Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Why it doesn’t matter if Bruce was born in the USA or in Bray

I have always looked on Bruce Springsteen as the embodiment of lower-middle class, Jewish-American culture. He built up his career in a very Jewish way, shrewdly and carefully.

He looked after himself, and never went wild on drugs or drink, just as those other New York-area Jews, Simon and Garfunkel, stayed clean. He was and is good with money, and has always known precisely the kind of music that his audiences liked.

Moreover, it was logical that there should be a Jewish rock star, because for over a generation, Jews had been the intermediary between black music and the |larger white population in the US and abroad.

Not merely did the Jewish Gershwins pioneer the exploration of African-American music, other Jewish writers — Lieber and Stoller, Pomus and Schuman |in particular — wrote semi-black songs in the new rock'n'roll idiom, for WASP singers such as Elvis Presley.

Then there was Carole King, a Jewish girl who from the age of 18 was writing hit songs which shaped the adolescence of teenagers barely younger than her. In time, she too became a highly successful singer, but largely for the niche female market.

Bruce Springsteen was different. He was, to my mind, the archetypal Jew who completed the Jewish journey, of taking a format that began with fusions of country and western and black soul music, that had been reinterpreted by Jewish writers, but was now finally being performed by a Jew. For as we all know, sooner or later, Jews naturally get to the top of the tree. This is one of the simple truisms of life. Take another example of the Jewish success story. As a journalist, I learnt long ago to dread a libel action involving the great — if fearsome — George Carman (pictured below), the embodiment of Jewish legal acumen in Britain, who was also consulted in libel actions in Ireland.

Court actions are never fun, but none was ever so deadly as when George Carman was involved.

For, unlike most barristers, he ruthlessly busied himself in the financial minutiae of every trial. That, of course — I told myself — was his Jewish background.

And moreover, one could see in the faces of both Carman and Springsteen their strong Hebraic legacy: those pronounced noses, the keen eye, the dark hair.

Life is usually full of little surprises, but sometimes it takes death to reveal them. When George Carman died a few years ago, the truth came out.

Far from this meticulous practitioner of the forensic arts being Jewish, he turned out to have been of Irish Catholic stock. There wasn't a molecule of Jewish blood in his entire system.

His father was English-Irish, but the mother who raised him, Evelyn, was Irish — whatever cultural qualities he possessed largely came from her (which was no doubt why he entered a junior seminary at the age of 14, before the allure of female flesh, the law and money, drew him to Balliol and the bar).

So there was nothing Jewish about this ‘Jew’: I had merely created a convenient stereotype in my mind, and had settled for it.

Which left me the great rock'n'-rolling Jew, Bruce Springsteen — well until the story came out revealing that, like George Carman, he is, in fact, of predominantly Irish Catholic background.

I was misled by his name (Bruce being a popular name amongst Jews, and Springsteen being self-explanatory), by his appearance and by some intellectual fabrications of my own.

In fact, Bruce Springsteen is as Jewish as hurling or the Christian Brothers.

To be sure, on his mother's side there is Italian blood — hence, no doubt, the strong Mediterranean nose — but on his father's side (minus the Dutch surname) he is mostly Irish Catholic.

And the particular New Jersey culture he came from wasn't remotely like that of those middle-class Jewish boys, Simon and Garfunkel, but white, working-class Irish Catholic.

Which is a small lesson in life: if you deal in stereotypes, no matter how conveniently they might fit into your world vision, sooner or later, you will be led by the nose to falsehood.

But, of course, we all like to reduce complexity to convenient pigeon holes, and actually, no great disaster results simply if you are wrongly stereotyped — is it so terrible to be called a Jew if you are an Irish Catholic?

For there is, in reality, no true ‘Jew’, no ‘Protestant’, no ‘Traveller’, no ‘Palestinian’, no ‘Zulu’, no ‘Ibo’.

All of us who are true to ourselves must sooner or later |betray the stereotype into which others might want to fit us.

For such stereotypes are, |more often than not, a mental prison rather than a means of |understanding.

And we on this small island should by now have learnt that tribal divisions are usually a toxic confection in the mind of the |beholder.

There might, therefore, be enduring forces called ‘republicanism’ or ‘loyalism’, but there are no humans who are irreducibly embodiments of either identity. It's not complex, is it?

Yet it remains beyond resolution. And the really amazing, incredible thing is that after decades of enquiry, no one can even begin to explain why.

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