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Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
     

Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet

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by Seth Rogovoy
 

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INTRODUCTION

FROM CHAOS TO CREATION

The question I was asked more than any other (perhaps with the exception of “Are you going to interview him?” Answer: No) when I told people I was writing a Jewish biography of Bob Dylan was, “Isn’t he still a born-again Christian?” To which

Overview


INTRODUCTION

FROM CHAOS TO CREATION

The question I was asked more than any other (perhaps with the exception of “Are you going to interview him?” Answer: No) when I told people I was writing a Jewish biography of Bob Dylan was, “Isn’t he still a born-again Christian?” To which I always replied, “Who knows?”

Indeed, who knows? And in any case, it’s beside the point. This book sets out to make no claims about Bob Dylan’s past or present religious beliefs or self-identification. There are enough onthe-record comments from Dylan to support any viewpoint—he’s Jewish, he’s Christian, he’s Rastafarian, he doesn’t believe in any religion, or he finds G-d in music, religion in the songs.

All that being said, there are certainly indications, in his songs and in the little we know about his offstage life—which is surprisingly little, considering how much has been written about him, how many websites and discussion groups are devoted to him, and how fanatically curious his ardent followers can be about him—suggesting that Dylan has never fully abandoned the faith of his forebears. Rather, he has apparently taken very seriously his relationship to Judaism, a relationship that, as this book sets out to demonstrate, so fully and completely informs his life and his work—lyrically, thematically, musically, and otherwise—that it cannot be ignored as an essential aspect of both.

A funny thing happened when I began a mostly self-directed study of Jewish scripture—the Bible, the Talmud, the mystical writings comprising the Kabbalah, the traditional prayer liturgy—in my mid-thirties. Every so often, an image, a theme, or a phrase would jump out at me as something familiar. This wasn’t an echo of previous learning of Jewish texts—of that I had next to none. For me, the texts that I had memorized as a schoolboy—the words that I could access almost immediately in much the same manner that a yeshiva graduate can quote nearly any chapter and verse from the Torah—were the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which I began studying at age fourteen in 1974 and have continued to study with a regularity bordering on obsession ever since.

The great surprise that awaited me when turning my attention in midlife toward the rich trove of Jewish texts was that there was a significant overlap between the torah of Dylan and the Torah of Moses. For example, in the book of Prophets, Ezekiel recounts a vision of angels: “The soles of their feet… their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like torches.” And in the Bible, G-d warns Moses, “No human can see my face and live,” after the latter asks the Former if He would reveal his physical manifestation. These verses were uncannily familiar when I read them the first time in their original versions, as I knew them from Bob Dylan songs. “The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning,” Dylan sings in “The Wicked Messenger,” from 1967. And on the chorus of “I and I,” from 1983, Dylan proclaims, “One says to the other / No man sees my face and lives.”

One of the most rewarding ways of approaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics is to read them as the work of a poetic mind apparently immersed in Jewish texts and engaged in the age-old process of midrash: a kind of formal or informal riffing on the texts in order to elucidate or elaborate upon their hidden meanings. Perhaps the most famous of these riffs takes place in one of Dylan’s best-known songs, 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” his whimsical retelling of the Akeidah, the story in which G-d commands Abraham to bind Isaac as if for a sacrificial offering, which Dylan posits as a conversation between two jaded, cynical hipsters. U.S. Route 61, incidentally, is the main highway leading from New Orleans to Dylan’s birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota.

While the Abraham and Isaac story is one of the core legends of Western civilization, as far back as 1962, lyrics by the son of Abe Zimmerman reveal a familiarity with Torah far beyond the basics of the average religious school education. The song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” destined to become a civil rights anthem, borrows imagery from two biblical prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah, to which Dylan would often return for inspiration. The song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” one of his most beautiful love songs, gains added heft and resonance when one realizes that much of its symbolism is drawn from early chapters of the book of Daniel. And any attentive Dylan fan stumbling upon these verses in chapter 26 of Leviticus—“Your strength shall be spent in vain …I will make your heaven like iron… You shall eat and not be satisfied…”—will recognize them as the raw material from which he shaped the 1967 song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”

Although facts about Dylan’s Jewish upbringing and practice are hard to come by given his notorious penchant for privacy, purposeful obfuscation, or even outright deception regarding his personal life, evidence from his lyrics, his public statements, and some undisputed biographical items add up to a convincing portrait of a mind profoundly shaped by Jewish influence, study, and belief, and a life lived largely as a committed Jew. Although Dylan grew up near the Canadian border in the cold, hard, iron-mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota—as one might imagine, not exactly a hotbed of Jewish communal life and culture—his nuclear and extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who lived in Hibbing or in the nearby port city of Duluth—where he was born and to where his family frequently returned—retained enough connection with Jewish tradition to observe the dietary laws, to mark the weekly Sabbath, and to stage a party the likes of which had never been seen in Hibbing when it came time for Dylan to become bar mitzvah in 1954. The teenage Bobby Zimmerman spent the next three or four summers at a Jewish camp in Wisconsin, and as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959, he lived in a Jewish fraternity house.

Much has been made and written of Bob Dylan as a product of the American folk and blues traditions. Without question, Dylan’s specific art has always drawn very heavily on Anglo-American folk, African-American blues, gospel music, Tin Pan Alley pop, country music, and other styles of American music. Dylan’s genius has been to take them further, to combine them with other strains of music, and to foster a revolution in American music that saw rock triumph over sugary pop in the mid-1960s as the premier expression of the youthful counterculture.

But there is another context from which Dylan has sprung. While he may never have heard of Eliakum Zunser—and there’s no evidence that he has—and while he may be utterly unfamiliar with the folk-protest tradition that was part of the culture of his Russian Jewish ancestors back in the Pale of Settlement, there is still something of Zunser in Dylan, as much as there is of the folk-singer Woody Guthrie and the blues legend Robert Johnson. One of the very first original compositions that Dylan debuted in folk clubs in New York upon arriving there in 1961 was “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” based on Guthrie’s patented style of “talking blues.” From the earliest days of his career, Dylan—contrary to the received notion that he engaged in a deliberate cover-up of his background—wore his Jewish heart on his sleeve.

The Jewish influence on Dylan’s art, or on the practice of his art, goes deeper than a superficial or coincidental resemblance to that of Eliakum Zunser’s a century earlier. Like much blues and some folk itself, Dylan’s work stems from the ancient tradition of Jewish prophecy—not in the sense of foretelling the future, but rather in the sense that a prophet, or in Hebrew, a navi, is a truth-teller to and an admonisher of his people: literally, a “proclaimer.” The Prophets, whose sermons and declarations are collected in the biblical books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, were, in a sense, social critics—the original protest singers, if you will. They pointed out the hypocrisies and errors of their subjects’ ways, warning of punishments that could befall them and suggesting paths toward collective redemption. Some of them also recount in detail their encounters with G-d, or what we call their “mystical” experiences, and describe a future time when others will enjoy such intimate encounters with the Creator.

The biblical Prophets did not so much engage in the act of prophecy, in the sense of foretelling the future (although they did warn about what would happen to their listeners if they did not heed their words or the laws of G-d), as they engaged in sociocultural criticism. They warned against backsliding and immorality and blatant lawbreaking and foretold the bloody consequences of this behavior. In many ways, Jesus, too, fits into this tradition of Jewish prophecy, although Christians believe that Jesus was not just another Jewish prophet but rather the divine bringer of a new message and a new covenant with G-d.

Consciously or not, Bob Dylan has in large part adopted the modes of Jewish prophetic discourse as one of his primary means of communication, determining the content of his songs, the style of delivery, and his relationship to his audience. As the great twentieth-century American theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the biblical Prophets, “The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions but songs.” (Emphasis mine.) Throughout his career, Dylan has repeatedly returned to that very same prophetic tradition to infuse his songs with a measure of impact and dignity that so obviously sets his work apart from other singer-songwriters of the rock era.

To put it another way, Dylan’s innovation was to invert what was until then the purpose of pop music—to make listeners feel better about themselves, to entertain them, and to glorify the joys of sex and romantic love—and instead to use it to challenge his listeners’ preconceptions and orthodoxies by unsettling and provoking them, which he has done from day one until today. Bono, the singer of the Irish rock band U2 and himself a strong believer in a type of Christianity with ancestral Jewish roots, understands this about Dylan. “[Dylan’s] was always a unique critique of modernity,” he writes. “Because in fact Dylan comes from an ancient place, almost medieval…. The anachronism, really, is the’60s. For the rest of his life he’s been howling from some sort of past that we seem to have forgotten but must not…”

Thus, in the pages that follow, in addition to recounting the basic biographical arc of his life and career and discussing the musical and creative achievements that have led him to be widely considered as one of the greatest, most influential artists of the last half century, I hope to illuminate Dylan’s life and work by revisiting them in a context that has until now been minimized or overlooked by biographers and critics. Bob Dylan didn’t just spring from nowhere. Some have done a good job exploring Dylan’s immediate roots in Hibbing, but few have spent more than a few lines bothering to dig deeper into the unique sociocultural context in which Dylan was raised. Nor have any chroniclers deemed it fit (or been properly equipped) to place Dylan’s unique approach toward his art in the greater context of Jewish culture and history, especially given how so much of his work regards the spiritual aspects of existence and is strewn with quotations, paraphrases, allusions, and themes drawn from normative Judaism, and given how his transformational approach echoes that of artists, poets, seers, and prophets going back hundreds and thousands of years in Jewish history. Nor have any traced this strain in his work as a continuous, unbroken chain throughout his life and career, in order to show how Dylan has, consciously or not, chosen in large part to use the prophetic mode of discourse as his primary mode, or at least one of his primary modes, of communication, determining how he shapes his narratives and addresses his audience, as well as the themes and subject matter of so many of his songs.

None of this is meant to suggest the exclusion of other significant strains of interpretation or context for Dylan’s work. Dylan has been essentially influenced by American folk, blues, country, pop, and early rock’n’ roll music, and by individual artists (for example, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry) and songs from those genres. Dylan’s songs are full of allusions to, quotations of, and themes from old folk and blues songs. Dylan has been significantly influenced by great poetry and literature—one need look no further than Christopher Ricks’s magnificent book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, which has a lot more to say about Dylan-as-poet than it does about Dylan’s so-called visions of sin but nevertheless does so masterfully—and even by popular literature, as was shown when several lines from a song on the 2001 album “Love and Theft” were traced to an obscure Japanese yakuza novel. Even Hollywood has provided Dylan with material and inspiration—entire songs have been composed in large part of choice bits of movie dialogue.

And as much as I do believe that a complete understanding of Dylan’s work is impossible without a recognition of the debt it owes to Judaism—and the way in which it engages Jewish themes and thought in a process akin to midrash, the elaboration upon Jewish scripture as a form of commentary—I recognize fully that his complete oeuvre can also be read in large part as:

1)
a reckoning with various loves and losses, most notably his relationship with his wife, Sara, before, during, and after their marriage,

2)
a commentary on topical concerns of American society and politics (although this strain in his work has been unduly overemphasized to the detriment of the others), and/or

3)
a meditation on identity, with various characters and narrators that come to the forefront and disappear, and an obsession with the theme of the mask, from his early obsession with Woody Guthrie at least through his aptly titled 2003 film, Masked and Anonymous.

And, one could argue—and several authors have—that some of Dylan’s work suggests a struggle or identification with a personal relationship with Jesus (as I hope to show, one that is at least subsumed by and doesn’t discount his primary relationship with his Jewishness).

Certainly, some of Dylan’s most overtly theological songs were the gospel songs he recorded between 1979 and 1981. Nevertheless, in 1982, Dylan’s son Samuel became bar mitzvah, and by 1983, when Dylan was reportedly hanging out with Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn and Israel, overtly Jewish themes colored the songs on the album Infidels, the sleeve of which featured a photograph of Dylan overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, taken on a visit earlier that year for his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah. The song “Neighbor-hood Bully”—a drippingly sarcastic overview of Jewish history and persecution through the lens of contemporary Zionism—evinced a strongly nationalistic identification with Jewish peoplehood. The songs “Jokerman” and “I and I,” too, revealed a mind once again inspired by the Jewish Bible.

Over the ensuing decade, Dylan made several appearances on telethons for Chabad, in one calling the Orthodox Jewish outreach movement his “favorite organization.” During this time, he made several more visits to Israel; he opened a shopping complex in Santa Monica replete with an office, a coffeehouse, a gymnasium, and a synagogue; and he saw his daughter, Maria, marry and begin raising a family with the Orthodox Jewish singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman.

In that postgospel period, Dylan’s songs continued to reflect a mind steeped in a Jewish worldview: on Oh Mercy, “Everything Is Broken” portrays the Kabbalistic concept of a world in a state of disrepair, and “Political World” includes a vivid description of Kiddush HaShem, the religiously inspired martyrdom of those who were dying in Auschwitz around the time Dylan was born. And when Dylan garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 1991, the focus of his acceptance speech was an inscrutable passage that astute listeners recognized as a paraphrase of psalm 27, an essential prayer inextricably tied to the acts of repentance and return that are the themes of the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish year.

Dylan has apparently continued to find inspiration in Jewish scripture in recent years. In “Not Dark Yet,” on his 1997 Grammy Award–winning album, Time Out of Mind, Dylan sings, “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” paraphrasing Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers, from the Mishnah4:29): “Against your will you were born, against your will you die.” And that album’s opening track, “Love Sick,” borrows its unusual central complaint from King Solomon’s love poetry as expressed in Song of Songs 2:7: “[Bereft of your presence], I am sick with love” or, to put it more succinctly, as does Dylan, “I’m sick of love… I’m love sick.”

Also in recent years, Dylan has been spotted annually at Yom Kippur services—typically at whatever Chabad (an Orthodox Hasidic sect) synagogue he finds himself nearest to as he constantly tours the country. A few years ago, at Congregation Adath Israel, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he is said to have received the third aliyah to the Torah—an honor providing an individual blessing—and to have returned in the evening for the concluding Neilah service, whose central imagery is of a penitent standing at a gate or doorway, entreating G-d’s mercy to be written into the Book of Life before the doors are shut and barred, an experience Dylan put into song on Time Out of Mind’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:


Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.

It’s imperative that one consider the Jewish nature of so much of Dylan’s life and work in order to appreciate it fully and to its truest and greatest extent. In some small but significant way, this book will add to that understanding and appreciation of Dylan’s work by telling the story of his life and work with reference to how Judaism influenced and shaped both.

© 2009 Seth Rogovoy

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Bob Dylan's lyrics have been dissected and analyzed in a host of recent works, but Rogovoy (The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the Downtown Avant-Garde) offers an original perspective in this welcome addition. He explores the influence of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Kabbalah on Dylan's songwriting, uncovering references to these texts in each of Dylan's 33 studio albums, up through 2009's Together Through Life. Rogovoy's research adds fresh insight into iconic songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Forever Young," providing a deeper understanding of Dylan's Jewish influences. Chronological album-by-album and song-by-song analyses make up the book's core, and Rogovoy gives just enough biographical context to argue convincingly that Judaism strongly influences Dylan's life and lyrics. VERDICT Entertaining, intelligent, and surprisingly accessible, this book complements Michael J. Gilmour's Tangled Up in the Bible and Christopher Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin. Highly recommended to all music scholars and Dylan aficionados.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
From the Publisher
"Of all the influences resulting in the genius of Bob Dylan’s music, far too little attention has been paid to Dylan’s Jewish heritage. Seth Rogovoy corrects that deficiency by deftly weaving together his love of Dylanology with his love of Judaism."

— Ed Siegel, contributor to WBUR-FM and the Boston Globe op-ed page

"Seth Rogovoy proves that he is not only a master of Dylan’s music and life journey, but most significantly, of the whole idea of prophecy. Rogovoy’s Dylan stays true to his core vision through an era that would have tested Isaiah. In the clarity of his own vision, Rogovoy’s Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet stands with Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, and Greil Marcus’ The Shape of Things to Come. Few books make that distinguished cut. This one does. It is required reading for those who seek to understand not only Dylan, but the meaning of their own life. This is serious stuff. It’s also a pleasure to read. Each page is a ride with music all its own."

— Rabbi Alan Berg

“Even after almost fifty years, the language of Bob Dylan’s songs remains full of uncharted territory. Seth Rogovoy is uniquely qualified to examine the connections between Dylan’s songwriting and the Jewish liturgy, and Prophet, Mystic, Poet helps fill in one more piece of an endless and endlessly fascinating puzzle.”

— Alan Light, former senior writer at Rolling Stone and frequent contributor to The New York Times

"A book to add to the shelf of your Bob Dylan library — Seth Rogovoy offers a unique perspective that examines Bob Dylan within the spectrum of Jewish religious history, but is never scholarly or pedantic. It's an entertaining read, with fresh anecdotes (at least to me they were!). Mr. Rogovoy culls images from religious texts and matches them with Bob Dylan's lyrics; he also points out when the lyrics preceded the events that they would seem to be about, suggesting that Bob Dylan is in fact a prophet, included in the lineage of Jewish Prophets. I enjoyed this book very much and found it thought-provoking." — Suzanne Vega

"A bold attempt to explain why Dylan so often sounds like my zeyde." — Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch and How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416559832
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
11/24/2009
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt


INTRODUCTION

FROM CHAOS TO CREATION

The question I was asked more than any other (perhaps with the exception of “Are you going to interview him?” Answer: No) when I told people I was writing a Jewish biography of Bob Dylan was, “Isn’t he still a born-again Christian?” To which I always replied, “Who knows?”

Indeed, who knows? And in any case, it’s beside the point. This book sets out to make no claims about Bob Dylan’s past or present religious beliefs or self-identification. There are enough onthe-record comments from Dylan to support any viewpoint—he’s Jewish, he’s Christian, he’s Rastafarian, he doesn’t believe in any religion, or he finds G-d in music, religion in the songs.

All that being said, there are certainly indications, in his songs and in the little we know about his offstage life—which is surprisingly little, considering how much has been written about him, how many websites and discussion groups are devoted to him, and how fanatically curious his ardent followers can be about him—suggesting that Dylan has never fully abandoned the faith of his forebears. Rather, he has apparently taken very seriously his relationship to Judaism, a relationship that, as this book sets out to demonstrate, so fully and completely informs his life and his work—lyrically, thematically, musically, and otherwise—that it cannot be ignored as an essential aspect of both.

A funny thing happened when I began a mostly self-directed study of Jewish scripture—the Bible, the Talmud, the mystical writings comprising the Kabbalah, the traditional prayer liturgy—in my mid-thirties. Every so often, an image, a theme, or a phrase would jump out at me as something familiar. This wasn’t an echo of previous learning of Jewish texts—of that I had next to none. For me, the texts that I had memorized as a schoolboy—the words that I could access almost immediately in much the same manner that a yeshiva graduate can quote nearly any chapter and verse from the Torah—were the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which I began studying at age fourteen in 1974 and have continued to study with a regularity bordering on obsession ever since.

The great surprise that awaited me when turning my attention in midlife toward the rich trove of Jewish texts was that there was a significant overlap between the torah of Dylan and the Torah of Moses. For example, in the book of Prophets, Ezekiel recounts a vision of angels: “The soles of their feet… their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like torches.” And in the Bible, G-d warns Moses, “No human can see my face and live,” after the latter asks the Former if He would reveal his physical manifestation. These verses were uncannily familiar when I read them the first time in their original versions, as I knew them from Bob Dylan songs. “The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning,” Dylan sings in “The Wicked Messenger,” from 1967. And on the chorus of “I and I,” from 1983, Dylan proclaims, “One says to the other / No man sees my face and lives.”

One of the most rewarding ways of approaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics is to read them as the work of a poetic mind apparently immersed in Jewish texts and engaged in the age-old process of midrash: a kind of formal or informal riffing on the texts in order to elucidate or elaborate upon their hidden meanings. Perhaps the most famous of these riffs takes place in one of Dylan’s best-known songs, 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” his whimsical retelling of the Akeidah, the story in which G-d commands Abraham to bind Isaac as if for a sacrificial offering, which Dylan posits as a conversation between two jaded, cynical hipsters. U.S. Route 61, incidentally, is the main highway leading from New Orleans to Dylan’s birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota.

While the Abraham and Isaac story is one of the core legends of Western civilization, as far back as 1962, lyrics by the son of Abe Zimmerman reveal a familiarity with Torah far beyond the basics of the average religious school education. The song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” destined to become a civil rights anthem, borrows imagery from two biblical prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah, to which Dylan would often return for inspiration. The song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” one of his most beautiful love songs, gains added heft and resonance when one realizes that much of its symbolism is drawn from early chapters of the book of Daniel. And any attentive Dylan fan stumbling upon these verses in chapter 26 of Leviticus—“Your strength shall be spent in vain …I will make your heaven like iron… You shall eat and not be satisfied…”—will recognize them as the raw material from which he shaped the 1967 song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”

Although facts about Dylan’s Jewish upbringing and practice are hard to come by given his notorious penchant for privacy, purposeful obfuscation, or even outright deception regarding his personal life, evidence from his lyrics, his public statements, and some undisputed biographical items add up to a convincing portrait of a mind profoundly shaped by Jewish influence, study, and belief, and a life lived largely as a committed Jew. Although Dylan grew up near the Canadian border in the cold, hard, iron-mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota—as one might imagine, not exactly a hotbed of Jewish communal life and culture—his nuclear and extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who lived in Hibbing or in the nearby port city of Duluth—where he was born and to where his family frequently returned—retained enough connection with Jewish tradition to observe the dietary laws, to mark the weekly Sabbath, and to stage a party the likes of which had never been seen in Hibbing when it came time for Dylan to become bar mitzvah in 1954. The teenage Bobby Zimmerman spent the next three or four summers at a Jewish camp in Wisconsin, and as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959, he lived in a Jewish fraternity house.

Much has been made and written of Bob Dylan as a product of the American folk and blues traditions. Without question, Dylan’s specific art has always drawn very heavily on Anglo-American folk, African-American blues, gospel music, Tin Pan Alley pop, country music, and other styles of American music. Dylan’s genius has been to take them further, to combine them with other strains of music, and to foster a revolution in American music that saw rock triumph over sugary pop in the mid-1960s as the premier expression of the youthful counterculture.

But there is another context from which Dylan has sprung. While he may never have heard of Eliakum Zunser—and there’s no evidence that he has—and while he may be utterly unfamiliar with the folk-protest tradition that was part of the culture of his Russian Jewish ancestors back in the Pale of Settlement, there is still something of Zunser in Dylan, as much as there is of the folk-singer Woody Guthrie and the blues legend Robert Johnson. One of the very first original compositions that Dylan debuted in folk clubs in New York upon arriving there in 1961 was “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” based on Guthrie’s patented style of “talking blues.” From the earliest days of his career, Dylan—contrary to the received notion that he engaged in a deliberate cover-up of his background—wore his Jewish heart on his sleeve.

The Jewish influence on Dylan’s art, or on the practice of his art, goes deeper than a superficial or coincidental resemblance to that of Eliakum Zunser’s a century earlier. Like much blues and some folk itself, Dylan’s work stems from the ancient tradition of Jewish prophecy—not in the sense of foretelling the future, but rather in the sense that a prophet, or in Hebrew, a navi, is a truth-teller to and an admonisher of his people: literally, a “proclaimer.” The Prophets, whose sermons and declarations are collected in the biblical books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, were, in a sense, social critics—the original protest singers, if you will. They pointed out the hypocrisies and errors of their subjects’ ways, warning of punishments that could befall them and suggesting paths toward collective redemption. Some of them also recount in detail their encounters with G-d, or what we call their “mystical” experiences, and describe a future time when others will enjoy such intimate encounters with the Creator.

The biblical Prophets did not so much engage in the act of prophecy, in the sense of foretelling the future (although they did warn about what would happen to their listeners if they did not heed their words or the laws of G-d), as they engaged in sociocultural criticism. They warned against backsliding and immorality and blatant lawbreaking and foretold the bloody consequences of this behavior. In many ways, Jesus, too, fits into this tradition of Jewish prophecy, although Christians believe that Jesus was not just another Jewish prophet but rather the divine bringer of a new message and a new covenant with G-d.

Consciously or not, Bob Dylan has in large part adopted the modes of Jewish prophetic discourse as one of his primary means of communication, determining the content of his songs, the style of delivery, and his relationship to his audience. As the great twentieth-century American theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the biblical Prophets, “The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions but songs.” (Emphasis mine.) Throughout his career, Dylan has repeatedly returned to that very same prophetic tradition to infuse his songs with a measure of impact and dignity that so obviously sets his work apart from other singer-songwriters of the rock era.

To put it another way, Dylan’s innovation was to invert what was until then the purpose of pop music—to make listeners feel better about themselves, to entertain them, and to glorify the joys of sex and romantic love—and instead to use it to challenge his listeners’ preconceptions and orthodoxies by unsettling and provoking them, which he has done from day one until today. Bono, the singer of the Irish rock band U2 and himself a strong believer in a type of Christianity with ancestral Jewish roots, understands this about Dylan. “[Dylan’s] was always a unique critique of modernity,” he writes. “Because in fact Dylan comes from an ancient place, almost medieval…. The anachronism, really, is the’60s. For the rest of his life he’s been howling from some sort of past that we seem to have forgotten but must not…”

Thus, in the pages that follow, in addition to recounting the basic biographical arc of his life and career and discussing the musical and creative achievements that have led him to be widely considered as one of the greatest, most influential artists of the last half century, I hope to illuminate Dylan’s life and work by revisiting them in a context that has until now been minimized or overlooked by biographers and critics. Bob Dylan didn’t just spring from nowhere. Some have done a good job exploring Dylan’s immediate roots in Hibbing, but few have spent more than a few lines bothering to dig deeper into the unique sociocultural context in which Dylan was raised. Nor have any chroniclers deemed it fit (or been properly equipped) to place Dylan’s unique approach toward his art in the greater context of Jewish culture and history, especially given how so much of his work regards the spiritual aspects of existence and is strewn with quotations, paraphrases, allusions, and themes drawn from normative Judaism, and given how his transformational approach echoes that of artists, poets, seers, and prophets going back hundreds and thousands of years in Jewish history. Nor have any traced this strain in his work as a continuous, unbroken chain throughout his life and career, in order to show how Dylan has, consciously or not, chosen in large part to use the prophetic mode of discourse as his primary mode, or at least one of his primary modes, of communication, determining how he shapes his narratives and addresses his audience, as well as the themes and subject matter of so many of his songs.

None of this is meant to suggest the exclusion of other significant strains of interpretation or context for Dylan’s work. Dylan has been essentially influenced by American folk, blues, country, pop, and early rock’n’ roll music, and by individual artists (for example, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry) and songs from those genres. Dylan’s songs are full of allusions to, quotations of, and themes from old folk and blues songs. Dylan has been significantly influenced by great poetry and literature—one need look no further than Christopher Ricks’s magnificent book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, which has a lot more to say about Dylan-as-poet than it does about Dylan’s so-called visions of sin but nevertheless does so masterfully—and even by popular literature, as was shown when several lines from a song on the 2001 album “Love and Theft” were traced to an obscure Japanese yakuza novel. Even Hollywood has provided Dylan with material and inspiration—entire songs have been composed in large part of choice bits of movie dialogue.

And as much as I do believe that a complete understanding of Dylan’s work is impossible without a recognition of the debt it owes to Judaism—and the way in which it engages Jewish themes and thought in a process akin to midrash, the elaboration upon Jewish scripture as a form of commentary—I recognize fully that his complete oeuvre can also be read in large part as:

1)a reckoning with various loves and losses, most notably his relationship with his wife, Sara, before, during, and after their marriage,
2)a commentary on topical concerns of American society and politics (although this strain in his work has been unduly overemphasized to the detriment of the others), and/or
3)a meditation on identity, with various characters and narrators that come to the forefront and disappear, and an obsession with the theme of the mask, from his early obsession with Woody Guthrie at least through his aptly titled 2003 film, Masked and Anonymous.

And, one could argue—and several authors have—that some of Dylan’s work suggests a struggle or identification with a personal relationship with Jesus (as I hope to show, one that is at least subsumed by and doesn’t discount his primary relationship with his Jewishness).

Certainly, some of Dylan’s most overtly theological songs were the gospel songs he recorded between 1979 and 1981. Nevertheless, in 1982, Dylan’s son Samuel became bar mitzvah, and by 1983, when Dylan was reportedly hanging out with Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn and Israel, overtly Jewish themes colored the songs on the album Infidels, the sleeve of which featured a photograph of Dylan overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, taken on a visit earlier that year for his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah. The song “Neighbor-hood Bully”—a drippingly sarcastic overview of Jewish history and persecution through the lens of contemporary Zionism—evinced a strongly nationalistic identification with Jewish peoplehood. The songs “Jokerman” and “I and I,” too, revealed a mind once again inspired by the Jewish Bible.

Over the ensuing decade, Dylan made several appearances on telethons for Chabad, in one calling the Orthodox Jewish outreach movement his “favorite organization.” During this time, he made several more visits to Israel; he opened a shopping complex in Santa Monica replete with an office, a coffeehouse, a gymnasium, and a synagogue; and he saw his daughter, Maria, marry and begin raising a family with the Orthodox Jewish singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman.

In that postgospel period, Dylan’s songs continued to reflect a mind steeped in a Jewish worldview: on Oh Mercy, “Everything Is Broken” portrays the Kabbalistic concept of a world in a state of disrepair, and “Political World” includes a vivid description of Kiddush HaShem, the religiously inspired martyrdom of those who were dying in Auschwitz around the time Dylan was born. And when Dylan garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 1991, the focus of his acceptance speech was an inscrutable passage that astute listeners recognized as a paraphrase of psalm 27, an essential prayer inextricably tied to the acts of repentance and return that are the themes of the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish year.

Dylan has apparently continued to find inspiration in Jewish scripture in recent years. In “Not Dark Yet,” on his 1997 Grammy Award–winning album, Time Out of Mind, Dylan sings, “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” paraphrasing Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers, from the Mishnah4:29): “Against your will you were born, against your will you die.” And that album’s opening track, “Love Sick,” borrows its unusual central complaint from King Solomon’s love poetry as expressed in Song of Songs 2:7: “[Bereft of your presence], I am sick with love” or, to put it more succinctly, as does Dylan, “I’m sick of love… I’m love sick.”

Also in recent years, Dylan has been spotted annually at Yom Kippur services—typically at whatever Chabad (an Orthodox Hasidic sect) synagogue he finds himself nearest to as he constantly tours the country. A few years ago, at Congregation Adath Israel, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he is said to have received the third aliyah to the Torah—an honor providing an individual blessing—and to have returned in the evening for the concluding Neilah service, whose central imagery is of a penitent standing at a gate or doorway, entreating G-d’s mercy to be written into the Book of Life before the doors are shut and barred, an experience Dylan put into song on Time Out of Mind’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:


Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.

It’s imperative that one consider the Jewish nature of so much of Dylan’s life and work in order to appreciate it fully and to its truest and greatest extent. In some small but significant way, this book will add to that understanding and appreciation of Dylan’s work by telling the story of his life and work with reference to how Judaism influenced and shaped both.

© 2009 Seth Rogovoy

Meet the Author

Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic, radio commentator, musician, and author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000). His writing has appeared in Newsday, Haaretz, the Boston Phoenix, Hadassah Magazine, the Forward, and on the web at the Rogovoy Report (www.rogovoy.com). He lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he is editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living magazine. His grandparents were from Russia, and he has blue eyes.

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