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Dylan and the Jews


Jewish Readings of Dylan Lyrics

Are Dylan's lyrics simply a restating of 13th century Kabbalah? Can they be understood without years of Talmud study? Or is it all a hoax?

This page explores possible references in Dylan's lyrics to Jewish ideas or customs. Some are clearly p'shat, meaning the obvious interpretation. Others may be more far fetched. Ours is but to argue, not to judge.

Gates of Eden

The motorcycle black madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause
The gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden
Bread crumb sins may be a reference to the Tashlich ceremony.

The Tashlich ceremony takes place during the period of repentance beginning with the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Jews gather near a body of water (or a well, for the landlocked), shake the crumbs from their pocket, and recite from the Psalms and from the prophet Micah: "Thou wilt again show us mercy and subdue our iniquities; thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19)

Then again, the bread crumb sins could refer to the Passover holiday, when possession of bread -- even crumbs -- is banned by Jewish law.

Planet Waves: liner notes

Back to the Starting Point! The Kickoff, Hebrew Letters on the wall, Victor Hugo's house in Paris, NYC in early autumn, leaves flying in the park... ...snapshots of Apache poets searching thru the ruins fora glimpse of Buddah -- I lit out for parts unknown, found Jacob's ladder up against an adobe wall & bought a serpent from a passing angel... where Baudelaire lived & Goya cashed in his chips, where Joshua brought the house down!
Strictly speaking, these aren't lyrics, and strictly speaking these are not purely Jewish references -- because Dylan's Bible was, at least at the beginning, the Bible of the Christian folkies and bluesmen.

But I believe the Hebrew letters on the album sleeve have a prophetic voice, particularly in the early months of 1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, particularly on a record where the publishing rights are assigned to Ram's Horn Music.

Dylan is here boldly including the Jews -- Joshua and Jacob -- with the rest of the cannon of the Western artists, the native Americans, Buddah and Baudelaire. It may not seem revolutionary, but remember: This is less than a decade after Einstein (the Jew) had to disguise himself as Robin Hood (the protypical Anglo- American outlaw folk hero) to crash the party on Desolation Row.

Forever Young

May God bless and keep you always....

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young
"May God bless and keep you" are the words by which the kohanim - - the Jewish priests -- bless the Jewish congregation, in the time of Moses (Numbers 6:26) and today. The words have been incorprated into every daily worship service. An amulet with these words has been found from the time of the First Temple. And they are used by parents to bless their children.

This song is widely assumed (i.e. I read it on the Internet once) to have been written for Dylan's son Jakob. It was Jacob who dreamed of the ladder whose top reached the heavens.

Dylan the family man seems to be consistently Jewish, which makes one suspect that the question of Sara Dylan's spirituality and religion is of crucial importance to this whole saga. Bob, after all "seemed to function as a sort of visitor in his kids' lives" as one rabbi who officiated at a Dylan bar mitzvah put it.

Jokerman

So swiftly the sun sets in the sky
Your rise up and say goodbye To no one
This verse lies at the core of my full-length exegesis of this song.

In short: The setting sun brings the end of one day and starts the next. The Sabbath begins and ends at nightfall. Jewish mysticism personifies the Sabbath as a bride and queen. She is welcomed in and escorted out with special prayers.

The parting prayers are called Havdalah. Are they to no one? Ask the Jokerman.

Political World

We live in a political world
Everything's hers and his
You can jump into the flame
And shout God's name
But you're not even sure what it is.

There are two Jewish aspects to this verse. First is the notion of jumping into the flame. That was the fate of the three prophets in the Book of Daniel -- cast into the fiery furnace for their allegiance to God. In Jewish tradition, however, the first jump into the flame was that of Abraham who, according to legend, was cast into a fiery furnace by Nimrod, ruler of Ur.

The simple (p'shat) explanation of "not even sure what it is" is that Dylan is lamenting that we are so far removed from God that even if we want to throw ourselves into his care, we don't know how to. We have forgotten God's name.

One the level of d'rash -- a slightly more convoluted interpretation -- this is a reference to a literal Jewish predicament: We have forgotten the literal name of God, the tetragrammaton pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple only on the holiest day of the year. All we have are its consonants -- YHVH -- but we don't know the vowels. (The English translation Jehovah is only a guess, and a wrong one at that.)

Everything is Broken

Here, the central metaphor is profoundly Jewish. In Kabbalistic theology, the flaws in the world reflect the "breaking of the vessels." When God began to create the world, the Divine light proved to powerful for the vessels that were supposed to contain it, and they shattered. What we see around us is the wreckage of the broken vessels. It is our task to gather up the fallen sparks of holiness, and mend the vessels. But until then, everything is broken.

Ring Them Bells

Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.

The unity of God is at the center of Jewish theology. "Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" is the central Jewish prayer. And the debate as to whether God is one or (l'havdil) three is what helped make the Middle Ages such an exciting time for Jewish-Christian relations.

Dignity

Drinkin' man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors
Lookin' into the lost forgotten years
For Dignity

This seems a reference to the Jewish custom of covering up mirrors in a house of mourning. During the week of "sitting shiva" the room may often be crowded, particularly during the daily worship services held in the house.

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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.