The Nobel laureate denied his history and became an evangelical – but he never stopped being a Jewish prophet in our midst.
- By Eric AltermanEric Alterman is Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College, City University of New York.
Though he often takes the scenic route, Bob Dylan gets to the heart of things. His music pierces listeners’ hearts, minds, and souls — should such a thing actually exist — and most of all the clichés that get us through the day. Which is why the newest Nobel laureate for literature is not just a source of pride for Jews around the world; he is also a source of confusion. The confusion derives no less from Dylan’s psyche — confused as it may be — than from the confusion at the heart of Jewishness itself.
What is Jewishness, after all? Is it a religion? A tribe? A race? An ethnicity? A family? A memory? A group of people who share a history but not much else? One could argue, and many Jews have, that it is all of these things depending on the circumstance. (Though today, only some of Donald Trump’s most rabid “alt-right” supporters would likely pick “race,” and would probably throw in “global conspiracy involving bankers, the media, and the Clinton campaign.)
Without intention, one assumes, Dylan’s art succeeds in placing the ambiguity of the various meanings of “Jewishness” into stark relief, because so much of his work has defined itself in opposition to his history, Jewish and otherwise. From the moment anyone outside Hibbing, Minnesota, thought to pay attention to him, Dylan had already concocted so many new identities for himself that even he did not bother to pay any attention to keeping them straight. Most of these related to his transition from Robert Zimmerman to the character “Bob Dylan”. But among the myriad stories he told about his upbringing, none involved what careful historians would term to be the truth: that Robert Allen Zimmerman son of store owner Abraham Zimmerman (Hebrew name: Shabsi Zissel), attended Hebrew school at Agudas Achim, an Orthodox synagogue, enjoyed summers at Zionist-oriented Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisconsin, and performed his bar mitzvah duties without incident. The last thing Dylan wanted others to know is that he was a nice Jewish boy.
(Only decades after he exhausted all his other stories did Dylan offer a recounting of his bar mitzvah. “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 used 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.” I’m surely not the only one who would love to hear a bootleg recording of Dylan’s Haftorah.)
But, of course, rebellion against Jewishness turns out to be one of the most productive ways to be a Jew. In his infamous 1958 lecture to the World Jewish Congress, the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher used the term “non-Jewish Jew” to describe the phenomenon of Jewish intellectuals like Baruch Spinoza, Leon Trotsky, and Sigmund Freud who have “dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions, and national cultures … [and] lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations.” These people, being twice alienated — first from mainstream society as Jews and second from the Jewish communities in which they were raised — were often gifted with special insights into both. As Deutscher wrote, “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.”
And it’s fair to say that the early Dylan — the one who inspired so many millions of people in the 1960s to sing and march and think differently about themselves, their country, and their world — was a Jewish heretic. He did not reject Judaism so much as he transcended it. His opening lyric for “Highway 61 Revisited”: “Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son!’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’” reached a great many more young people in the 1960s than its inspiration, the Binding of Isaac. So, too, “All Along the Watchtower,” which is drawn from Isaiah 21:1-10. “Forever Young,” in which the lyric “May God bless and keep you always,” is taken directly from the priestly blessing and an unmistakable reference to Jacob’s dream that gave Jews the name of “Israel.” And yet Dylan continued to profess no Jewish past and no religion. When he performed his short comical version of “Talkin’ Hava Nageilah Blues” — barely a minute long before he breaks into laughter — he does not so much sing the famous wedding/bar and bat mitzvah staple as deconstruct it. Just for fun, he introduces it as “a foreign song I learned out of Utah.”
Following his post “motorcycle accident” hiatus from what appeared to be unmanageable fame — I am suspicious that that accident ever actually occurred — Dylan returned with a Bible-soaked recording, “John Wesley Harding.” Only this time, the New Testament loomed every bit as large as the Jewish version. What kind of nice Jewish boy would “dream he saw St. Augustine?”
All this was a prelude to a period that most Jewish Dylanists would prefer to forget: Dylan’s embrace of evangelical Christianity. His newfound religiosity was a curiosity on the album “Slow Train Coming,” which most of us had to admit was pretty damn good despite the discomfort it caused. But it quickly became an annoyance at best and an abomination at worst on the awful albums that followed. So, too, Dylan’s concert proselytization. “I told you the times they are a-changin’ and they did,” he told one audience. “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.”
It would be hard to overstate the horror that many Jewish Dylan fans and followers felt during this period. (“Buckets of tears” would not do it justice….) Not only did Dylan appear to be lost musically, but perhaps he had been lost entirely. And more to our point, was our Jewish prophet even Jewish anymore? Well, as so many answers regarding Judaism begin: “It depends.” If Judaism is just a religion, then, well yes, he was lost. But if it was any or all of the other things we think it to be, then perhaps not so much. And Dylan provided clues that all, indeed, was not lost. Why else would he put a song about bad-boy Jew Lenny Bruce on an album of born-again Christian songs? Dylan did on his third born-again record?
Fortunately, from a Jewish standpoint, this phase of Dylan’s life was soon replaced by his most Jewish one. Beginning in the late 1980s, he started showing up on the telethons run by the Chabad Hasidic sect and was sighted davening at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and visiting rabbinic sages. He considered, we are told, moving to Israel. There are even reports that Dylan filled out an application to join a kibbutz, though I don’t believe them, and in any case, kibbutzim are notoriously anti-religious. His song “Neighborhood Bully” on “Infidels” provides a more compelling defense of the Jewish state’s more aggressive actions toward its neighbors than Benjamin Netanyahu has ever managed to come up with:
“Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully”
Finally, we learn that after all these years, not only did Dylan take his son to Israel for his bar mitzvah ceremony, he sent his children to his Zionist camp alma mater, Wisconsin’s Herzl Camp. The nice Jewish boy turned into a good Jewish man, making a few side trips along the way, but, hey, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”
Of all the great artists of the 20th century, perhaps only Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis can rival him for self-reinvention. Each one heard some voice, saw some vision, pursued it until the rest of the world caught up, and then heard and saw something else until the process repeated itself. I’d say this is as close a thing as we have to actual “prophets” living in our midst. It may not be how Elijah or Jeremiah worked, but I’d offer it’s all we’ve got.
So, yes, Dylan is deeply Jewish and always has been, even when he was a Christian — but perhaps never so much as when he won a Nobel Prize. We Jews love our Nobel Prize winners and, as in the best Christian tradition, can forgive them almost anything.
So mazel tov to Bob, or Robert, or Zimmy, or whatever. And mazel tov to all of us for the good fortune of living in a time of Jewish prophets in our midst.
Photo credit: LARRY BUSACCA/Getty Images for NARAS/Bettmann