I’m not a fan of Billy Joel’s. I might’ve written about it once or twice. I find him to be the Donald Trump of pop music, a maudlin narcissist with good instincts who lures in his audience with false promises of empty nostalgia and good cheer. I was happy never to think of speak of the Piano Man again. And then, Billy put on that yellow star.
Observed out of context, the act itself ranks high on the The Day the Clown Cried scale, our official measurement for famous people trying to make meaningful statements about life while using Holocaust imagery with unintended comic effect. What does the yellow star mean? That it’s literally 1939? That Trump is Hitler? That the handful of creeps with bad haircuts marching here and there are fantasizing about Lebensraum as they look greedily at Canada? These are all preposterous propositions, the sort you’d entirely expect from a lyricist who looked deep into the soul of the Cold War and came back with insights like “a Russian life was very sad.”
For anyone else, then, the yellow star would’ve been a mindless and moronic act of virtue-signaling. But for Billy Joel, it was sweet.
We’ve entered the Hebrew month of Elul, a time for introspection leading into the High Holidays, and so I write this without a trace of irony and with my tongue nowhere near my cheek: I was moved by Billy’s tribute. Like that famous hassidic tale of the boy who didn’t know how to pray so he whistled hard at shul so that God may hear him, Billy was moved to show us that—contrary to what you might believe after listening to “Uptown Girl”—he had a soul after all, and that his soul was wounded. His medium of choice shouldn’t matter; only the message should.
And the message is this: Billy Joel recognized that he’s a Jew, and that we have very real haters, right and left, and that their vision of American life does not include us and never will. This wasn’t a political statement—Billy was never too keen on those—it was a simple statement of identity, a blunt realization of a tragic historical truth, and it was touching and lovely and deeply human.
So I apologize, Billy, sincerely, for all the mean things I’ve said about you. I’d still rather listen to just about anyone else—even U2, for crying out loud, aren’t as cloying—but this week I saw in you something I’d never seen before, and it warmed my heart. And if you’re ever in town for Shabbat, man, just let me know.