“Keeping the Faith” and Keeping the Faith

There is a good bit of questioning about antisemitism in America and about the Jewish identity and experience in America if one is attuned to such discussions. The totality of the discussion would include a variety of relatively disinterested observers, Jews and also thoroughgoing antisemites.   However, this post is not primarily a post on antisemitism. Like a lot of posts on this blog it sort of meanders along –but it meanders more into being a discussion of Jews in America than being a discussion of antisemitism. However, for those interested in a more thorough discussion of antisemitism in America in recent years this article on the Huffington Post is a place to start.  But while there are no simple answers to the question, it is possible in a meandering way to ask “who are American Jews?” With all respect to Wrangler and Lee, it has always seemed to me that the most American garment is a great pair of blue jeans and the most American of the great blue jeans is also Jewish. The Levi Strauss company founded by a German Jewish family before Germany became known for the Holocaust and when Mendelssohn’s wedding  march filled both synagogues and Christian churches and was likely to be what one thought of in terms of the relationship of Jewishness and German identity. But this article is not mostly about Mendelssohn but mostly about another music maker — Billy Joel. (Still alive and more than welcome to comment on my little blog).

I like Billy Joel music and songs — in fact Piano Man is probably my favorite Billy Joel song, although this post is much more about Keeping the Faith. But in this post I want to discuss a particular aspect of my appreciation of his music. That aspect is how his music added, and still adds a certain something to American life and culture. Something which is Jewish, which is American and which is more profound than it seems.

alg-billy-joel-alexa-christie-brinkley-jpg

The story of American life and the story of American Judaism is a complicated pair of stories that relate very definitely to one another. Some names that come to mind when thinking of the Jewish qualities and tones that are part of American life and the American qualities and tones that are part of some Jewish life are Billy Joel, Eli Wiesel, Albert Einstein,  J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gloria Steinem,  Adam Sandler, Gilda Radner, Billy Chrystal and Yasmine Bleeth among others. But in the matrilineal tradition of many parts of modern Judaism and Hebraica neither Bleeth nor Steinem or necessarily Jewish –only their fathers really are for sure. Some people like Jean Chatzky are not so open about it in all aspects of their life but they are still willing to reveal their Jewish identity in the right format. The connection of all Jewish life to the events of the Holocaust is a real and vital set of connections. That doesn’t mean that the terms “Hitler” and “Nazi” have not often enough been bastardized to mean whatever anyone might want them to mean. Nonetheless, the Third Reich was real enough. The nation of Israel has shown Jews fighting for their own people and doing so effectively. There were few such successes in direct Jewish resistance to the Third Reich. But a Jew from Germany ‘s First Reich (named J. Robert Oppenheimer) with the support of a Jew who refused to return to the Germany during the Third Reich (named Albert Einstein) designed and developed the atomic weapons that would have defeated the Third Reich if we had not already beaten them a bit earlier. These same Jewish based technologies secured America’s place in the post-war world. As much as these varied people have contributed to American life and greatness I still am drawn to think about Billy Joel.

west_point_jewish_chapel_sign

I am where I am in my own journey through life. There is not much I have to write that does not matter in some significant way to me but I am aware of the limits of its import to the larger world. But as I begin this post I have a particular song on my mind — Keeping the Faith, by Billy Joel. The video features his real life wife playing a character in the song. Christie Brinkley is the only woman to bear him a child that I or the general public know about for sure — Alexa Ray. Although he would be married several other time and Christie Brinkley would have other children not with him and most romantic of all, she and Joel didn’t make it all the way to the grave together they were a couple who made an impression. I have spent a good bit of time in the last few months talking about my own past, in some ways I find something to relate to in Billy Joel’s song. But it is hard to know how well America relates to this nostalgia for an American youth.

Billy Joel is a man who in real life has known something about the love affairs and American living that he heard about first and later wrote intelligently about in  the songs of American popular music. The story is that of a man with his fair share of woes to say the least but also the story of a great American pop artist. The lyrics of “Keeping the Faith” tell some of his story.

 

“Keeping The Faith”

If it seems like I’ve been lost
In let’s remember
If you think I’m feeling older
And missing my younger days
Oh, then you should have known me much better
‘Cause my past is something that never
Got in my way
Oh no
The truth is that when one looks back on the past and sees only the glory days or only the sorrows one does not really look back on the past.  But we have a hard time not looking back on the past with all the many colors of nostalgia at one time or another. Billy Joel has allegedly attempted suicide a number of times and had struggles with alcohol abuse. What I am sure of is that he wrote and performed songs which people have related to fairly intensely over the years. Judaism contributed to the founding of Islam and Christianity each more than any other single source in objective historical terms — and therefore it is older. Nostalgia has a particular place in Jewish identity in the West.

Still I would not be here now
If I never had the hunger
And I’m not ashamed to say
The wild boys were my friends
Oh
‘Cause I never felt the desire
‘Til their music set me on fire
And then I was saved, yeah
That’s why I’m keeping the faith
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith

There was a  whole lot more going on in the  urban neighborhood of Joel’s song besides just music and faith. One thing he seems to believe in as he tells the story in song is the junction of youth, community and the  commerce based on  local  shared consumption. One can imagine a largely or susbstantially Jewish neighborhood in a great American city in the song. the song is sometimes shocking but a Catholic who is honest about Mardi Gras or Carnival as a Catholic liturgical season that is not a liturgical season should have no trouble making room for some kind of insight.

We wore old matador boots
Only Flagg Brothers had them with a Cuban heel
Iridescent socks with the same color shirt
And a tight pair of chinos
Oh
I put on my shark skin jacket
You know the kind with the velvet collar
And ditty-bop shades
Oh yeah
I took a fresh pack of Luckies
And a mint called Sen-Sen
My old man’s Trojans
And his Old Spice after shave
Oh
Combed my hair in a pompadour
Like the rest of the Romeos wore
A permanent wave, Yeah
We were keeping the faith

The boys with the condoms and  and the knowledge of which local merchants had the right clothes who smoked and got their hair done were making the boundaries of their community real enough. One wonders about the connections between the Catholic situation in America and the Jewish one at various times and in various places. the Jewish belief in the rituals that consecrate sex, life, the seasons of the year and the sense of being a people are modified in different ways as they come into Christianity. The secular Jewish experience is another modified view of those ancient streams.

Catholics have different reactions to the Trump administration singling out Mexico for his principal target of isolation. Isolation can be targeted. So the reactions over time will be interesting…. the targeting of Sanctuary cities may well be a cause of conflict with Catholics in many cases.  But the Catholic identity is that of Mike Pence, VP as well as of the undocumented worker. In addition Mexico and Central America are much less Roman Catholic than they used to be — much less. One wonders about the kind of Catholicism that Donald John Trump expects to confront. In the paper below from the American bishops, the right of the country to protect itself is balanced with the rights of those who might suffer. But there is a cultural sympathy that is not to be missed. One sees in trump a man who is very much an American secular Protestant who surrounds himself in close relationships with Catholics and Jews as well as others. I still have not pegged Trump at the personal level, his real policy goals I feel I understand well enough to discuss them but the man — not so much. Pence seems a likeable Catholic and his job is important and official. Mnuchin seems an unusually unlikeable American Jew and may not get confirmed. While Ivanka and Jared seem to be trotted around a great deal neither seems to have an official position. If not all Catholics will trust Trump is devoid of Anti-Catholic bias one wonders what varied Jews might be thinking.

16195966_10154294522377285_8543268698604309940_n

I am told that the President of Mexico has cancelled a meeting with President Trump. I like Trump being strong and energetic and I favor a vigorous and strong America. I also favor a healthy Mexico. I am a Catholic and an American. I look at the people who are trying to see where Trump plays out with Jews and there seems to be a hint that some people are wondering if only Israel is the Jewish place to be. Some see this perhaps in Trump’s chief strategist. I myself am on the far right (in my own opinion). I am able to oppose too much driving of Christianity from the Public square. But I also see a value in secular space and zones of governance. I also appreciate the Jewish American experience I even think there are things all of us can learn from their journey — even my WASP friends.

Getting back to Billy Joel, I too can remember that my own ethnic and specific heritage as a particular kind of American was not perfect either. You  (or one) can see a criticism of both a blind progressivism and a cultural conservatism that is unquestioning for any American in his  next few lines. Take them as autobiography, politics, romantic memoir or any  number of other forms and one can find some truth in them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith
You can get just so much
From a good thing
You can linger too long
In your dreams
Say goodbye to the
Oldies but goodies
‘Cause the good ole days weren’t
Always good
And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

But Billy Joel and I do indeed have different pasts and he is quite a bit older than me. Getting a bit off text again we witnessed different parts of the fire he sang about. We had different parts of the song going through our heads. But only the differences of versions and arrangements of the greater metaphorical song — I relate to his song We Didn’t Start the Fire , just fine. But like a lot his songs it is not of a single simple meaning. For now, let’s get through the song for which this post is named.

Learned stickball as a formal education
Lost a lot of fights
But it taught me how to lose O.K.
Oh, I heard about sex
But not enough
I found you could dance
And still look tough anyway
Oh yes I did
I found out a man ain’t just being macho
Ate an awful lot of late night drive-in food
Drank a lot of take home pay
I thought I was the Duke of Earl
When I made it with a red-haired girl
In the Chevrolet. Oh yeah
We were keeping the faith
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith

A while back on Facebook I received a compliment from a red-haired beauty from my own ethnic community in Acadiana and reminded her of a long ago date in Chevy Impala and was gratified by a smoochy emoji in response. While Billy Joel’s lyrical boasts do not apply to the date she and I were commemorating online much is similar, thus remembered by me or in song  it is a deeply American experience.  So I look at the role of Jews as a religious minority and I contrast them to the Jihadi Muslim communities. The other Muslims may or may not listen to Billy Joel but the smartest among them realize that American Jews have worked hard to create a workable secular American culture because it is one that they can participate in. It is sometimes good and sometimes bad but I respect the effort. Muslims, Christians and Jews can all wear Levis, listen at least to Piano Man if not this post’s theme song  and enjoy some discrimination-free public space. I have a  Jewish friend, a woman whose initials are JY and like some of the great American Jews she has done humanitarian and secular and patriotic things. She is spiritually adventurous and like so many she is vastly more liberal and more leftist than I am (two separate measures) but I think she has come to respect me and my views a little. I have mentioned her here but will not go further than this in this particular post. The relationships between Acadians and Jews are very complex and very enduring. there is plenty that is of Hebrew origin in the mix of French, Greek, Latin, Spanish and MiqMaq ingredients an Anglo scholar can find in the Cajun culture. I have reminded miss JY of her heritage more often than not — although I do not know really how closely she relates to it. But whatever her struggle is with majority culture it does not involved blowing up people in their homes and at markets. Europe’s murdered millions of Jews filled a niche that others from the same region of the world now fill- a good number of those people are committed to destroying the Europe both Goethe and Mendelssohn built together.   Where Hitler complained of the occasional Jewish Caftan there is now the burka.

You know the good ole days weren’t always good
And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

I told you my reasons
For the whole revival
Now I’m going outside to have
An ice cold beer in the shade
Oh, I’m going to listen to my 45’s
Ain’t it wonderful to be alive
When the rock ‘n’ roll plays, yeah
When the memory stays, yeah
I’m keeping the faith
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Keeping the faith
I’m keeping the faith,
Yes I am

So what about America and Billy Joel? What about the world of Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel? I am not sure that America will be great again or OK or anything else. But I will be here fighting my corner until I can’t anymore.  I am glad there are friends of Israel in the new administration. But along with some York, some Cornwall, some Languedoc, some Extremadura and some Shetlands — besides some Sicily and some Chihuahua — I like a little Galilee, Judea and Israel in my America as well.

 

 

Advertisements

Thank you for commenting if your comment does not appear in five days contact me by e-mail or Twitter

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s