Springsteen and the Hebrew School
Posted on December 27, 2018
During the Christmas break we have afforded ourselves a truce in the proceedings. The Queen sat in front of a golden piano and told us all to calm down a little; it’ll be good if that works. Like most people I know, I’ve welcomed the respite.
I am one of the fortunate ones who has been able to use the time to indulge my pleasures. On Boxing Day I went to see my team play (and they won) and then used Netflix (yes, I know) to watch Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show on Broadway. Oddly, the two episodes connected.
Although condemned some time ago, I noted on my way to the match that the Hebrew School in Balsall Heath has eventually been demolished to make way for some much-needed reconstruction. I have written elsewhere about my memories of the place, but, basically, it was a Jewish primary school in the middle of Birmingham that was rough and ready, kind and cruel, typical and atypical – and which gave me a chance.
It has only been in adult life that I recognise that it is/was located in what we now call the inner city. Similarly, I now understand that my grainy memories reveal the great poverty and deprivation which surrounded us and of which I took no notice. For me, it was just school. You went there every day, you usually did your best, sometimes you got told off and if anyone bothered to ask you about it you just grunted that it was OK.
In the six decades since, I have been able to inscribe my own narrative about the place and to put it in its historical, political and social perspective. Similarly, I have been able, I hope, to be more perceptive and empathetic to the adults who framed my world. Their actions – which were just adults being adults – now have an obvious purpose. Their limitations which I could never have rationalised, but which deeply affected how I was able to live my life, are now obvious and justifiable. I am able to appreciate the dignity, admirable stoicism and firm but undemonstrative love that informed how they lived their lives. If only I could capture some of that in a poetic form…
…..but that’s what we have poets for. In his show, Springsteen talks with growling lyricism of an ordinary working-class life where parents, school and church frame his existence. Of the glorious moments when, meeting his mother from her clerical job, he has her to himself for a while. Of the father who leaves it until Springsteen himself is about to become a parent before having anything approaching a meaningful conversation with him.
None of it is besmirched by blame or mawkishness. Mistakes are made, promises broken and loves lost. Then quietly, unfussily, pain is dealt with and life is lived. When it comes to the lives that populate his songs, he’s happy to let us know that these are constructs. Biography doesn’t have to play a part in fashioning the narrative of the society of which we are all part. He delights in telling us that he makes stuff up. The rock-and-roll hero who was born to run now lives ten minutes away from his small home town. The man who wrote Racing in the Street didn’t know how to drive.
That I could listen to Springsteen talking of his life as part of a decent working –class small town in New Jersey, dominated by family and church and find immediate correspondence between a decent working-class family in Birmingham, mirroring it in every way apart from the brand of belief, talks of a universality of experience that binds us all.
And it was on this commonality that he lingered. In a clear reference to the coarse, vulgar and divisive discourse that Trump’s words and actions have created, Springsteen reminded us of the need to look at the ties that bind us, to act together, to call out cant and of the need to rejoice when love and happiness happen. To be human and to act together. To give ourselves a chance.
Which is a long way from the demolition of the Hebrew School…..except that it isn’t. On returning to his home town he finds that the tree which was the centrepiece of his yard had, like my school, been chopped down. Naturally, there is sadness but the past is there to be just that – the past. From it we can refine and readjust our memories – even make stuff up if it entertains us to do so. We should be able to look into it, forgive the clumsiness of those who usually meant well (even when they didn’t) and use the strength and knowledge we gained from it to make life better for each other.
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.