A new book explores Bob Dylan’s Jewish inspiration and prophetic voice.
Bob Dylan showed up in Greenwich Village in 1960 dissembling tall tales of who he was, riding in as a mystic, mythic, out of the American West, one of Woody’s children, raised by Bessie Smith or Mother Goose, now you see him, now you don’t, born in a dustbowl or on the Burlington Northern, a never-ending kaleidoscope of biographical masquerade.
And yet, no great American singer-songwriter was such a child of the Jewish 20th century. He may have been Woody’s child, but he was Anne Frank’s ornery brother who didn’t think people were good at heart: “You’ve got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend.” He came out of the chute singing “Talkin’ Hava Negilah Blues” (introduced by Dylan as a foreign song I learned in Utah”), making a half-dozen song and poem references to Hitler or the Holocaust, singing, “We forgave the Germans ... though they murdered six million in the ovens,” somehow becoming a star in the process.
This was not the stuff of Tin Pan Alley, let alone Top 40; Holocaust talk was hardly heard in public, let alone sold on the Columbia Records label.
Dylan later studied art with Sholom Aleichem’s son, Norman Raeben, whom Dylan credits with influencing his poetry. Dylan named his music publishing company, “Ram’s Horn Music,” and said, “I am a Jew. It touches my poetry, my life, in ways I can’t describe.” And yet Dylan’s Jewishness has rarely, if ever, been written about at length.
Even in his memoir “Chronicles Volume 1” (the name of a book in the Hebrew Bible), Dylan devotes several pages to how he was influenced by Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson, but almost nothing about how his poetry and images were influenced by Judaism and Jewish texts. Over time, however, he admits that the political, countercultural interpretations of his lyrics bothered him: “Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest. ... I’d have to send out deviating signals ... create some different impressions. ... I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little.”
And that’s just about all he’d say. Feeling protective, wounded, Dylan then retreats, to write least about what he loves most, almost nothing about his children, his parents, his religion and religious inspirations.
Now, almost 50 years into Dylan’s career, someone finally explores the last of these.
Now, almost 50 years into Dylan’s career, it finally has, in Seth Rogovoy’s fascinating new book, “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner). Rogovoy, author of “The Essential Klezmer,” documents Dylan’s Jewish inspirations, lyrics directly echoing Isaiah (“All Along the Watchtower”); Leviticus (“I Pity the Poor Immigrant”); the Shabbat table (“Forever Young” is based on the Friday night blessing given to children); to “New Morning,” based on the daily service; “Time Out of Mind” (the Yom Kippur service); to the Talmud (“Idiot Wind” is based on an extended riff by Resh Lakish on sin and “ruach shtuss,” ruach meaning both wind and breathing, “Idiot wind, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”).
Other writers have picked up on Dylan’s Jewish influences before, in smaller pieces. Allen Ginsberg described Dylan’s vocal technique on “One More Cup of Coffee,” as a “voice lifts in Hebraic cantillation never before heard in U.S. song,” and, indeed, it does sound like Dylan is layning Torah.
When Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers once introduced him at a folk festival, “And here he is ... take him, you know him, he’s yours,” Dylan recoiled, he wrote in his memoir, “What a crazy thing to say. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody, then or now. ... I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of. I’d left my hometown only ten years earlier...”
In that hometown, Hibbing, Minn., his parents kept a kosher home; his mother was president of the local Hadassah; his father was president of the local B’nai Brith; his great-grandfather (who didn’t die until Dylan was 20) regularly put on tefillin; Dylan lived in the Jewish fraternity house at the University of Minnesota, and spent summers in Camp Herzl, a religious Zionist camp, just two years before he was singing in New York.
When Dylan lived in upstate Woodstock, his mother said he always kept a Bible on a shtender, the Yiddish word for a personal bookstand, commonplace in old shuls, used for holding a siddur and Bible.
Those “hometown” years left Dylan with several lifelong Orthodox friends, who sometimes went on tour with him, and a Jewish mother who helped bring him back to his roots after a two-album detour into Christianity 30 years ago. Dylan’s Christian interest was seemingly driven by a romantic relationship with one of his African-American Christian back-up singers, after Dylan divorced the Jewish wife with whom he raised five children, several of whom were given Israeli bar mitzvahs, with one daughter known to be Orthodox as an adult.
As Rogovoy tells it, Dylan’s mother persuaded him “to visit his boyhood friend, Howard Rutman,” a dentist, “under the guise of his needing to get his teeth cleaned. As an old friend from Camp Herzl days ... Rutman was one of the few people in the world able to confront Dylan directly. ... While examining Dylan’s mouth he supposedly pointed to a cross Dylan was wearing around his neck, and asked him, ‘Bob, what’s up with this? .... Bob, you’re Jewish.”
Rutman, writes Rogovoy, who is Orthodox, “invited Dylan to his house for dinner. Dylan brought his girlfriend at the time and wound up incredibly embarrassed by the manner in which she carried on about Jesus to Rutman and his wife, who were having no truck with such talk.”
Dylan’s Christian period clearly ended with “Infidels,” without question the most right-wing Jewish album ever made by a popular singer. It was an album, writes Rogovoy, that had The Village Voice calling Dylan “the William F. Buckley of rock and roll.”
Dylan, himself, wrote in “Chronicles,” “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody.”
Rogovoy calls the centerpiece of “Infidels,” a tune called “Neighborhood Bully,” a “drippingly sarcastic overview of Jewish history and persecution through the lens of contemporary Zionism, a strongly nationalistic identification with the Jewish peoplehood. The song is saying that Judaism and Jewish nationalism are one and the same, which is a very sophisticated point of view.”
As Dylan sings of Israel: “Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized/ Old women condemned him, said he should apologize/ Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad/ The bombs were meant for him, he was supposed to feel bad/ Neighborhood bully.”
Elsewhere on that album, he took a further swipe at Israel’s critics: “You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”
For quite some time, writes Rogovoy, the lead guitarists in his road band would introduce “All Along The Watchtower” with “a snippet” of the theme from the movie “Exodus,” thereby further associating a Dylan song “with contemporary Jewish nationalism.”
Dylan has appeared on Chabad telethons, calling Chabad “my favorite organization in the whole world.” He may have changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan, but he never changed his Jewish name — Shabtai Zisel Ben-Avraham — with which he gets called to the Torah in Chabad shuls.
Not all of Rogovoy’s claims are completely convincing. He has Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” referring to Samson and the jawbone, as a “freewheeling riff on Judges 15,” without mentioning that “Samson and Delilah,” was already a classic song by Reverend Gary Davis, and went all the way back to “If I Had My Way (I Would Tear This Old Building Down)” by Blind Willie Johnson in the 1920s. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to influenced by the Hebrew Bible.
Nevertheless, Rogovoy includes this gem: Dylan gives a shout-out in “Tombstone Blues” to the 1949 movie “Samson and Delilah” that was based on the 1930 novel, “Judge And Fool,” also known as “Samson The Nazarite”; it was written by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Irgun, and the political mentor to Menachem Begin, and what is now Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Jabotinsky,” notes Rogovoy, “also co-wrote the treatment that was eventually turned into the film script.”
Only a story about Dylan can get Jabotinsky together with Blind Willie Johnson, and that says it all.
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.