Thunder Road Shabbos


It started, as these things often do nowadays, with a social media post, in this case a snapshot of a pair of home-baked challahs. Only this post was on a Bruce Springsteen Facebook group, and people asked if the challahs tasted as good as they looked; the baker said come join me for Friday night dinner and taste for yourselves. And that is how I, the baker’s friend, found myself embedded and embraced among some two-dozen Bruce fans for a Shabbat dinner in Teaneck, N.J., like no other. 

Actually, the term “fan” does not begin to express the relationship of the guests to the Boss. What do you call a financial planner from New Jersey who has attended nearly 200 Springsteen concerts? A cattle rancher from Australia who has Bruce Springsteen’s autograph tattooed on his forearm? A night-shift bread delivery man from Newark’s Ironbound who named his son “Bruce”?

Devotee? Chasid? Meshuganeh?

If you accept Freud’s apocryphal definition of normality as the ability to work and love, they were as normal as it gets.

Over the brisket and turkey dinner, I gave witness to my Bruce experience. I attended only one Springsteen concert and had a fine time, at least until an inebriated fan knocked my then-teenage son’s kipa off his head. Years later he still wears a kipa and listens to Bruce, so I suppose things could have turned out worse.

Seeking to further establish my bona fides, I asked everyone to join me in singing my favorite Springsteen classic, “Thunder Road.” I even made copies of the song before Shabbat to distribute. What can I say? The song speaks to me. The lyrics poetically express longing and tentative hope, both heavenly and earthly, with an unmistakable E Street melody that captures the visceral yearning and desperate loneliness of our younger selves. Also, it’s a car song and I like cars.

Of course, only yours truly needed to look at the lyrics. Before we started singing, a friendly debate erupted over the varied phrasing that Bruce has used over the decades. (Is it “Mary’s dress waves” or “Mary’s dress sways?”) And then we all sang “Thunder Road” together and my neshama yeseira (the added soul of Shabbos) kicked into fifth gear, and it was as if I was back in my boarding yeshiva singing Shabbos zemiros, only this time the food was so much better.

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright / Oh, and that’s alright with me.

After leading “Thunder Road,” one of the devotees, Outlaw Lauren, wearing a genuine black cowboy hat bought at an Asbury Park arcade, bestowed upon me the handle “TR.”

And what did the guests make of the Shabbos dinner? Some had never spoken to a Jew before. All stood respectfully as the host chanted Kiddush and recited the blessing on her scrumptious challah. The only edict she announced was to leave the bathroom light on. Whether one can extrapolate from that single ordinance towards an appreciation of the richness of Jewish tradition is uncertain. But it didn’t seem to matter. A Shabbat meal done right becomes a highlight of our Jewish life, and this meal was done right. The guests reveled in the warmth of food, companionship and the palpable sanctity of the moment. To those who critique the alleged insularity of observant life, that dinner showed it needn’t be that way.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav taught that every creation, every blade of glass has its own niggun (Liqutei Moharan 1:53). Me, I’m still finding my melody, though by now I’ve been around long enough to have hummed a few bars of my own.

And why just one melody? In these post-modern times, one song may not suffice. In the course of one day, I can hear in my mind’s ear my grandmother’s Russian lullaby, a Yeshiva Brass 1960s LP, Moishe Oysher’s “Amar Amar” and “Omar Sharif” from “The Band’s Visit.” And don’t get me started on the Beatles and Poogy. 

Music reveals us. When next on a date, to gauge compatibility, don’t compare politics or religious observance. Talk music. Ask them to name some favorite musicians. If the list includes Bob Dylan, The Lumineers or Ben Zion Shenker, game on. Richard Wagner or Captain & Tennille, leave pronto. Louis Armstrong or Bruce Springsteen, propose.

There is untold joy in finding your song, more so in finding someone to sing it with. I left dinner that Friday night having struck a few new chords with a few new friends.

Oh oh, come take my hand / We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land / Oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road / Sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road.

Barry “TR” Lichtenberg practices commercial and real estate litigation in Manhattan.