Dylan: Tangled Up in Jews

Copyright Larry Yudelson, 1991

First published in the Washington Jewish Week

Greenwich Village, 1961: Bob Dylan takes the stage at Gerde's Folk City. The 20-year-old Dylan hasn't yet written the soundtrack to the sixties, been anointed prophet of his generation, converted to Christianity or dabbled with Lubavitch Hasidism. But already he's going after an establishment--a Jewish establishment, for that matter.

"Here's a foreign song I learned out in Utah," he twangs into the microphone. He strums his guitar, and continues tunelessly: "Ha! Va! Ha-va! Ha-va-na! Hava Nagila. Yodeleihoo!"

With the yodel and a finishing harmonica flourish, Dylan had outlined an epitaph for the Hebrew folk songs sung by folksingers like Theodore Bikel and the Weavers as part of a vaguely leftist, working- man's ethnic repertoire. The mockery was was prescient: The left would not be strumming love songs about Israeli soldiers much longer. Dylan, with his inspired instinct for the authentic, was first to smell the phoniness.

"Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues" appears for the first time on the new Bootleg Series compilation of "rare and unreleased recordings," an album that fills in many gaps in Dylan's musical career -- particularly this past decade, when the trail-blazing rock star seemed to weave between fundamentalist Christianity an dHasidic Judaism. This most recent period is well documented in Clinton Heylin's new biography, Dylan: Behind the Shades. Both the book and the record were released in time to salute Dylan's 50th birthday in May, 1991 -- a suitable occasion to reexamine his Jewish life since the days when he mocked the quintessential American Jewish tune.

Dylan has, if only from the ironic sideline, taken part in --and sung at-- the deepest spiritual crises of his generation of American Jews: the drama of the civil rights struggle, the comforts and exoticism of the Jewish homeland, and the spiritual excitements of Lubavitch.

He also became a Christian--the one leader he followed--and never really looked back and renounced it--because, like many a hasid, he found God through the music. And in America, the roots of the music is Christian.

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.

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."

Busy Being Born Again

In late 1978 Dylan himself was busy being born again. His widely-publicized conversion to Christianity made him perhaps the most famous Jewish apostate in American history. Suffering from a painful divorce, a tiring world tour and too much alcohol, Dylan began looking for answers. He found one:

"There was a presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus. I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that.... It was a physical thing. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble."

Pressed into vinyl as the slick Slow Train Coming album, Dylan's new beliefs won him his first Grammy Award. But on tour, he disregarded the savy advice of his spiritual mentors at the Vineyard Fellowship and obstinately refused to play any of his song from before he found the light. Biographer Heylin downplays the catcalls from the audience, but the transcripts he includes show that Dylan felt obligated to save the souls of an audience he never liked all that much.

"I told you the times they are a-changin' and they did. I said the answer was blowin' in the wind and it was. I'm telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation."

The followup album, Saved, was as self-righteous as its title. (His record company refused to release a live album of this religious music Dylan had recorded at his own expense.)

But Dylan's evangelical phase didn't last long. His third "Christian" album, included such departures from fundamentalism as "Lenny Bruce," a paean to the Jewish comedian.

More importantly, he had begun to synthesize his old vision with the new light. The results ranged from the soaring religious poem "Every Grain of Sand" to a trio of surrealistic songs left off the album but included on the Bootleg Series and the 1985 Biograph collection. "Angelina," "Caribbean Wind" and "Groom Still Waiting at the Altar" update the surrealistic landscape of "Desolation Row" for a darker apocalypse. The show is no longer "Shakespeare in the alley" but "The theatre of the Divine Comedy."

Prophet Motive

Soon after, the rumors went round that Dylan had returned to Judaism and was studying with the Lubavitch Hasidim in Brooklyn. The summer of 1982 he went to Israel for the bar mitzvah of his son, already 15, and was photographed at the Western Wall. Had he returned?

The inner sleeve of this 1983 album, "Infidels," showed him crouching on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem. Jesus had vanished from his lyric vocabulary (though New Testament allusions remained), replaced by "The Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy." "Neighborhood Bully," his first political song since 1976, discomfited the rock press with a hard-rocking defence of Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and invasion of Lebanon. In "Man of Peace," to this listener at least, Dylan seemed to turn on the Christian missionaries who had saved him.

And in what could be interpreted as a Jewish justification of his Christian phase, Dylan sang in "I and I":

"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."

He told an interviewer about his born-again period, "that was all part of my experience. It had to happen. When I get involved in something, I get totally involved. I don't just play around the fringes."

The problem was, at least for one Washington-area rabbi who had painfully excommunicated Dylan from his record collection when the singer converted, was that Dylan's return to Judaism, if it was that, was taking place without the publicity of his departure. Dylan would not leave his Christian stepping stones behind. Even as he recorded "Infidels," he still professed belief in the Book of Revelation.

"Whether you want to believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you're aware of the messianic complex, that's all that's important...people who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if He was here. That's my idea of it anyway," he said in 1985.

Earlier he had acknowledged his heritage, while separating himself from the Jewish community:

"Roots, man--we're talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn't want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah--these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them?...I ain't looking for them in synagogues with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much," he said in 1983.

Evidence of his Jewish involvement continues to mount. One friend of mine saw him at a Minneapolis bris (circumcision ceremony). Another heard he davens at the UCLA Hillel. One writer tells the story of how Dylan attended synagogue in jeans, scruffy beard and a battered hat and was recognized by the rabbi and invited to open the ark. The congregation was abuzz: Why was this apparent bum being honored?

Most recently, Dylan he wrote a cover blurb for Rabbi Manis Friedman's Why Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore, in which the influential Minneapolis Lubavitch rabbi defends traditional Jewish rules of sexual modesty.

In a musical contribution to Lubavitch -- one well short of the album of Hasidic songs he was rumored to have recorded in 1983 -- Dylan appeared on a 1988 Lubavitch telethon playing harmonica while his Sabbath observing musician son-in-law played guitar and sang. The tune: Hava Nagila.

An ironic choice, certainly, because whatever Dylan has gotten from Lubavitch, it does not seem to be the philosophy of singing and rejoicing extolled in "Hava Nagila." "Arise, brothers, with a happy heart!" is not the message of Dylan's recent music. His 1989 album "Oh Mercy", which was hailed as his best of the decade, reveals instead an intensely lonely man of faith, closer to the spiritual uncertainty of the Kotzker rebbe than the gregarious Lubavitch.

The first side of the album focuses on a "Political World" where, as in the Kabbalistic myth, "Everything is Broken." His only solution: is to "Ring Them Bells" (so the world "will know that God is one.") The side ends with "The Man in the Long Black Coat," who comes to town quoting the Bible and takes the

narrator's woman away. A Hasid, perhaps?

The flip side is soul-searching and introspection, summed up by one title: "What Good am I?"

The same religious tension suffuses the more recent "Under The Red Sky," despite a light-hearted boogie-woogie tone: "God knows there's a purpose/God knows there's a chance/God knows you can rise above the darkest hour of any circumstance."

The album concludes with "Cat's in the Well," which, like much of the songs on this album, sounds at first like a nursery rhyme, a reminder that "Ring Around the Rosie" was about the plague. In Dylan's last words so far, the leaves fall like ashes, like the hard rain. "The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door/The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war/The cat's in the well, the leaves are starting to fall/Goodnight my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all."

The age of 50, taught the Sages of the Mishna, is the age of counsel. Other rock stars of his generation may still be singing silly love songs, but Dylan seems, in his elusive way, to be counseling, even during the Grammy Awards where he preached, in the name of his father: "Son, it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if this happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend you ways."

For most of his career, Dylan shrugged off efforts to crown him a prophet. From the beginning he knew the spiritual power and responsibility of the singer. He described it in a hymn to his first folksinger idol, "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." Toward the end of this long poem, released on "The Bootleg Series," he asks: "Where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'?" He concludes with his own answer:

You can either go to the church of your choice

Or you can go to the Brooklyn State Hospital

You'll find God in the church of your choice

You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion

I may be right or wrong

You'll find them both

In the Grand Canyon

At sundown.

Back to Dylan & the Jews Page or Larry Yudelson's Home Page. Send contributions or comments to yudel@well.com.