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.
Jews are an essential part of Springsteen’s entourage. His drummer, “Mighty” Max Weinberg, is so Jewish, his parents ran a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos. Bruce’s first sound engineer, Louis Lahav, was an Israeli. Bruce’s two managers, Mike Appel and Jon Landau, hail from the Hebraic faith. So does the record-company exec who originally signed him, Clive Davis. (Davis was forced out because—wait for it—he charged his kid’s bar mitzvah to the company.) Writers at the Forward newspaper have gone so far as to track “Springstein” misspellings in The New York Times. And the Forward writer Seth Rogovoy was pleased to read in Bruce’s 2016 memoir that in his teenage years, he lusted after Jewish neighborhood girls, with their “fabulous voluptuousness, full mouths, smooth dark skin and weighted breasts—oy!”
Springsteen is not at all Jewish, as Adam Sandler admits in his “Hanukkah Song,” but, he adds, “my mother thinks he is.” And the “Jew or Not Jew” website somehow gives Springsteen a 6 out of 10 on its Jewish scale, even with its inevitable “verdict: Not a Jew.” Springsteen himself has dropped hints of his affinity for the Chosen People. At the wedding of his former sound man Marc Brickman, in 1979, he led the band in an abbreviated “Hava Nagila.” He credited a sermon on the importance of shared love, given by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, with inspiring “a lot of songs” on The River.
Sounding like a spiritual salesman for tikkun olam—the 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.”
And while Mary, Wendy, and Rosie are perhaps the best-known denizens of Springsteen’s compositions, you might be surprised at how often figures from the Old Testament show up. There’s Adam raising “a Cain.” Then there’s 2012’s “Rocky Ground,” in which Springsteen sings, “Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land … Floodwaters rising and we’re Canaan-bound.” There’s the decidedly unorthodox theological deployment of Moses in “Leap of Faith”:
Now you were the Red Sea, I was Moses
I kissed you and slipped into a bed of roses
The waters parted and love rushed inside
And, of course, despite his never having set foot in Israel, there’s the man’s undying belief in “The Promised Land,” which, according to Setlist.com, he has so far played in concert 1,374 times.
The search for the Jewish Springsteen is not the fool’s errand it initially appears. Traditionally, discussions of Springsteen as theologian have been monopolized, understandably, by Catholic thinkers, including such disparate and impressive sources as Walker Percy, Andrew Greeley, Robert Coles, and even Martin Scorsese. Thanks, however, to Azzan Yadin-Israel, a Rutgers University Jewish-studies and classics professor, a decent case can be made that Bruce has been awfully influenced by our part of the Bible.
In The Grace of God and the Grace of Man: The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen, Yadin-Israel avoids Springsteen’s biography and focuses exclusively on his lyrics. In a chapter provocatively titled “Springsteen’s Midrash,” he looks closely not only at the obvious choices, including “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Into the Fire,” but also at the obscure, such as “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale).” Springsteen, Yadin-Israel points out, transposes Old Testament stories into contemporary American landscapes. Why, in “The Promised Land,” does Springsteen describe “a dark cloud rising from the desert floor,” into which the protagonist packs his bags and heads “straight into the storm”? Yadin-Israel finds the answer in Exodus 13:21, in which “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way.”
On a purely personal level, I’m convinced of Springsteen’s Jewish spirit because he made me better understand the faith of my fathers. Some 60 years ago, the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, defined God as “whatever gives meaning to the world” and seeks the interests of “welfare, reason, and spirit.” The sacred, he said, is “any element of human experience which serves as a means of enhancing human life.” Although my parents sent me to a Reconstructionist Hebrew school, I didn’t grasp Kaplan’s idea of the sacred—until Bruce showed up.
I first encountered Springsteen as a 15-year-old back in the summer of 1975, just as Columbia Records was stoking excitement for the release of Born to Run. I grew up in Westchester, New York, and I remember going into Manhattan, walking around the garbage-strewn streets, and seeing Springsteen posters on Dumpsters and abandoned construction sites like he was a modern-day Russian icon, except in sneakers and a leather jacket, with a guitar on his back. When I finally got my hands on the record, it changed my life. Born to Run offered me an alternative context for my life: one in which it was okay to try and fail, rather than just to appear too cool to care. After years wasted in Hebrew school, I had found meaning and, therefore, as Kaplan would have it, faith. What had previously felt ridiculous was endowed with dignity and, no less important, solidarity. Screw my stupid suburban hometown, ripping the bones off my metaphorical back like, yes, a metaphorical deathtrap. One day I would pull out of there to win.
Four years later, in September 1979, Springsteen brought me even closer to Kaplan’s definition of God. But it was at the expense of some trouble during the High Holy Days.
I was a sophomore at Cornell, and I had decided to spend a week with my folks instead of attending classes, because The Who, The Clash, and Bruce were all giving concerts in the city. My parents were paying my tuition and were not pleased. Still, they reasoned, at least I would be home to observe Yom Kippur with them, the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar, and one, I argued, not entirely truthfully, I had planned to come home and spend with them anyway.
The Springsteen show was actually a benefit at Madison Square Garden with some musician friends who wanted to warn the world about the dangers of nuclear energy, and the first of Bruce’s two performances was scheduled on Kol Nidre, the night before Yom Kippur service, which is somehow even more important than the daytime services and fasting and all that. Ah, well, I promised, I would make it up to them by being in shul the following morning as soon as services began.
Nuclear power? Rarely in history have people shown less interest in a cause than those assembled at the Garden that night ostensibly to oppose it. Sure, it sucked—whatever. We were there to see Bruce. The performers who preceded him on the bill either rode the Springsteen wave or found themselves buried beneath it. Jackson Browne smartly joined the crowd in chanting “Broooce” between his own songs.
The 50 or so minutes it took the crew to set up the E Street Band’s equipment were the longest of my young life. It was more than just the weight of the wait, though that was considerable. Rather, the longer Bruce took to come onstage, the greater the likelihood that I would miss the midnight train home, end up sleeping outside Grand Central Terminal, and miss my appointment in synagogue. If he didn’t get started by 10, I figured I was sunk.
I was. Springsteen came on late, played a magnificent 90-minute set, and forced me to pass Yom Kippur morning with the bums. I did not make it to services until early afternoon, another in a series of broken promises made to my long-suffering parents. Yet if the point of prayer, according to Kaplan, is to seek one’s “higher self,” and if “holiness” means “the quality anything in life possesses insofar as it serves to inspire or guide man in his effort to achieve his destiny,” then, dammit, I was in the right place on Kol Nidre.
This was not just music anymore. It was something bigger, more powerful; more like a religion, if only religion did what it was supposed to do, which was to bring together people of faith and inspire them to go out into the world and be their best selves. That night, Bruce premiered “The River,” and a more moving or powerful performance I have yet to hear. That night, I and (I’m guessing) everyone else in attendance believed in the Promised Land.
More than 30 years and well over 200 Springsteen shows later, I got a chance to talk to Bruce. The occasion was a reception for Steve Van Zandt’s Netflix show about gangsters hiding out in Lillehammer, Norway. It was a small party—I don’t know how I got invited—and the fact that Bruce was there inspired a great deal of anxiety. I had always maintained that what was meaningful to me was the art, not the artist. I had never tried very hard to interview Bruce, even while I was writing a book about him. I could tell he was a decent guy, but I still did not want any human imperfection to potentially pollute the space his music had occupied in my life. And there was certainly a good chance that I would say something silly and never be able to forget it. But then again, when was I ever going to get another chance like this? Wouldn’t I regret it for the rest of my life if I just chickened out?
So we talked. 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.” Amazing. I had wondered about how such a meeting might go for nearly 40 years, and here, it had come and gone nearly perfectly. How often is life like that? It’s almost enough to make you believe in … well, something.
Is Bruce Jewish? Perhaps not. But world-famous rock stars don’t come any menschier.
Parts of this essay were adapted from “Growing Up With Bruce Springsteen: A Fan’s Notes,” published in Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen.
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