Sunday, October 10, 2010

Two Parts Authenticity, One Part Emotion

I BOUGHT MY FIRST BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN ALBUM when I was 12. I got a late start on the concerts (it didn’t help that the band broke up for nearly 15 years), but have made up for lost time, and saw my 13th Springsteen concert last fall. It was the first Bruce show for a colleague attending with me (an informal Jewish educator, of course); he said it was the greatest concert he had ever seen.
Those close to me—and any youth I’ve worked with—are well aware of my Bruce fanaticism.
What does this have to do with the world of informal Jewish education? Everything.
For starters, I point to Bruce as a great example of authenticity.
How is a performer like Springsteen able to hold on to the image of representing the working man, despite his millions? Why do his flannel shirts, boots, and jeans resonate with so many who have so much less than him? I believe the answer lies in that realness, or authenticity, that he maintains with his fans.
You can't fake the energy he displays during a three-hour show—at age 60, no less—without ever leaving the stage. You can't fake his compassion for those who have less, for those who have hit rough times, that he has delivered in his lyrics from Day One, and which he has backed up through his support for those causes.
Bruce isn’t just another old-time rocker playing hits for money. He takes risks. Some of his recent projects (a solo Southwestern album, a folk music tribute to the music of Pete Seeger) did not connect entirely with fans. Others didn’t like his open support of the Democratic presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. But he was authentic, for better or worse.
There’s a second element inherent in Springsteen’s work that has deep connections to the world of informal education, which goes hand-in-hand with authenticity: emotion.
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote one of the best essays I’ve read on the emotional value of the Springsteen experience. He writes of the “other education”—the emotional education:
We don’t usually think of this second education… This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives...
This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it…The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious…
Once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked. The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning.
Brooks’ comments could easily be speaking about informal Jewish education, and the emotional highs that teens experience at a Shabbaton or convention. Isn’t that emotion, after all, what separates the formal from the informal education we aim to provide our teens as a community?
The formal side sits them down in a classroom, and aims to fill in all the basics they need to know to be a literate Jew—the Bible stories, Shabbat, holidays, tzedakah, Jewish ethics. The informal side, on the other hand, aims to brings them as a group to a proverbial Mount Sinai (the rock concert hall), stand them up on their feet cheering, and have that emotion seep in from under the floorboards and through the vents, so that when it’s over they always want to return for more. To make them say of Jewish life, as Brooks wrote of the concert experience, “once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked.”
Springsteen teaches us a simple formula for resonating with those you aim to connect with: Creating meaningful relationships starts with authenticity. Adding in emotional ingredients strengthens the texture.
No one, of course, has better BS sensors than teens. You can’t fake it. Keep it real—respect, honesty, minimal judgment balanced with real expectations, show your inner self without crossing the line—and you just might make a real impact. Better yet, they might even deem you authentic.


  1. This is wonderful! This fellow Springsteen fan and Jewish educator would like to add that authenticity plus emotion equals a true sense of community (albeit for one night only!). Synagogues and other Jewish institutions can take a lesson and work even harder to create the same sense of community (and for more than one night!)

  2. You're in good company, Sid. Read about Lenny Zakim z"l, a dear friend of mine from the Jewish community in Boston. He was an activist for Jewish causes and a big Bruce Springsteen fan.There is a bridge in Boston named in his memory.