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Dylan and the Jews


A Jewish Reading of I & I

By Martin Grossman (tgg@BRONZE.COIL.COM)

I hope this is clear and I haven't made too many mistakes. It just kind of flew out of my fingers directly from my head as I sat in front of the keybord on a wet, cold, rainy night in the middle of middle America. You read it pretty much as it flew.

THOUGHTS ON "I AND I"

This is a song that -- like many of Bob's best -- gets better each time I hear it and each time I play it for myself on my guitar. It's structure is not particularly difficult to master but it has a depth of feeling that is quite remarkable. Dylan's genius as a songwriter is that he can combine lyrics and melodies that together are far more powerful than either alone. "I and I," "Tears of Rage," and "Wheels on Fire" are especially good examples. I could go on for a couple of pages -- couldn't everyone on r.m.d.? It's the depth of *feeling* he captures that makes a given song function as "art." For me, only L. Cohen comes close to creating songs that render feelings this subtle and at this high level of writing and performance. Van Morrison comes close on occasion -- more often in terms of performance rather than the quality and subtlty of the words.

For whomever it was who asked for interpretations, here's my take on "I and I":

Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed

A man's first time with a woman one hasn't known can create a atmosphere of contentment mixed with wonder. Men of a "romantic" cast of mind (i.e., the "romantic" poets, not romantic in the popular sense) often experience this kind of awe. This may leads to speculation -- or in the especially gifted, images -- launched by a sensibility that instinctually responds to the stimulation this sort of situation provides.

In another lifetime she must have owned the world

This could be many things. I prefer to see at positively, as an image of the shekinah, which in the Jewish mystical system of Kaballah is the feminine manifestation of G-d into the world of broken vessels. The Sabbath Queen welcomed in the hymn "Le'Cha Dodi" at sundown on Friday in Jewish homes is one example of this imagery. This idea is strengthened by the next line.

Or been faithfully wed to some righteous king who wrote psalm beside moonlit streams

This strikes me as an allusion to the shekinah as muse as well as the kinship the poet feels with King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel. Echoes of Bathsheba as the "strange woman" also resonate here. The poet sees himself, like David, as dedicated to G-d but with a love for women that is nearly as intense as his love for G-d. The Shekinah combines elements of both ideas.

The chorus hold all of the various images gathered in the song together.

I and I

For me, this functions on at least two levels. Bob indirectly pays tribute to Bob Marley and reggae in general by using this phrase so prominently. I recall reading somewhere that he once suggested that Rasta and Chabad weren't that far apart. Dylan is one person -- but not the only one -- who sees the connection. It also works as a reference to Martin Buber's I and Thou, which speaks to the ideal relationship of G-d and man. An entire essay could be written just on the title of this song!

In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives

This could be right out of the Chabad playbook. In *Tanya* -- the mystical text the Lubavitcher's revere nearly on the level of Torah and Talmud, much attention is given to the concept of the "animal soul" which opposes the higher soul (or self) in a struggle between the "evil inclination" and the "good inclination." We all have both, at least we do for as long as we are trapped inside this suit of skin. The "evil inclination," however, can be harnessed to the service of the good by one who strives to serve G-d.

I and I

Here the cosmic "I" ("I am that I am") encounters the human "I" as the following makes obvious.

One says to the other no man sees my face and lives

G-d is too awesome, his presence too powerful for Him to be apprehended directly. The idea of G-d is the stuff of the universe itself, the *Ein* Sof, the infinite, pure energy, pulsating eternally without beginning or end.

The next verse is so deliberately bland, especially after such a powerful chorus, I can only read it as being placed where it is in the song for contrast and to heighten what comes before and what will come after.

Think I'll go out and go for a walk

What the poet is really doing I think is giving himself an opportunity for internal dialogue. He needs quiet and solitude, as the next lines suggest.

Not much happenin' here, nothin' ever does

That is, except in his head, where the real action occurs.

Besides, if she wakes up now, she'll just want me to talk

The real woman in his bed would shatter the silence inside his mind, which he needs to create. He has no wish to be drawn back into ordinary, everyday reality.

I got nothin' to say, ‘specially about whatever was

He doesn't want to talk about himself or the past, but to continue the I-Thou dialogue he began while watching her sleep.

Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don't win the race

The path is not the one "other men have walked down" (or at least most of them) but a more difficult and lonely one. It's the path of wisdom where patience is more valuable for sorting out the real for the false than speed. The obvious reference from Ecclesiastes makes the wisdom connection clear, as does the next line, which favors the contemplative mind over one dominated by encounters with popular culture.

Took a stranger to teach me to look into justice's beautiful face And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth

Keep in mind that "stranger" in the lexicon of Torah/Bible is always used to mean a non-Jew. On one level it could mean that an encounter with Christianity taught the one whose voice speaks in the song to value the treasures of his own heritage.

And for Dylan, justice has always been beautiful and a consistent element of his vision. It might also be noted that the "eye for an eye" language has always been used (by Christians and Western thinkers generally) to contrast Judaism from Christianity ("You have heard it said ..."), and it has been, wrongly, interpreted to mean that the G-d of the "Old Testament" (The Jewish Scriptures) loves justice over mercy. In Jewish practice all it ever meant was that injury requires just compensation, usually financial. Only fictional Jews created in European Christian minds influenced by Gospel-generated stereotypes insisted on a literal "pound of flesh." The G-d of Israel embodies mercy as well as justice, but justice properly understood is always merciful.

The next verse takes us back to the quotidian reality of verse two.

Outside of two men on a train platform there's nobody in sight

Someone else may have suggested this or I may have read it somewhere, but this reminds me of Beckett's two tramps in Waiting for Godot -- so they are waiting.

They're waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track

Like Dylan, they seem somewhat impatient for the world to end and associate this with spring, an image of a messianic age, but what an image "smokin' down the track" provides!

The world *could* come to an end tonight, but that's all right She should still be there sleepin' when I get back

The shekinah, I'd guess. What ordinary woman would survive the end of the world. Of course, the "end of the world" could be just the end of the old order and the new era will replace the old order "when the ship comes in" but as in the Jewish idea of the messianic age, life will go on. One of the sages insisted that if one is planting a tree and is told that the messiah has arrived, one is required to finish planting the tree before going to great him.

The last lines are the most cryptic and leave open the possibility of interpretation at a multitude of levels. The struggle continues.

Noontime, and I'm still pushin' myself along the road, the darkest part.

Darkness at noon? Or maybe "noontime" means he's still in the middle of the struggle and the "darkest part" is the shadowy world that gives us only glimpses of light of the infinite, hard to find and quickly fading.

Into the narrow lanes, I can't stumble or stay put

The journey is precarious. But he can't stop.

Someone else is speakin' with my mouth but I'm listening only to my heart

"I is another" but the higher self is the voice of the heart.

I've made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot

The last verse of the song ends with a line that isn't especially original, but gains particular force because it is the poet who says it. No one among contemporary poets has earned the right to say this more than Dylan has. The price he has paid to give us his "voice" has been high. The poet who has given so much to us still struggles to find his own way through the narrow lanes on an untrodden path.

Anyway, that's the way it seems to me as I listen to and then sing "I and I" in my own solitude tonight.

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Created and copyright by Larry Yudelson, publisher of YudelLine: One Jew's News and Views and RadioHazak: Israeli Music on the Internet. Send suggestions and comments to larry at yudel.com. © 1991-2008.