Bob Dylan, the great songwriter and performer, was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. The son of Abraham and Beatty Zimmerman, he was born in Duluth, Minn., and spent much of his childhood in Hibbing, Minn., a poor mining town with a small Jewish population. Young Robert celebrated his bar mitzvah in Harding, but did not identify strongly or publicly with his Jewish identity. In his music, he presented himself, under the name Bob Dylan, as the voice of the typical mid-Western American. But as the following article shows, Dylan’s lyrics do on occasion show Jewish influences. Reprinted with permission from Rock ‘N’ Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).
Dylan’s rock music from the mid 60s is arguably among the finest of his output. Certainly, it transformed the rock song. Henceforth, rock could have lyrics which could be compared with Keats and Shelley. Professors of literature dissected Dylan’s imagery and significance in ways which they have never done with Gershwin, Berlin, or Pomus. Some have searched for cryptic biblical, even kabalistic [mystical], allusions. No doubt they can be found, if the critic is imaginative enough. Whether they were intended by the author is another matter, for Dylan claims to write quickly with the words tumbling out, beyond his control.
It is not difficult to find Jewish influences. The opening verse of “Highway Sixty One Revisited” irreverently retells the story of the binding of Isaac. God is telling Abraham to “kill me a son.” Abe is replying, “man You must be putting me on.” The joking familiarity with God–the imagining of an argument with the Almighty–is itself very Jewish, to be found in orthodox texts and in Broadway versions of Judaism, such as Fiddler on the Roof. Abraham is treated with familiarity in the song: He is ‘Abe,’ just as Dylan’s father, too, was called Abe.
Certainly, Dylan’s interests have included religion and spirituality. The songs on John Wesley Harding, such as “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine,” contain biblical references. On this album, first released in 1967, Dylan is celebrating the old American west. John Wesley Hardin was a “Wild West” outlaw, a Robin Hood figure, supposedly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The album contains the revealing “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” The lyrics rage against “the immigrant,” who “uses all his power to do evil,” “falls in love with wealth,” “builds his town with blood,” and so on.
The sentiments are ugly. The insider is turning on the outsider. But Dylan was no insider: He was still traveling in disguise. What better way to try to convince yourself and others that you are an insider than to use the traditional images of hatred against the immigrant?
Jewish to Christian to Jewish
During the Seventies, Dylan became Christian, making records which overtly preached his new faith. Ironically, Dylan chose Jerry Wexler to be the producer of his most Christian album, Slow Train Coming. During the recording Dylan tried to interest Wexler in Biblical matters. Wexler comments: “When I told him he was dealing with a confirmed 63-year-old Jewish atheist, he cracked up.” Wexler was tolerantly amused by the whole business: “I liked the idea of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel.”
In his musical and spiritual quest, Dylan also seems to have been something of a Wandering Jew. He did not remain locked within born-again Christianity. He went through a Jewish phase. Anthony Scaduto [in his book, Bob Dylan] suggests that he started studying Hebrew. Not one to do anything by half measures, Dylan apparently made contact with the right-wing Jewish Defense League, whose extreme Zionist nationalism was fascistic. Dylan was later photographed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, wearing tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) on the occasion of his son’s Bar Mitzvah.
The Jewish period seems to have left less direct influence on Dylan’s music than his missionary Christianity. There are no Hebrew songs or explicitly Jewish quotations to match the overt Christianity. However, Dylan’s 1983 album, Infidels,contains an implicitly pro-Zionist song. “Neighborhood Bully” is a thinly veiled parable about the history of the Jews. The song describes the so-called “bully,” who has been driven out of every land. His family have been scattered; he is constantly on trial just for being born; and now, outnumbered by a million to one, he’s accused of being the neighborhood bully by pacifists who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but who would let the one they call the “neighborhood bully” be destroyed.
The song expresses themes which would have been unthinkable 15 years earlier. Yet it still conveys its message indirectly. Neither “Israel” nor “Jews” are explicitly named as such. The pronoun remains the third person: It is “he,” not “we” or “I.” The song is not, it must be said, one of Dylan’s best pieces.
In the 20th century, Jewish creativity has owed much to the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the outsider. Someone comfortably placed within the American folk tradition may not have been able to transform that tradition. Such a person might reproduce folk tunes which had been handed down four-square by parents and grandparents, just as Abe and Beatty Zimmerman wanted young Robert to reproduce the traditional cantillation of his Bar Mitzvah portion.
Or, just as likely, the recipient of the folk tradition might move on. The sons and daughters of Hibbing’s miners no doubt preferred Elvis to Woody Guthrie, just as Robert, in common with so many American Jews of his generation, preferred the singing of Woody and Little Richard to those of his rabbi.
Dylan’s music was that of an outsider posing as a dispossessed insider. He claimed an American folk tradition that had not belonged to his grandparents. In taking over this tradition and claiming to be its guardian, he could not but subvert it. His imagination would not stand still. He had to keep moving–to keep wandering–as if fearing exposure, just as, when a young man, he had feared being revealed as “Zimmerman.” The result has been an uncomfortable but undoubtedly genuine originality that resists easy summary.
Pronounced: bar MITZ-vuh, also bar meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a 13-year-old boy.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: tah-LEET or TAH-liss, Origin: Hebrew, prayer shawl.
Pronounced: tuh-FILL-in (short i in both fill and in), Origin: Hebrew, phylacteries. These are the small boxes containing the words of the Shema that are traditionally wrapped around one’s head and arm during morning prayers.