The Super Bowl Half Time Show: A Close Read of Identity

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

“Latinos!” J-Lo called out as her daughter danced over to her.

“Born in the USA.” Her daughter sang.

“Let’s get loud.” J-Lo harmonized, as she approached her daughter with a Puerto Rico flag draped over her, the American flag on the other side.

Watching the Super Bowl halftime show I was a mix of emotions. It happened in two second intervals, indicative of our dwindling attention spans, and all of it was half naked, offending my more modest tendencies. But something moved me deeply, as a mother yes, but, more significantly, as a scholar of Jewish education. Here was a strong identity on display, passed down from parent to child. 

Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic explains the significance of this moment:

Solidarity, pride, and the notion that unity complements diversity: These themes were communicated less via slogans than as fundamentals of the show itself, baked into the sound and look and meta-narrative.

The meta-narrative of unity through diversity should have deep resonance for the Jewish community. In their duet, mother and daughter insist that their strong Latina identities are absolutely, and unwaveringly, American. Latinos. Born in the U.S.A. Let’s get loud. Unapologetic.

There is no perfect parallel here between J. Lo and her daughter’s message about being Puerto Rican and being Jewish in America. The president has not, so far, suggested that Jews are any less American than their fellow Americans. The American Jewish community has not, as the residents of Puerto Rico were, been neglected and disrespected in a moment of crisis. But the defiant insistence that unity complements diversity is at the essence of the American Jewish experience. And it’s a notion under attack right now. In our difference, we too are profoundly American.

In this two-second clip from the Super Bowl halftime show, if we read the “text” closely, a powerful, and at this moment counter-cultural, message emerges: strong, particularist identity is deeply American. This is a  message that should inspire and invigorate our work in the Jewish community.

But, should you find my reading of the halftime show a little too much, a little overdone, that’s important too. The very consideration of this “text”  has been an exercise in citizenship. In contemporary America today, we are all called upon to make judgements about what texts mean from constitutional amendments to presidential tweets. To do so we must train ourselves to hear, what Mikhail Bakhtin called, the multivocality and heteroglossia inherent in every text, In 21st century America, the ability to closely read and interpret texts,  is at the center of what it means to be an engaged American and global citizen. I hear in the text of the Super Bowl halftime show an inspirational message for Jewish communal work. What do you hear?

Dr. Ziva R. Hassenfeld was recently appointed the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the tools and reading strategies young children employ when reading texts, as well as the pedagogies teachers use to support student textual interpretation, fluency and comprehension.