Emulation or Impersonation?
The highlight, the main event, of this week's Torah reading, Parashat Toldot, is when Jacob, acting at his mother's behest, disguises himself as his fraternal twin brother Esau so he could receive the blessing from their blind(ed) father Isaac, who had intended to bless Esau.
In his book The Artist's Torah, author David Ebenbach says, "What does this have to do with the artist? Everything. Whenever an artist engages in the act of imitation, s/he faces the same dangers Jacob found. Abandoning your own artistic instincts and style in order to take on someone else's can be an act of violence toward the self. In using someone e'se's style to succeed, you can become dependent on it and end up abandoning your own."
But it's not all bad; there is a right (or constructive) way to do it as well: "When you need to grow, you try things on, but not because you're mixed up about who you are or because you want to take someone else's place. The goal, in the ideal case, is learning—learning from another's style in order to develop one's own."
However, it's a double-edged sword: "We try things on sloppily, sometimes from a desire to learn but other times from a desire to leave some part of us behind or from an envy that makes us want what our heroes have."
Ebenbach asks the reader, "Which artists do you admire the most? How can you learn from those artists without losing your own unique stamp?"
Well, if you know me by now, the main answer is obvious: The same artist who sang the words, "trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be."
I spent a large part of my artistic journey imitating, if not actually impersonating, Bruce Springsteen, largely because he had what I wanted. The things that drew me in were the way he sang of life at the Jersey Shore, where I wanted to be, and of his dysfunctional relationship with his father, which mirrored my own. And I put out several albums' worth of music that was heavily influenced by him, yet there was just enough "me" in it to put my individual stamp on it.
Still, though, there is a time to end that journeyman phase. The thing that broke this imitation / growth / learning period, that threw cold water on it, was the series of events that caused me to "DeBruce" a little over a year ago.
But there was also what my late friend Reb Yedidyah Blanton (obm) said to me: "Lose the last of the Bruce Springsteen influence and that's when you'll truly become yourself."
And I'll even tie it in with my father's passing: I latched onto Bruce the way I did because he was the role model I wanted, not the one provided in the person of my father. I did not, and do not, want to become a junior facsimile of my father. But now, after Bruce has essentially unmasked himself as a fake and a fraud, there is a poor role model to emulate; there is no need to emulate him as a substitute role model, because now, or soon, is the time to step out of my father's long shadow and come into my own.
What have I learned from Bruce that's positive? Well, if there is one thing that's worth emulating, it's his work ethic. His music itself was a huge influence, to be sure. But that, now, too, is a long shadow to step out of. I want to make music my way, but perhaps with the dedication and work ethic Bruce has (after all, as I was fond of saying, he isn't called "The Boss" for nothing). But also, perhaps, to use my talents and abilities in defense and support of G-d, Torah, and Israel, in my own way, which I know my father would be proud of.