The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll.  To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well.  Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore.  He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.

I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another.  Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well.   My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991.  Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up.  I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there.  One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV.  And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.

Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony.  And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’  And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’  Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school.  And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school.  He was more than surprised.  He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked.  ‘How are you going to pay for it?  You don’t know Hebrew!’  he pointed out to me.  And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go.  In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.

You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son.  We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing.  I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment.  He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son.  And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son.  Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all.  Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.

And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself.  Would it have been more difficult?  Absolutely – a much harder conversation.  But at least then he would have been true to himself.  And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was.  It is a two way street that moment.  If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.

And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go.  We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right.  Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be.  But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.

Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father.  He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof.  So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead.  But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own.  May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, liminal moments, music, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Bruce Springsteen and Carolina’s ‘Bathroom Law’

This a text version of my sermon from 4/9/16

Bruce Springsteen is arguably the greatest rock and roll star of his generation, and he and his E Street band are currently touring the country, selling out arenas from coast to coast. In the course of his career Springsteen has not been shy about expressing his political views on a wide variety of issues, from which candidates he supports in elections to the way he believes union workers should be treated. So it really should have come as no surprise that yesterday he took a stand against legislation that was recently passed in North Carolina, deciding to cancel one of his concerts that was to be held there this Sunday. In a statement that Springsteen released to his fans he wrote this: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”

The legislation that has so troubled Bruce Springsteen is officially called the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. You may have heard it referred to as’ the bathroom law.’ It was passed just a couple of weeks ago, on March 23rd, and essentially contains two components. The first does have to do with bathrooms – it states that public bathroom use must be dictated by a person’s biological sex – that is, whether it says male or female on their birth certificate. And perhaps that sounds like nonsense to some of us, but gender equality is a big issue for young people today, in fact having just returned from a mini-college tour in the Boston area I can tell you every school we visited had just gone through the process of installing gender neutral bathrooms. And LGBT groups see this legislation as a direct attack on their civil rights.

Whatever you think about bathrooms and who should or should not be permitted to use them, in my mind it is the second half of the legislation that is more troubling. For all practical intents and purposes this section of the legislation takes away the right of minority groups to protect themselves with anti-discrimination laws. What exactly does that mean? In layman’s terms: it used to be in North Carolina that if you were a member of a minority group – handicapped, for example – and your employer fired you, and you thought it was because you were handicapped, you had a legal right, under anti-discrimination law, to bring a suit against that employer. But that is no longer the case. In North Carolina you can no longer protect yourself against that kind of discrimination – whether the discrimination comes from race, color, handicap, biological sex, national origin, or, by the way, religion. That means that potentially someone could be fired because they are a woman, or black, or handicapped, or gay, or Jewish – and they would have no legal recourse under the new law.

It is that last piece – the religious piece – that should especially raise the antennae in the Jewish community. We all know that anti-Semitism still exists, in fact we have been concerned over the last couple of years that it is actually on the rise. And in the Jewish community we do a good job of protecting ourselves, of raising awareness, of watching for anti-semitic rhetoric and action, and when we see it, of condemning it loudly. But what we sometimes forget in the Jewish community is this – where one minority group is discriminated against, other minority groups will often be included in that discrimination. It may be that the main target of the North Carolina legislation is the gay community, but the language of the bill throws in race and religious identification as well.

Unfortunately what we’ve seen in North Carolina is happening in other states in the union as well. In Tennessee right now there is a bill being considered that on the surface seems entirely innocuous. It has to do with official state symbols, something every state has. Lets actually do a quick quiz, our home state, Maryland – we’ll start with the easy ones – state bird? The Oriole! Crustacean? The blue crab of course. Flower? Black Eyed Susan. Fish? Rockfish. Reptile? A bit of a trick question – the Terrapin. So Tennessee, like every state, has its list. But sitting on the governor’s desk right now is a bill which would add an item to the list – somewhat unusual – and the item is? The Bible. They want to make the Bible an official symbol of the State of Tennessee. And I can tell you it is not the Jewish bible that bill is talking about.

Not that I have anything against the Christian Bible – it works terrifically well – for Christians. It is just that as a Jew it makes me uncomfortable when another faith’s sacred scripture becomes legally sanctioned as a symbol of a state. What does that say to me about my place in that state? What message does it give me about my own sacred scriptures? Or my own faith, for that matter?

It is a big day in shul today – as you saw, three Torahs, something that rarely happens. One of the extra Torahs and Hallel today was for Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month. The third Torah was for this special Shabbat, called HaHodesh, simply meaning THE month, the month of Nissan that Passover falls in. Two weeks from today it will be Passover. Those of us who are in shul will be slightly sleepy from late seders and 4 glasses of wine. But our minds will be filled with the themes of that great holiday, chief among them fundamental principles of equality, dignity, and freedom that should be extended to all people. To people of all races. Of all gender and sexual identities. Of all ages. Of all ethnicities. And of all faiths.

May those fundamental principles guide us, in our work and in our lives. And may they remind is that we all have a role to play in building a world where every person is treated with equal respect and dignity.

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, gay rights, politics, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized