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Dylan and the Jews


Abe Zimmerman's Son

The young Dylan's desire for a story more real, exciting, romantic, and gritty than true initially led him to deny, or at least hide, his Jewishness. He affected an Okie accent when he first came to New York, recounted a tall-tale autobiography about running off to join the circus and told nobody that his name was really Robert Zimmerman.

Was this apparent self-hatred Dylan's attempt to efface his middle-class Jewish childhood in order to become "a real American"?

Some chroniclers have seen it that way. But biographer Clinton Heylin says no: The disguises were built up not against his religion but against the insularity of his life in the small Minnesota town of Hibbing. If anything, the son of store-owner Abraham Zimmerman was fortunate to have wide family ties which insulated against the town's cool anti-Semitic undercurrent. Dylan's Jewish education included summers at Camp Herzl and bar mitzvah training.

Much later, he would tell this tale:

"The town didn't have a rabbi, and it was time for me to be bar mitzvahed. Suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter. He showed up just in time for me to learn this stuff. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs above the cafe, which was the local hangout. It was a rock and roll cafe where I used to hang out, too. I use to go up there every day to learn the stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I'd come down and boogie."

The potent combination of religion and rock 'n' roll was written deep in Dylan's soul. The music he loved, from the blues to Hank Williams's country ballads, mixed faith with its funk and had its roots in African religion and Negro spirituals. But the new rock 'n' roll went only halfway, tacking shallow popular song lyrics onto denatured rhythm and blues, Dylan, perhaps inspired by his rabbi, pressed on to a higher calling. His musical path from the North Country via Highway 61 to the Mississippi Delta continued "all the way from New Orleans unto Jerusalem," as he sang in "Blind Willie McTell," the 1983 song that is a high point of the Bootleg Series.

Chapter 3: With God on his side?


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.