by Jonathan Mark
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
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
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
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.