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Amanda Gorman and Bruce Springsteen – Two Visions of America

Rabbi Evan Schultz
Mishpatim 5781
February 12, 2021
Amanda Gorman and Bruce Springsteen – Two Visions of America

Perhaps like many of you, our family sat down to a very intimate Super Bowl party this past Sunday. In addition to watching a pretty lopsided game and a certain quarterback win his seventh ring, it was some of the footage outside of the game itself that truly caught my attention, and perhaps yours as well. A rising poet and legendary rock star, two iconic American figures each offering very different stories and visions of our nation.

When Amanda Gorman entered our tv screen on Sunday, it was our four-year old, Roie, who proclaimed excitedly, “Amanda Gorman!” Jenny and I looked at each other in awe, so taken aback that a young preschooler already knows the name of this young woman of color who captivated our nation with her poetry on Inauguration Day. Here she was again, a now universally recognized figure offering a new piece on Super Bowl Sunday. In her poem entitled, Chorus of the Captains, Gorman highlighted the stories of three Americans, James Dorner, an army veteran who works with at-risk kids, Trimaine Davis, an educator who helps his students get the technology they need to succeed in school, and Suzie Martin, the ICU nurse manager at Tampa hospital. Gorman writes of James and Trimaine two black men, and Suzie, a white woman,

“Let us walk with these warriors,
Charge on with these champions,
And carry forth the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by acting
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is right and just.
For while we honor them today,
It is they who every day honor us.”

Gorman possesses an uncanny ability to inspire us with story, her own narrative of being an ancestor of slaves, and the stories of three local heroes on Super Bowl Sunday. The poet weaves a colorful tapestry of an America that is grounded and founded in pain, inequality, and illness, yet with courage and compassion she urges us to celebrate one another’s story and push forward together to make change. 

And then a short while later, rock legend Bruce Springsteen drove onto our screens, at the steering wheel of a dusty Jeep. Springsteen aspired to offer a similar vision to that of Gorman, but with very different imagery. Many who watched Springsteen’s commercial, reciting a piece called “The Middle,” quickly noticed that his place of unity, of coming together, was a small chapel in Kansas, located at the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states. “The middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” Springsteen recites. “Freedom belongs to us all. Whoever you are. Wherever you’re from. It’s what connects us.” 

As writer Jeremy Burton commented about this ad in the Forward this week, “while the ad notes that ‘all are more than welcome’ here, this is an exclusively Christian space. Above the altar we see a map of our nation, painted in flag colors, with a cross and a heart attached to it. Throughout this moving elegy on the challenges of our time, the images shown are those of a singular faith community,” he writes.

It was not lost on me that this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, twice prompts us to welcome the stranger, to not wrong or oppress the stranger. Springsteen’s commercial in a sense fulfills that commandment, except it makes clear, at least to me, that the stranger in this country still in some ways is us, it is the Jew, the Muslim, people of color, the immigrant, the foreigner. I cannot shake the image in my head that the center point of the lower 48 states is a chapel with a heart and a cross. All are welcome, but does it send the message that we are, at least in some sense, still strangers in this land?

After watching Springsteen’s ad, I was drawn back to a powerful memory of my childhood. I was a third grader in Mrs. Otis’ classroom in Holliston, Massachusetts. She was one of my favorite teachers – caring, generous, and warm. Around Christmas time I recall making Christmas decorations with all the other kids in the class, and proudly showing them to my parents when I got home. “Look what I made,” I said, excitedly. I remember the look on their faces. Their Jewish eight-year old proudly displaying my Santa and Christmas tree with a big smile on my face. The next year they signed me up to attend Jewish Day School. 

It is the perpetual struggle of the American Jew – the want, the desire to be accepted and at the same time maintain our unique identity. And all the while deep down knowing we are in some ways still the stranger in America. Anti-Semitism has far from been eradicated, as Rabbi Marion so powerfully shared last week. Classic anti-Semitic tropes still prevalent all over social media, from our dual loyalty to Israel to our manipulating Game Stop stock prices. But it’s not just that. 

Last week lawyer David Schoen made headlines as he covered his head with his hand each time he took a sip of water at the Trump impeachment trial. Religious Jews typically cover their head when they eat or drink. Yet Schoen decided to forgo the kippah that he usually wears. When asked about it, Schoen later told CNN that he had taken off his yarmulke because he “just wasn’t sure if it was appropriate.” He added: “I didn’t want to offend anyone.” And: “It’s just an awkward thing and people stare at it.”

In response, Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief of the Forward wrote this week in her op-ed, “I cannot help but see a connection between the Super Bowl ad and Schoen’s (phantom) yarmulke. The lawyer, who also withdrew his initial request that the impeachment trial break for Shabbat, certainly has the equal right to wear or not wear his Judaism on his sleeve — err, head — whenever he chooses. But as long as Springsteen and Jeep put “the middle” inside a church, ignoring the fact that many of us would not feel comfortable “coming together” under a cross, we should not be surprised that some… Jews are going to wonder if it is “appropriate” to wear a yarmulke.”

To be a Jew in America is to carry a complex identity. We have lived better here and achieved more and have been accepted more perhaps than any other time or place in our entire existence. We have achieved and hold a great deal of power and influence in this country. So many of us direct that power to give voice to the vulnerable, and advocate for Americans who still suffer, who are the victims of injustice, who seek to be free. To welcome the stranger, to act with compassion just as God did for us when we cried out. And at the same time we are still subject not only to hate and anti-Semitism in America, but to the very feeling that David Schoen expressed when he wasn’t sure if he should wear his kippah at the trial. That we may still be the stranger here too, despite all we have achieved and accomplished.  

I have had the same struggle as Schoen. Over and over again. If I wear my kippah, I’m a Jew. When I take it off, I pretty much blend in with every other white American. Unlike people who are black or Asian or Latino, I can choose to put the kippah on or take it off, and they cannot. And that causes a difficult and complex internal debate deep within:  who am I? An American Jew? A Jewish American? Are we insiders, outsiders, or some complex mixture of both? Certainly, Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl ad only compounded our ongoing questioning, or at least mine.

I still love ya Bruce, but perhaps all of this is to say that I am deeply drawn to the vision of the poet. Amanda Gorman offers an America in which we can have our differences, we can maintain our uniqueness, yet at the same time none of us are strangers, the middle is us all. At the inauguration this year she preached,

“We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.”

Amen, and may it be so. Shabbat Shalom.