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Dylan and the Jews


Acidic Rebbe

When Dylan first came to New York in 1961, he was a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself as a new Woodie Guthrie. Other hootenanny singers were combing newspapers to write topical songs on poverty, war and injustice, but Dylan, like Maggies' Ma, was already "telling all the servants about man and God and law." Those first months of his apprenticeship produced forgettable topical songs like "Who Killed Davy Moore".

The classic Dylan protest songs all have a shot of something more, be it God and Jesus in "The Masters of War" and "God on our Side", or the more indirect sense of apocalypse and mystery of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" an "Blowin' in the Wind."

A motorcycle accident in 1966 forced Dylan to slow down and drop out of the gypsy life of concert tours. While living in the upstate New York country town of Woodstock, he wrote music with The Band that was quieter, the lyrics more elemental. The songs show a new- found faith and hope, best captured by the most famous song of that period: "I see the light come shining/From the West down to the East/Any day now/Any way now/I shall be released."

Sixty-one biblical references have been counted on the next Dylan album, John Wesley Harding. "All Along the Watchtower" transformed Isaiah's images into a rock hit. But what was a nice Jewish boy singing that "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"?

Over the next few years, the domestic life Dylan led with his wife and five children seemed to overpower his creativity. He recorded shallow love songs and duetted with whitebread country star Johnny Cash.

But now, far from the whirlwind of stardom, he began to explore his Jewish roots. The search may have been prompted by his father's death. Returning to Hibbing for the funeral, Bob surprised his brother by reciting the Kaddish prayer. On his 30th birthday he was in Israel and visited the Western Wall. He told one confidante of plans to buy an apartment in Israel; he investigated moving to a kibbutz.

This did not please the activist Left, who still hadn't forgiven the Voice of Their Generation for abandoning politics, and which since the 1967 war had increasingly supported Arafat's Fatah. The story was told that when Dylan met Black Panther leader Huey Newton, the singer chided the revolutionary for opposing Israel. ("Go ask Huey," Dylan told writer Anthony Scaduto when asked about the rumor; Newton was in exile at the time.)

Similar rumors pegged his 1974 comeback tour as a fundraiser for the Israel Emergency Fund. Folk Singer Mimi Farina even picketed his San Francisco concerts.

According to Stephen Pickering's book Bob Dylan Approximately, a bizarre blend of concert reportage and Jewish mystical musings which what can only be described as the teachings of an Acidic Rebbe, Dylan visited George Governor Jimmy Carter after an Atlanta concert. Carter praised Dylan's support for Israel; Dylan changed the subject. Two years later, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Carter quoted Dylan's phrase, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Chapter 4: Busy being Born Again


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.