Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 10, 2007

Calling All Dylan Fans

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 11:32 am

I know. there are Dylan fans and there are Dylan fanatics and there are “Dylanologists” and there are what I call “Bobolators”, like Shakespeare’s “Bardolators”, who believe he can do no wrong and that every song, every line, every moment in every movie is a gem.

Well I have a question for any or all of you. It grew out of a conversation I had with a genuinely knowledgeable and thoughtful Dylan enthusiast I met with last week. He was interviewing me about journalism in general not Dylan, but happened to mention that he had my Playboy interview with the Bobster on his iPod!

Whoa, how did that happen? I asked him. It’s true the March, 1978 interview has its following among Dylanists. Last year in The New Yorker in his essay/review of a collection of Dylan interviews, Louis Menand singled it out and quoted at length from what has become a famous-in-Dylan-circles exchange. The one in which Dylan describes the Sound he’d been searching for all his life up to then, one he finally found in doing Blonde on Blonde, one he described as “that thin, that wild mercury sound” and then went into a beautiful riff about how it’s the sound he hears on the New York streets, the rattle of silverware through open window at dawn, etc. etc. And I asked him;

“The jingle jangle morning?”

“Yes,” he said.

So the interview has become popular, but I didn’t realize the kind of second life it had until this guy told me that he was listening to me and Dylan “riffing” on his iPod. When I asked him how it happened he was a little vague. Apparently somewhere some time, someone had burned a CD of the original audiotapes and he had fed the CD into the iPod. So I’m on a bootleg with Dylan!

Anyway it brought back memories of that interview and–here’s the point of this post. The guy asked me what question I’d want to ask of Dylan now.

A good question. But what immediately leapt to mind was God.

No, not was Dylan God as some of the “Bobolators’ seem to believe. But what was Dylan’s current thinking about God. It’s always been a preoccupation in one way or another.

I remember a great exchange I had with him on the now-bootlegged interview when he was going on about the ills of society and out of the blue said. “I blame Time magazine.” (I’m quoting from memory now.

Time magazine?” I said.

Yeah he answered in what I think was an exquisitely maintained deadpan.

“Remember [again quoting from memory, not having the bootleg ready to hand] that Time cover that said ‘God Is Dead’,” he asked me.

I think he was referring to a Time cover that asked “Is God Dead”–a story about the “God is Dead” “existential theology” briefly fashionable in the 60s.

“What about it I asked?”

“Well,” Dylan said, again this is from memory, ” If you were God how would you feel when you saw that?”

The implication (which, still to this day I can’t tell how serious he was about): The ills society was suffering were God’s punishment for His premature obituary.” (it occurs tome only now to wonder if Dylan was speaking consciously or unconsciously of all the “Dylan is dead” gossip that followed his motorcycle accident.

But it raises questions that Dylan’s been asking about God since “Highway 61” which opens with “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man you must be puttin’ me on.'”

So here’s the question–one question anyway–I’d like to ask Dylan and since he’s not likely to answer me, I’ll put it to fans, fanatics and Dylanologists out there (I put myself in the plain old “fan” category myself):

What do you think Dylan thinks about God, Jesus, religion, spirituality now? Or at least what do the songs suggest? Yes, there was the public conversion to Christianity, right after I interviewed him (I had nothing to do with it, I swear). There were two pure Jesus albums, Slow Train and Saved but after that there are Jesus songs but not the exclusive focus on Jesus or Christianity. (in the next album Shot of Love, there’s “Property of Jesus” but it’s followed by a tribute to a blasphemous Jew, “Lenny Bruce”. And it concludes with the exquisitely beautiful and spiritual–but not explicitly Christian–“Every Grain of Sand”.

So where is Bob with God now? Has the Christianity been dropped completely? Can anyone cite songs or quotations that give a sense of how his spirituality has evolved and to what?

I’m enabling Comments again, for Dylan-only purposes and I’d love to hear if anyone has any evidence.


  1. A great question I have wondered about also. I went to one of his more recent concerts here in Austin but did not glean any insights. I suspect he is where many of us are, just looking to share and enjoy the bread with some other fellow beggars.

    Comment by jim chudleigh, M.D. — December 11, 2007 @ 12:22 am | Reply

  2. After the Jesus albums there was Dylan’s famous visit to the western wall where he was photographed (?) wearing teffilin.

    More recently, there’s this “chief commander” quote from his interview with 60 minutes:

    Comment by Leon Crunk — December 11, 2007 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  3. Ron

    Thanks for a fine article. My answer to Dylan’s God question is something he said to Newsweek in 1997:

    “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

    Of course Dylan fans (do I mean obsessives?) will continue to want to know everything. It was widely reported that Dylan visited a Chabad synagogue in Atlanta in September 2007, on Yom Kippur. But Dylan has so many sides…. he’s round.


    Great quote! Probably has been true thru-out the other conversions.

    Comment by mick gold — December 11, 2007 @ 8:11 am | Reply

  4. On the matter of Bob Dylan’s evolving theology, I direct your attention to “Ain’t Talkin’,” the haunting final track on “Modern Times” (Dylan’s latest album, which for some mysterious reason you loathed, Ron. Give it another chance!)

    This song screams allegory, evoking Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane awaiting his imminent betrayal:

    “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden/
    The wounded flowers were danglin’ from the vine/
    I was walking by yon cool crystal fountain/
    Someone hit me from behind…”

    Evoking God’s expression of regret for causing the Flood in Genesis 8:21 (“I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” [as my father says, “But God CREATED man that way!”]), Dylan sings:

    “They say prayer has the power to help, so pray for me, mother,/
    In the human heart, an evil spirit dwells/
    I’m tryna help my neighbor, and do good unto others/
    But, oh mother, things ain’t goin’ well…”
    (The juxtaposition of high theology and subliterate mumbling is vintage Dylan.)

    And the kicker, evoking your interview with Dylan and that Time magazine cover:

    “Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon/
    There’s no one here, the gardener is gone!”

    So what do we think? Gethsemane is Christian, but I’m not sure the “mystic garden” isn’t Eden just after the Original Sin when he’s knocked over and dragged out. Just a thought.

    i think the more interesting of your cites is “Things ain’t goin’ well”. Which shggests he still hasn’t resolvedhis sturggle over it all. The evil spirit within. H’es being a little harsh on himself isn’t he. Or maybe it’s humility.

    Then that kicker: the gardner is gone. Does that mean he’s adopted “God is dead” or maybe more precisely “God is fled”.

    BTW “loathe” a little too strong re: MT. With D. it’s always a comparison for me and this was a disappointing one compared with many others. Unless you believe they’re all perfect some have got to be better and some worse. But on your rec. I will give it anohter try.

    Comment by Martin Gidron — December 11, 2007 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  5. Bob Dylan is a interesting musician and pop figure. Why do you wonder about his religious beliefs? I would ask him what it is about his creative flow that has prevented a significant popular success in many years.

    IO guess because there’s so much spirituality,and spiritual figures God, Judas, Jesus, Abraham, even (sepcially) inthe non explicitly religious songs. And because I’m intereted inthe spritual trajectory of artists–if it can be traced–because it often inflects or infuses the creative trajectory and it’s hard to discuss one without the other. i sort of think Dylan is a prime example of this. I grant your perfect right not to be interested if you’ll agree that it’s nnot illegitimate to be interested.

    Comment by Mark Van Wagoner — December 11, 2007 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  6. Bob was spotted at a Chaban shul this year for yom kippur. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re thinking about re spirituality, but I thought it might add something tot he debate.

    Very informative link. Thanks!

    Comment by alex — December 11, 2007 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  7. Even a cursory listen to Modern Times should answer your question.

    Mr Jinx

    Not according to the link above. And do you really believe that everything D. writes is flat- out autobiogrphical. Singers have been known to adopt personae; many great artists have. I’ve given it more than a courtesy listen BTW, I just don’t take it literally like a fundamentalist takes the Bible.

    Comment by Mr Jinx — December 11, 2007 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  8. The one constant in Dylan’s theology remains what he learned from painter Norman Raeben, that past,present and future “are all in the same room”, redolent of “Burnt Norton”. From “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” through “Desolation Row” to “Highlands”, “High Water” and “Masked and Anonymous”, Dylan takes comfort in eschatology, life drenched in meaning, the idea that because we cannot see Him, God is everywhere. Doubt is just another encounter with this magic reality. That’s why we love him and what he does so much and for so long: there’s a piece of him inside us, the bottle of bread and the loaf of wine.

    Well said,and makes a lot of sense connecting the post-Raeben songwriting with simultaneity of time, a la Milton’s God. Where’s the Raeben “same room” quote from?

    Comment by charlie finch — December 11, 2007 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  9. In his recent Rolling Stone interview, Dylan said: “We degrade faith by talking about religion.” I suspect that’s about as specific as he is willing to get for public consumption and it seems good enough to me.

    There’s a gorgeous song on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack called “City of Gold” that might be worth your time in this regard. It’s sung by The Dixie Hummingbirds: “There is a city of light / Raised up in heaven, and the streets are all bright / Glory to God, not by deeds or by might / There is a city of light…”

    John Bunyan might’ve enjoyed it as much as I do. And like a lot of Dylan’s more recent songs it does seem to incorporate his distinction between faith / religion, with religion being something made by men. (Something I remember him saying way back in the Slow Train Coming days.)

    BTW: On Mark Van Wagoner’s comment, I wonder what he considers lack of popular success since Dylan’s last album was number one on the charts in a number of countries…?

    Comment by Fred Mecklenburg — December 11, 2007 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

  10. Further reading and music:

    Comment by STEADS — December 11, 2007 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  11. From the Not Dark Yet Website by Markus prieur:

    I am the Man Thomas
    I am the Man
    Look at these nail scars
    I carry in my hand
    They drove me up the hill Thomas
    I am the Man
    They made me carry the cross Thomas
    I am the Man
    I am the Man Thomas
    I am the Man
    Look at these nail scars
    I carry in my hand
    They crowned my head with thorns Thomas
    I am the Man
    They nailed me to the cross Thomas
    I am the Man
    I am the Man Thomas
    I am the Man
    Look at these nail scars
    I carry in my hand
    They pierced me in the side Thomas
    I am the Man
    I died on the cross Thomas
    I am the Man
    I am the Man Thomas
    I am the Man
    Look at these nail scars
    I carry in my hand
    They buried me in the tomb Thomas
    I am the Man
    In three days I rose Thomas
    I am the Man
    I am the Man Thomas

    I am the Man
    Look at these nail scars
    I carry in my hand
    (written by Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks)

    If “these nail scars”
    still wouldn’t mean
    a whole lot to Bob Dylan,
    he probably would not
    have opened many a concert in
    1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002
    with this challenging song.

    Thomas believed after
    he had seen his risen
    Lord. Blessed are those
    (on stage or in the
    audience) who do not
    see and yet believe.

    This song had not been
    performed by Bob Dylan
    outside the US until
    September 2000, when he
    chose to sing it in Europe.
    I was blessed to see the
    performances in Dublin,
    Birmingham and Sheffield.

    In 2001 Bob performed
    only once, in Australia,
    one day before he told a
    world wide TV-Oscar-Audience:
    “God bless you all with peace,
    tranquility, and good will.”

    In Missouri, one month later,
    Bob chose to perform his own
    overt statement about Jesus,
    “IN THE GARDEN”, for the
    first time since July 1996.

    In February 2002 Bob Dylan
    started eight of his shows in the US
    with “I AM THE MAN THOMAS”.
    In Europe in spring he sang it eight
    times as well, starting in Berlin
    and in Frankfurt, both times in
    the same show as “SOLID ROCK”.

    Next it appeared in Ravenna,
    making its Italian debut, and
    six days later in Strasbourg,
    making its French debut. Five
    days later Bob sang it in
    Paris, before the song started
    Bob’s first British show
    of the year, in Brighton.

    One weekend later Bob Dylan
    chose to open both shows in
    London with this intense
    song, once more including
    the same show as “SOLID ROCK”
    during the first show. I sure
    was glad to see all three
    performances in Britain.

    In August 2002 this song was
    performed for the first time
    in Canada, as Dylan chose to
    open the first five Canadian shows
    with “I AM THE MAN THOMAS”.
    Next it appeared in Baltimore,
    then again twice in Canada,
    and finally in Utah.

    Comment by STEADS — December 11, 2007 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  12. Great thread. Been a subject I’ve thought a lot about. For the record (pun intended), I compiled a four tape(4 CD) mix after Love and Theft was released, but before Modern Times, as a soundtrack. Certainly, there are biblical allusions on MT: “Spirit on the Water”‘s opening lines are allusions (quotes) from Genesis, and I’ve always seen “I killed a man back there”, as an allusion to Moses, as well as the lyrics quoted in earlier posts. Not sure what they indicate for sure, except, that Bob still gets inspiration from the scriptures, a habit that reaches way back to his first LP.
    As for the last three releases, Not Dark Yet, and Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (on Time Out of Mind), Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum “…living in the land of Nod,trustin’ their fates to the hands of God…”) and High Water(“…I’m preachin’ the word of god,I’m puttin’ out your eyes…”) ,on Love and Theft, and the aforementioned references on Modern Times, indicate Bob’s ongoing spiritual/religious concerns. He still encores with “All Along the Watchtower”,usually, the last song of the night, which is eschatological and biblical(Isaiah).
    On the “new” 3CD compilation, several spiritual songs are included, like Things have Changed which includes the line “if the bible(Hebrew scriptures only?) is right,the world will explode”, High Water, Not Dark Yet,and When the (final?) Deal Goes Down on it.
    I’m not sure we can interpret Bob’s Yom Kippur appearance as indicative of full embracement if Judaism, but it’s clear his Judaism in an important source of religious inspiration, but I’d argue he might still hang on to some Messianic/eschatological fulfillment beliefs from his encounter with Christianity.
    At any rate, it’s a great ride, and I belive Bob’s spirtual journey reflects that of a lot of people in this generation. I think Dylan has embodied the “stages of faith” model put forth by M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled”; there are three stages of faith: Unbelief,Dogmatic Belief,and Skeptical Belief.
    Thanks for starting this discussion.

    Thank you for the thoughtful, well informed comment.

    Comment by Jim Mello — December 11, 2007 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  13. I would ask him about cigarettes and whether or not he regretted smoking. It’s something that Joni Mitchell talks about in every interview and I’ve never heard Dylan address. Clearly it’s taken a toll on his career.

    Comment by Jeff — December 11, 2007 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  14. Actually, for many years Bob has been known to attend Chabad services for the High Holidays in whatever city his tour happens to be in at the time. I would say this goes back more than 20 years.

    For the High Holy Days Chabad has traveling rabbis who offer free services for Jews who may not be members of a temple, or are in an area of the country where services are hard to come by. I’ve been to a few of these, and they are small, intimate gatherings. The service is mostly in Hebrew and attendees are intently focused on worship. If Bob is looking to focus on prayer this is an ideal setting of serious people, among whom it would be frowned upon to disturb a fellow worshiper because of his celebrity.

    Also, in the mid-80s he appeared on a telethon to raise money for Jewish charities.

    On the other hand, Bob end his 2004 memoir Chronicles with this description of the world: “One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.”

    Well, another thing’s for sure: we can never really know when Bob is being serious or trying to throw us off the trail. Perhaps that’s why he fascinates us so. Dylan may be our last public mystery.

    Comment by Paul Kane — December 11, 2007 @ 8:37 pm | Reply

  15. Dylan attended a Chabad run temple service last Rosh Hashanah(Jewish New Year)& he read from the torah…so, as a Jew, he evidently still carries that ineffable charismatic endowment of the Jewish covenent w/ G-d that unites all Jews. Or, maybe he’s not on any quest for his Jewish roots & just likes the upbeat cheer that Chabad projects when they dance around the Torah & in their charitable activities to all humanity. Religion w/o pretense…something I think the matter-of-fact Dylan might favor.

    Comment by jw — December 11, 2007 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  16. The Raeban quote is from Dylan himself in the book “Wanted Man”. Thanks for the kudos

    Comment by charlie finch — December 12, 2007 @ 12:00 am | Reply

  17. Dylan’s daughter went to an orthodox Jewish school, his son-in-law is an Orthodox Jew, he has participated in more Jewish holiday events than just one appearance at the Western Wall. He’s a Jew.

    Comment by Yehudit — December 12, 2007 @ 1:19 am | Reply

  18. Well, when Bob worships (in a formal setting, anyway)these days it is always in a synagogue (usually… almost always… Chabad), and not the s-called “messianic” kind. Ever. The only time I have ever heard of him being seen in a church was to attend Jerry Garcia;s funeral. I will see if I can attach or append an article that provides info about Dylan’s Jewish connections. FOr the article, I talked to Rabbi Manis Friedman and son-in-law Peter Himmelman, both of whom made it clear that he had returned to the fold.

    This is long but fascinating


    By Martin Grossman (with a little help from Ronnie Schreiber and Larry Yudelson)

    Bob Dylan was struggling that night. Maybe he’d had one drink too many backstage with Jack Nicholson before going on stage to accept the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

    “Well, uh,” Dylan said, fondling the award. “All right.”

    Another pause. “Yeah.”

    The crowd laughed.

    “Well … my daddy. He didn’t leave me too much, you know. He was a simple man, and he didn’t leave me a lot, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, `Sonnnnn….,’ he
    said ….”

    A long pause. Dylan breathed heavily. Seconds seemed like hours as millions around the world watched on television. Dylan stared down at the award and scratched his chin. From the audience: a few nervous snickers, then giggles.

    “He said so many things, you know,” Dylan shrugged. The audience roared. Then, quickly, Dylan added: “He said it is possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.”

    The audience was silent.

    “Thank you,” Bob said, and walked away.

    Dylan has a way of saying the unexpected — in his songs, interviews and even when accepting awards. But this was different — even for him. His remarks were a very close paraphrase of the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (the spiritual leader of traditional Jewry in Germany in the mid 19th century) on Psalms 27:10:

    “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.”

    Maybe Abram Zimmerman really said this to his son, but it is much more probable that Bob picked it up from a commentary in a particular siddur [the Jewish prayer book that is used for worship services]. Psalm 27 is recited at the morning and evening prayer services during the month before the Jewish New Year and one popular prayer book includes the Hirsch commentary. The wording is clearly too similar to Hirsch’s to be mere coincidence.

    It’s extremely unlikely Dylan’s father was familiar with the writings of Rabbi Hirsch, the 19th Century leader of German neo-Orthodoxy. Dylan’s involvement with Judaism over the past ten or fifteen years has been mostly through Chabad – also an unlikely place for him to have been introduced to the Hirsch commentary. It’s more likely Dylan saw the quote in the Metsudah Siddur, a prayer book popular among Baalei Tshuvah (as “returnees” to orthodox Judaism are known, although many of them are encountering serious Judaism for the first time). By attributing the words to his father, Dylan is following a long tradition of attribution in Judaism. He can be said to be using “father(s)” in a wider sense, meaning his heritage.

    Bob Dylan had traveled a long and bumpy road to come to a place where he would paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch in such an improbable setting. Born to a Jewish family in Duluth, he had attended Jewish summer camp, become a bar mitzvah at the small synagogue in Hibbing, and even pledged a Jewish fraternity after he left home to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

    But by the time he began hanging out in Dinkytown, the hip, college-style bohemian section of town near the campus, it was clear that Bob Dylan didn’t want to be thought of as Jewish anymore. The son of an appliance dealer in the Minnesota Iron Range town, he invented a mythic American past for himself. It was one that seemed more exciting and more appropriate for someone who wanted to be a man of the people, one who sang their songs and spoke their language of hard times and hard travellin’.

    He told early interviewers that he was an orphan from Oklahoma or New Mexico, born to carnival workers or gamblers. He took his name, he said, from an uncle named “Dillon” (young Bob had no doubt watched a lot of “Gunsmoke” on the family’s black and white TV), and sang, talked and acted like his idol Woody Guthrie, who really was from Oklahoma, but had found a place as the preeminent folk-singer-songwriter for the left wing intelligentsia in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and dozens of college towns throughout the country.

    “Passing” was surely high on the young singer’s agenda. In fact, Barry Rubin, in Assimilation and its Discontents, writes that when the mother of one Bob’s early girlfriends called him on the facts of his romanticized life story, and told him “she thought that Zimmerman was his real name, he called her an anti-Semite, as if a mere description of the truth was bigotry.”

    Much later he took the most radical step toward assimilation available to a Jew who wants to be “more American.” He converted to Christianity. And not just any Christianity, but evangelical, “born again” Christianity, the kind that poor and culturally isolated Americans, black and white, had embraced as much for its promise of a clean slate, fresh start and escape from the pain of living in the world as for its theology. What could be more American than a fresh start?

    The question for Dylan, as it had been for Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and so many other Jewish songwriters before him, was how Jewish was he, given his estrangement from his origins? The grandson of eastern European immigrants, the Edelsteins and Zimmermans, was now “Bob Dylan,” a new creature under the sun. America, after all, was a place where choice took precedence over inherited identity. Would “making it” in America, becoming the “spokesman for his generation,” a worldwide cultural icon, a “poet” quoted by Popes and presidents, mean that his Jewishness was reduced to being nothing more than a mere accident of history? Or did it shape him and his way of looking at the world in deep and subtle ways that go far beyond the perspective that simply being an outsider confers?

    The answer isn’t simple for Dylan, for contemporaries like Leonard Cohen, or for a younger generation of Jewish singer-songwriters who aspire to follow in their large footsteps, like Peter Himmelman or Dan Bern (who has recently reclaimed “Bernstein,” the family name his father had abandoned when he came to this country from Germany). Is the question really important? How Jewish are they and what does it matter anyway?

    For Leonard Cohen, whose place in Canadian culture is roughly similar to Dylan’s in the U.S., the yearning to join a wider culture (even as a critical voice) at the expense of acknowledging one’s heritage didn’t seem nearly as tempting. Changing one’s identity in Canada, which has preserved a tradition of Canadian citizenship that coexists with ethnic identity, if not easily, at least acceptably, didn’t seem necessary. But Cohen wanted a piece of the wider world, too, and has struggled to find a way to remain proudly Jewish while making his unique imaginative contribution to the culture of the world at large.

    If Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s model, Cohen’s was Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen made his entrance from the more sophisticated realm of poetry rather than the more uncomplicated world of folk music. After Woody, Bob discovered Rimbaud, and began writing lyrics that owed more to the surrealists than the Carter Family. Leonard saw very quickly that Dylan had made it possible to put poetry on the jukebox and his own youthful interest in folk and rock music was rekindled when he saw the possibilities. By creating lyrics with a broader range and more exciting language than anything that had come out of Tin Pan Alley, both Dylan and Cohen helped change the face of folk and popular music, not only in North America, but around the world. Some fans and critics accused Dylan of treason, of “selling out” when he plugged into electricity at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Canadian literary critics did the same when in 1967 Cohen, already a poet of some reputation, had the chutzpah to write and record songs that attracted a wide audience.

    They would both eventually confront the question of Jewish identity in ways that probably had never occurred to the Berlins, Arlens and Gershwins – ways that have made it possible for the next generation of Jewish singer-songwriters to be more forthrightly Jewish in their lives and their music.

    How Jewish are the Jewish singer-songwriters who have had such an influence on American popular music since the 60s? What effect has their Jewishness had on what they write, the songs that have changed the very way we listen? And now that Dylan and Cohen are older, and new writers are emerging to carry on the tradition, what do the new singer-songwriters write and sing about? It all starts with Dylan. Without his example we would not even be asking these questions.

    How Jewish is Bob Dylan anyway?

    Although the prophetic stance and biblical imagery of his early songs made them far different from most of what was being written in the early 60s when he first took American popular music by storm, it’s difficult to find specifically Jewish references in them, although his rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness style did mine his unconscious for a few gems. In “Gates of Eden” from his 1965 LP Bringing it All Back Home, he writes of “wicked birds of prey/Who pick up on your bread crumb sins,” which recalls the tashlich ceremony where traditional Jews throw bread into a body of water to symbolize casting away sinful behavior in order to begin the new year unfettered. In the title song of Highway 61 Revisited from 1966, Dylan begins with the jarring, but archly funny lines:

    Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
    Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
    God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
    God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
    The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

    In just a few words, he created a contemporary version of the Torah’s most traumatic story, The Binding of Isaac or the Akedah [as its called in Hebrew], a theme that Leonard Cohen would also deal with in one of his most important early songs, “The Story of Isaac.”

    By the 1970s, rumors of Dylan visiting Jerusalem and applying for membership in a kibbutz began to circulate. Theodore Bikel is quoted as saying Dylan had told him around this time that Israel was the only place left in the world where life really had meaning. Soon he began publishing his songs with a his new publishing company, which he named Ram’s Horn Music, taking its name from the Shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown to awaken Jewish souls to their heritage, especially during the High Holy Days.

    When, following a bitter divorce, he is baptized and studies and prays with an evangelical Christian group, The Vineyard Fellowship, his many Jewish fans are stunned. Some regard it as the most shocking act of apostasy since Shabtai Zvi, a messianic pretender of medieval times who converted to Islam to keep from being killed and left million of his followers in utter despair.

    He began recording songs with explicitly Christian messages, as well as performing exclusively Christian songs on tour beginning in 1979. By 1981, he was incorporating older songs into his concerts and in Shot of Love, the last of three LPs dominated by Christian material, he was also including songs that seemed to put some distance between evangelical theology and his own stance, songs like “Lenny Bruce,” about the man whom Dylan revered for his iconoclasm, and who is not much admired in evangelical circles, if he is even known there, and “Every Grain of Sand,” which seemed less dogmatic and even admitted to moments of doubt. These songs made it clear that Dylan was beginning to distance himself from the unambiguously Christian songs of Slow Train Coming and Saved.

    In early 1983, rumors began to surface of Dylan’s living and studying in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with Chabad, a Chasidic Jewish group, which has its international headquarters there and was the home of the late Rebbe Menachem Scheerson, its charismatic and beloved leader.

    One Chabad rabbi from Toronto had written to me earlier of his efforts to contact Bob through a letter hand-delivered to him by someone who knew them both. Elie Wiesel had written a reply to a letter I sent to him in which he said he considered Dylan’s conversion a tragedy and hoped that efforts to reach him would succeed. In Howard Sounes’ recent biography of Dylan, he reports that Leonard Cohen was devastated by the news and had trouble understanding how it could have happened.

    But eventually attempts to communicate with Dylan had begun to have an effect. Sara Dylan (the former Shirley Noznisky), who was divorced from him not long before his conversion, remarked to the press that Bob had tried hard to convert his family and friends at first, but had had a change of heart and stopped doing it around 1983. She tells us that it had been a relief to them all. Helena Springs, one of his former back-up singers, told an interviewer that “Bob has always been a Jewish person” and that the Vineyard folks had finally been “too tight” for him. His longtime friend Allen Ginsberg spoke of Dylan returning to his “natural Judaism.” Kinky Friedman, who has been close to Bob since the early 70s, told the British Dylan fanzine The Telegraph that his friend was wavering between an embrace of Orthodox or Reform Judaism.

    Later his son Jakob, who has become a successful singer-songwriter on his own as leader of The Wallflowers, told Rolling Stone, which featured him on the cover of a recent issue, that he has “been Jewish for most of my life” and had gone where he was told to go during the time of his father’s involvement with Christianity, but that “the wheel had turned” in time for his bar mitzvah.

    The lyrics of Dylan’s first “post-Christian” album, Infidels, give penetrating glimpses of the wheel turning (or at least of a turning in progress). In Street Legal, the last LP he recorded before Slow Train Coming made his conversion fully public, he had sung lines like “I’m an exile, you can’t convert me” on an album that showed him struggling with a sense of loneliness and loss in the wake of his divorce, acknowledging his personal failings, and battling the pressures of staying on top of his art. In this context, the attraction of wiping the slate clean by embracing Christianity must have been compelling. On Infidels, though, the theme of exile begins to link him to the Jewish people, and in the much maligned (particularly by leftist, pro-Palestinian fans and critics) “Neighborhood Bully” Dylan sang of an Israel surrounded by enemies and waging a heroic struggle against long odds just to exist.

    The Neighborhood Bully been driven out of every land
    He’s wandered the earth, an exiled man
    Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
    He’s always on trial for just being born

    In “I and I” the chorus recalls Moses’ encounter with the divine:

    One said to the other
    No man sees my face and lives

    Around the same time he recorded Infidels, columnist Shirley Eder reported [The Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1983] that when a Columbia Records executive asked Dylan if his new LP “was going to be another ‘born-again Christian’ album, and if he were still Christian, Dylan for the very first time (in spite of having been asked so often) directly answered the last part of the question. According to Eder, a spokesman for Dylan quoted him as saying, “What are you talking about? What makes you think that? Whoever said I was Christian? Did you see the movie ‘Gandhi?’ Well, like Gandhi, I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, I’m Moslem, I’m a Hindu. I am a humanist!” If the quote is accurate, it shows Dylan in his more familiar, maddeningly inconsistent, mercurial, pre-conversion role as confounder of expectations.

    His apparent return to Judaism was given even more credence by his subsequent appearance on three Chabad L’Chaim! (To Life!) Telethons. In one, he performed with Peter Himmelman and Harry Dean Stanton as a trio introduced as “Chopped Liver.” Bob added harmonica accompaniment to the group’s rendering of “Hava Negilah” and performed back up on two other songs, one a Yiddish lullaby sung by Himmelman, the other a song in Ladino, an old Hebrew-Spanish language once widely spoken by Sephardic Jews, the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were expelled in 1492 and settled primarily in North Africa and the Arab world.

    Referring to a collection of holy Chabad texts that officials of the Soviet Union had seized and kept and that the Rebbe was very interested in having returned, Bob said, “Give back the books and give plenty of money to Chabad! It’s my favorite organization in the whole world, really. They do nothing but good things with all the money. The more you can give, the more it’s going to help everybody.” The audience responded with loud applause, whoops and cheers.

    On Oh Mercy, his well-received 1989 album, he began one of its most popular songs – both in is performance of it and covers y others — with a reference to “heathens,” who are instructed to “ring them bells.” Those who follow in the list are Christian saints, who by juxtaposition are included under that heading.

    Martha is told to ring them bells so “the world will know that “G d is one,” a direct reference to the Shma [the central declaration of Jewish faith]: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G d, the Lord is one.”

    In “Everything is Broken” he seems to be speaking of a world of shattered vessels in need of repair that echoes the Lurianic Kabbalah [the Kabbalah is the “received tradition” of Jewish mysticism” — the Lurianic Kabbalah, which includes a theology of the broken vessels of creation, refers to the teachings of 16th Century Rabbi Isaac Luria who lived in the ancient mystical center of Safad in Israel]. Dylan’s song predates by several years the Kabbalah’s becoming an object of celebrity fascination and the subject of a media blitz that spoke of Barbara Streisand, Rosanne, Sandra Bernhard, Madonna, and others pursuing meaning in the ancient Jewish mystical texts.

    In recent years, he has been seen at the very Jewish weddings of his children, popped up at Seders [the ritual meals celebrated every year by Jews all over the world in remembrance of the Exodus] in Hollywood and New Zealand, and attended Yom Kippur services at, among other places, a Parisian Yeshiva, where he reportedly contributed a handsome sum for the honor of chanting a Psalm of David. (King David, by the way, puts in a guest appearance on Infidels’ “I and I” as the “righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.”)

    Scott Benarde, a journalist based in Del Ray, Florida, reported the following in a piece that ran in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in August 7, 1999:

    In 1995, while on the Florida leg of a concert tour, Bob Dylan walked into Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach and attended Yom Kippur services. You would have thought Elijah had come through the door as worshipers who recognized him did double takes. Say what you want about Bob “Robert Zimmerman” Dylan’s late 1970s experience as a born-again Christian, the enigmatic superstar’s real roots were showing. Dylan’s synagogue appearance made the local papers. It also made local Jews proud.

    It did not make national news, which is probably how Dylan, who likes maintaining an air of mystery, preferred it. In fact, throughout the rock era, most Jewish performers, songwriters and musicians preferred keeping their Jewishness and Judaism out of the spotlight.

    The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles also reported that Dylan “sent his children to a Beverly Hills Hebrew [religious] school” and once performed there at a benefit.

    In his album Time Out of Mind, Dylan paraphrases a key Jewish text, the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), in one of the most beautiful songs on the album, the mournful “Not Dark Yet,” when he sings, “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will.” A quick glance at one passage confirms it as the source:

    “And let not your evil inclination assure you that the grave will be a place of refuge for you for against your will you were created, against your will you were born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an account before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He.”

    Dylan has traveled a long way not only from Hibbing, but also from his alienation from Judaism. He now seems to take pride in his heritage, even if he is careful to keep it essentially a private matter.

    For a direct account of Dylan’s connection to Judaism, I spoke to Rabbi Manis Friedman, a prominent Chabad rabbi from Minnesota who has become known in some circles as “Bob Dylan’s rabbi.” Our conversation took place not long after the release of TOOM.

    Rabbi Friedman was guarded in what he said. He said he needed to speak to Dylan to “clear with him what I should or shouldn’t say and ask whether he wants me to say anything at all. I need to get through to him. It’ll probably take me a few days.”

    The rabbi confirmed that Dylan has studied with him and that he used to bring his sons with him to Chabad classes and that indeed “the wheel had turned” in time for Jakob’s bar mitzvah.

    When I spoke to the rabbi two weeks later he was still reticent. “I really can’t tell you much,” he said. “He hates it when I talk about him. He makes no bones about it.”

    “I think what you need to say about him is that he’s very Jewish. He’s very connected to his Jewishness. He thinks like a Jew. He tries to act like a Jew. That’s about as much as I can say.”

    I told him that Edna Gunderson of USA Today, to whom Dylan has given more interviews than any other journalist, had written shortly after speaking with Bob that one should be careful not to read too much into his performance for the Pope John Paul II. She reminded her readers that Dylan had also performed for the Simon Weisenthal Center and at a Buddhist temple.

    It’s also worth noting, said Rabbi Friedman, that when he greeted the Pope during his performance “he didn’t kiss his ring. There have been other Jews who didn’t have the courage to refuse to kiss the Pope’s ring, including statesmen and other well known personalities.”

    I asked why Dylan is so reluctant to say much publicly about his connection to Judaism.

    “A good question. A good question. There are some things you want to save for yourself and keep private, that belong to you, and not to the public. He’s very private about his family; he was very private about his marriage and divorce. He’s not interested in putting everything up front [for public view]. That makes the difference.”

    I mentioned that, at least until 1995, he was still – if only occasionally — performing songs from his Christian period such as “In the Garden,” which has a very Christian message.

    Rabbi Friedman gave me a surprisingly tolerant answer. “It’s a good song.” Dylan has said in the past that there are “still people who want to hear those songs.”

    On the other hand, he played “Go Down Moses” in one of the only times he has performed it publicly in his career, when he played in Israel. Dylan also dropped the verse that specifically mentions Jesus in Hank William’s “Thank God” when he performed the song for a Chabad telethon. And in recent years, he has included the Carter Family gospel classic “Little Moses” in his concerts, while changing a line from the original to “His hope was most glorious/with Israel victorious/someday all his people’d be free.” The line had ended “some day over Jordan be free.” This small, subtle change made the song less a gospel hymn and more like a Zionist anthem.

    I suggested to Rabbi Friedman that because Dylan had said such admiring things about Chabad on the telethons that this seemed intended to deliver a direct message to his Jewish fans that he no longer considered himself a Christian. After all, Chabad denies the divinity of Jesus and works very actively to return straying Jews to Judaism, and yet Bob says they’re his “favorite organization in the whole world, really.”

    “Yes. I’m sure that that’s true,” said the rabbi.

    When I mentioned that Dylan was always careful to spend Yom Kippur in shul and always took the day off. The rabbi replied, “Yes. He always does.” I also recalled that in a concert in Florida two years before ago that took place during the intermediate days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, a fan tossed a round challah (a glazed loaf of ceremonial bread used by Jews on the Sabbath and other holidays – the round version is associated with Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year) onto the stage, and Dylan responded with a smile and by playing a harmonica solo that sounded a lot like a series of shofar blasts.

    “I’d like to say something to say something definitive,” Rabbi Friedman finally said. “You can say he was a Jew and is a Jew, but shuns the limelight. He’s very much a Jew and into being a Jew. He puts on tefillin every day.”

    I mentioned that Peter Himmelman doesn’t say much about Bob. (Evidently he’s under the same instructions as Rabbi Friedman and other Dylan family members, friends and associates.) But Himmelman is much less shy about being “out” as a Jew — without wearing it on his sleeve (although he always keeps his head covered). When I asked the rabbi how Bob felt about Peter’s enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit [“Jewishness”], he replied, “Bob is very proud of that.”

    All in the Family: Peter Himmelman’s songs from the Jewish sources

    Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman, who has not traded on being Bob Dylan’s son-in-law, wants no special attention because he happened to marry the daughter of someone so successful in the same line of work. And he has the talent necessary to be successful on his own. Although he has yet to achieve his breakthrough to a mass audience, he is successful on his own terms, if less notably than Dylan or Cohen. A few years ago he was pointed out by Time as one of the most important new singer-songwriters to emerge in the 80s. Occasionally his songs are included in the rotation for MTV. With a few notable exceptions, his subject matter is not obviously Jewish, but a look beneath the surface reveals a knowledge of Kabbalah and the Jewish sources unusual for a rock songwriter. Even his album titles (Gematria [Kabbalistic numerology], From Strength to Strength [from the Hebrew blessing, “May you go from strength to strength”]) often draw on Jewish sources. Skin, a concept album that tells of a soul’s journey to the afterworld and back again, is rich in Kabbalistic references.

    One song that directly reveals the emotional commitment Peter has to his heritage is “Untitled,” from his Flown This Acid World CD. It tells the story of a taxi ride with a neo-Nazi cab driver who happened to pick him up at the airport on a visit to his native Minnesota.

    Then he started fishin’ for a cassette tape that he’d gotten in a special class,
    And on it some teacher was talkin’ about destroyin’ the Jews at last,
    And about how they were all to blame,
    for every problem that you could ever name.

    I stared out my window, started thinkin’ about my life,
    Thinkin’ about my children, thinkin’ about my wife,
    And I wondered how much more could I endure,
    Of a hatred, so naked and so pure.

    … Our heads are still pounding from the sound of their screams
    And the blood is still flowing down European streets…

    “Love of Midnight” on his From Strength to Strength album, is based on teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe [the spiritual leader of Chabad – Lubavitch (City of Love) is the Eastern European town where the Chabad movement began] and the “And it Came to Pass at Midnight” passage from the Hagaddah [the book used to conduct a Passover Seder]. On this and other songs, Himmelman sings with a passionate yearning that has won him a following not only among religious Jews, but Christians, Buddhists, and even agnostics, atheists, and truck drivers.

    We will stand at the river where silence collides
    With countless generations of screams
    Where the mysterious name which never divides
    Gives life to our blood and our dreams
    When the veils and their shadows are taken away
    We will witness the birth of the immaculate day
    To stand in the flashes between darkness and light
    Is to love you with the love of midnight

    I’m so tired of waiting for it
    so tired of praying for it
    Talkin’ ’bout midnight
    Yeah, the love of midnight

    It seems much easier for Himmelman to be out front with his audience about being a Jew than it has been for his famous father-in-law. Refusing to play on Friday nights is natural for Peter, even if it hasn’t been a help to his career as a concert performer. For his loyal fan base, however, it’s one more measure of his integrity.

    Dan Bern: Another Jew from the “middle of nowhere”

    Like Bob Dylan, Dan Bern (who now wants to be called Bernstein, having reclaimed his original family name), a young singer-songwriter from Iowa, grew up as one of the few Jews in a small Midwestern town.

    His sense of being Jewish is more secular than Himmelman’s, although he does have a sister who is a cantor [the leader of liturgical chanting in a synagogue service] in Norfolk, Virginia, and told me he had the same itinerant bar mitzvah tutor Dylan had had some 25 years before him. The comparisons to Dylan come mostly because of similarities of style. In fact, tired of being labeled the “Bob Dylan of the 90s,” Bern has taken to saying that he thinks Bob Dylan was the Dan Bern of the 60s. Then again, his brashness and wit recall Dylan, too. Opening for Ani Difranco, with whom Dan has been seen as part of an emerging genre called “folk-punk,” provides yet another connection as Ani opened for Dylan on his 1997 summer tour and Bern has often opened for Ani.

    The generational difference, however, is especially clear when you compare Dylan’s early parody, the somewhat defensive “Talkin’ Hava Negilah” (“This here is a foreign song I learned down in Utah”) with Bern’s gently funny but affectionate “Jew from Kentucky,” which he told me reflects at least in part his experience of growing up in rural Iowa.”

    I kiss the mezuzah when I go in the door
    I read me a little Hebrew ’till quarter past four
    I suck down lone star beer from my bar mitzvah cup
    put on my phylacteries when I wake up

    When the rabbi comes by
    We drink beer on the lawn
    We cheer for the wildcats
    With our yar mul kees [skullcaps worn by religious Jews] on
    When he gets up to leave
    I say rabbi, don’t go
    You can’t drive your pickup on shabbos, you know

    We’re Jews from Kentucky
    That’s what we are
    We drink our mint juleps from a kosher dill jar
    Wherever we wander, wherever we roam
    Jews from Kentucky are always at home

    zai gezunt! [Yiddish for, roughly, “good health”]

    In “They Will Passover” a song he wrote for what he told me was a “hip” Seder in Los Angeles, he offers more serious evidence of the Jewish sources of many of his songs.

    I found the bloody bone of a lamb
    When I opened up my door
    Earlier this morning
    I said, “Oh my God
    And went to warn the neighbors
    But they were not at home
    I was all alone
    So I found my best friend Eddie
    And we ran down to the storehouse
    Where they kept all of the bones
    We took one for every home
    Enough to go around
    Some beside a welcome mat
    Some inside the mailbox
    Some attached to the doorknob with a rubber band
    And when we were finished we fell to our knees and prayed

    And when the rain comes down
    And the first-born son is taken
    And the clouds darken the town
    They will pass over

    In “Lithuania” Bern deals with subject matter similar to that of Peter Himmelman in “Untitled.” Both songs evoke the Shoah [Hebrew for Holocaust], where as Himmelman puts it “the blood is still flowing down European streets” and Bern says in his song:

    I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh, thirty years after his parents, and brothers, sister were all shot, murdered in the streets of Lithuania

    Both songs comment eloquently on confronting the past and facing the future. Himmelman writes “you must refute them” of the neo-Nazis, and Bern of wanting to dance on Hitler’s grave shouting out the names of famous Jews, including Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whom the Nazis would have killed had they been in Europe during the during Holocaust. In Himmelman’s song he davens [prays] in a Los Angeles synagogue with a survivor, while Bern sings, recalling other uses of “fog” as a metaphor for the Holocaust, “Hey! Hey! The fog is gone” and rejoices over the fact that the “Fuhrer” is in the museum of history while the Jews live on.

    In “One Thing Real” he reveals a Lenny Bruce influence that he also shares with Dylan:

    Jesus he sits next to me
    Jesus he sits down
    He says take this cross from off my back
    I’m goin’ downtown

    I said, “Isn’t that your uniform?”
    He offers me a toke
    And says, “I think 2000 years is long enough
    For this particular joke”

    In “Jerusalem” Bern reveals he is the messiah after spending ten days in Jerusalem eating “nothing but olives” — the famous Jerusalem syndrome where people with no previous history of mental illness claim to be the messiah is at work here — and lets us all know, at the urging of Dr. Nussbaum, his therapist. With a broad appeal that’s building steadily, like Peter Himmelman’s, Bern shows that being proudly Jewish needn’t any longer be an obstacle to popular success.

    Leonard Cohen: “I’m the little Jew who wrote the bible”

    Leonard Cohen comes from one of Montreal’s most prominent Jewish families. The poet and songwriter who would become known throughout the world primarily for his songs and whose influence has been felt by writers and artists throughout the world from songwriters such as Kurt Cobain to filmmakers like Robert Altman, descends from rabbis, Hebrew grammarians, and Talmudic scholars. His family also includes leading Canadian Zionists and the founder of the first Anglo Jewish newspaper in North America, and his grandfather and great uncles helped found the Shaar Shamayim [Gates of Heaven] synagogue in Montreal.

    But early in his career he was still struggling to come to terms with Judaism. In 1964, a few years before he turned his talents to writing songs that would be sung and listened to in nearly every corner of the globe, he told a Jewish audience that what was lacking in Judaism now was the prophet’s vision, and that all that was left was the “priests.”

    “I said that?” he asked an interviewer who recently reminded him of what he’d said. The interviewer responded: “Yes, and it caused quite a commotion at the time.” The interviewer went on to remind him that he had said even worse things, and Cohen recalled that he had long since changed his mind. “I think at the time I was simply unaware of what the Jewish tradition was… Based on ignorance and some distorted views of the Jewish tradition I said those things.”

    In his fifties Cohen was ordained a Zen Monk and lived for several years in a Buddhist community on Mt. Baldy near Los Angeles, where he both davened and sat [i.e., practiced Zazen]. In an interview with Arthur Kurzweil for The Jewish Book News, he recalled Allen Ginsberg asking him, “How do you reconcile this with Judaism?” He replied that he found no conflict. “I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on your position,” said Cohen. “As I have received it from my teacher, there is no conflict because there is no prayerful worship and there is no discussion of a deity in Zen.”

    In 1993, he wrote to The Hollywood Reporter, which had written of his involvement with Zen:

    “My father and mother, of blessed memory, would have been disturbed by the Reporter’s description of me as a Buddhist. I am a Jew.

    “For some time now I have been intrigued by the indecipherable ramblings of an old Zen monk. Not long ago he said to me, ‘Cohen, I have known you for 23 years and I never tried to give you my religion. I just poured you sake.’ Saying that, he filled my cup with sake. I bowed my head and raised my cup to him crying out, ‘Rabbi, you are surely the Light of the Generation.’”

    Like Dylan and Himmelman — and for a longer time — Cohen also lays tefillin [black leather boxes affixed to the forehead and the arm by black leather straps, each containing Scriptural passages – worn for prayer once each day, except on the Sabbath.] He also davens the morning service before he sits in mediation. “[I began] going through the Shemoneh Esrai [18 Blessings – actually 19 in current practice] or Amidah, the standing prayer that is the center piece of all Jewish worship services with a minyan of the ten qualified Jews required for a full service. and really understanding that there were these eighteen steps and that they were a ladder and that these were a way of preparing yourself for the day if you really penetrated each of those paragraphs. It was like starting from a very low place; you could put your chin up on the window and actually see a world that you could affirm. Nobody had ever talked to me that way about anything. That idea of something passionate and nonnegotiable, that atmosphere did not touch me in all my education. And it has to.

    “There was something in it [Judaism] for me. I still had to go whoring after false gods, and maybe I’m still in the bed of one, but there was something about what I saw. I grew up in a Catholic city, and my Catholic friends have horror stories about what Catholicism is, and my Jewish friends have horror stories about what Judaism is. . . I never had them. I never rebelled against my parents. Even when I was taking acid and living at the Chelsea Hotel and feeling miserable about
    myself, it never occurred to me once to blame my situation on my family, my city, my religion, or my tribe. So, I always thought it was great what they were practicing and I’ve tried to keep it up in my own half assed way.”

    The Jewish influence was always there. Even in his early songs and poems. In “Story of Isaac,” for example he retells the Akedah [Binding of Isaac] in contemporary language from the point of view of Isaac:

    The door it opened slowly
    My father he came in
    I was nine years old
    He stood so tall above me
    His blue eyes they were shining
    And his voice was very cold
    He said, ‘I’ve had a vision
    And you know I’m strong and holy
    I must do what I’ve been told
    So he started up the mountain
    I was running, he was walking
    And his axe was made of gold

    And later in the song:

    You who build these altars now
    To sacrifice these children
    You must not do it any more
    A scheme is not a vision
    And you never have been tempted
    by a demon or a god

    “Who by Fire” was inspired by the Yom Kippur liturgy, based on the melody and the text of a Hebrew prayer, sung at musaf [the afternoon prayer service]. Jewish folklore and tradition holds that it is during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that G-d decides who will be written in the Book of Life for the coming year.

    Who by fire
    Who by water
    Who in the sunshine
    Who in the nighttime?

    “If It Be Your Will,” a haunting contemporary psalm, also derives it first line and melody from the Yom Kippur liturgy, this time from Kol Nidre [the traditional chant that begins the Day of Atonement service].

    In other songs like “Hallelujah” the Torah is the source:

    They say there was a secret chord
    that David played to please the Lord

    In recent songs like “The Future,” he even goes so far in identifying with his heritage that he declares: “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.”

    I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
    I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
    But love’s the only engine of survival.

    “I realize,’ Cohen told Kurzweil, “we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything.”

    Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have found their way back to Judaism as a source of strength and comfort. It was always a deep wellspring for their art. For Peter Himmelman and Dan Bern, the wrestling with tradition that Dylan and Cohen did before them has made it easier for them to be less self-conscious about drawing from the same well.

    NOT A JEW by Leonard Cohen

    Anyone who says

    I’m not a Jew

    is not a Jew
    I’m very sorry

    but this is final

    so says:
    Eliezar, son of Nissan,
    priest of Israel;
    Nightingale of the
    Yom Kippur 1973;
    Jikan the
    zen monk;
    Leonard Cohen,
    Certified Food
    San Bernardino
    County, CA;
    The Founder,
    Order of the Unified
    The Best Dressed Man
    in Montreal
    (local newspaper)

    (Emblem of the Order of
    the Unified Heart)*

    *The graphic here is Leonard’s own design. It shows a Star of David fashioned from two hearts intertwined. I’m sure we can get it from Leonard’s publicist.


    Chabad. A branch of Chasidism emphasizing the role of the intellect and mediation along with other Chasidic values founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the 18th Century. Chabad is an acronym for Chochmah–Binah–Da’at (“Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge”). Sometimes known as Lubavitch (City of Love), after the Russian town where it began.

    Chasidism. From the word “Chasid” meaning “pious.” A branch of Orthodox
    Judaism that emphasizes joy, music, and mystical teachings based on the Kabbalah.

    Kabbalah. Lit. “received tradition, it refers to the mystical interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. Always a profound influence on Chasidism, it has recently enjoyed an unprecedented level of popularity among nearly all the Jewish movements.

    Kosher. Lit. fit, proper or correct. Describes food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws. It can also describe any other ritual object that is fit for use according to Jewish law. In American slang, it has come to be used to describe anything that is done in the right manner.

    Psalm 27:10: “When my father and mother abandon me, HaShem (G-d) will
    gather me up.”

    Rosh Hashanah. Lit. the “head of the year. The High Holy Days begin with this contemplative two-day (one day for Reform and in Israel for reasons of timing) celebration and end with the fast of Yom Kippur ten days later. A festive meal in Jewish homes features a round loaf of challah (egg twist bread usually eaten on the Sabbath and other holy days) like the one tossed on stage at Florida Dylan concert a few years back. He greeted its arrival by playing a few bars on his harmonica in a style meant to recall the blast of the shofar associated with the holiday.

    Seder. Lit. order,” the ritual meal celebrated every year by Jews all over the world in remembrance of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

    Shabbos. Yiddish for Sabbath. The Hebrew form is Shabbat.

    The Shma. The central declaration of Jewish faith: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G d, the Lord is one.”

    Shofar. A ram’s horn, blown like a trumpet as a call to repentance. Traditionally a call to assembly or battle, it is now associated primarily with the High Holy Days.

    Shul. Yiddish for synagogue.

    Synagogue. From the Greek root meaning “assembly.” It is the most widely accepted term for a Jewish house of worship and study. Many reform synagogues are called temples in remembrance of the two ancient temples, but they do not function as the Temples did.

    Tefillin. Leather boxes pouches containing scrolls with passages of scripture, affixed by leather straps, used to fulfill the commandment to bind the commandments to our hands and between our eyes. Used in morning prayers by observant Jews every day except the Sabbath.

    Yeshiva. A college or seminary for the study of the Torah and Talmud. Primarily dedicated to educating rabbinical students.

    Yiddish. The everyday language of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe, based primarily on German with words taken from Hebrew and many Slavic languages, and written in the Hebrew Alphabet. It’s very likely that Dylan’s parents both spoke a little Yiddish and his grandparents on both sides spoke it as their first language. As Larry Yudelson notes on his Tangled Up in Jews website, Bob Dylan was profoundly influenced by the sons of Shalom Aleichem and Sholem Asch, the painter Norman Raeben and the founder of Folkways records, Moses Asch. Their fathers are considered important Yiddish writers, especially Aleichem, upon whose stories Fiddler on the Roof was based.

    Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The culmination of the Days of Awe or High Holy Days, which are initiated with Rosh Hashanah. A day set aside for fasting, depriving oneself of pleasures, and repenting from the sins of the previous year. Religious Jews will not work from sundown (when the holiday begins) until sundown the following day when a new day begins. A careful reading of Dylan’s tour schedules shows that he breaks for Yom Kippur. In fact, for many years now he has been spotted in synagogues throughout the world on that day.

    This came in too late to make it into the article, but further supports my analysis:


    Keeping a low profile this year over Yom Kippur, musician Bob Dylan
    attended services at Chabad of Encino. He received an aliyah during the
    morning service, attended Yizkor and didn’t leave until the end of
    Neila, when the holiday had ended.

    — LA. Jewish Journal, Merav Tassa, Contributing Writer

    Comment by Martin Grossman — December 12, 2007 @ 3:14 am | Reply

  19. Mr. Rosenbaum, the one thing I would add is that if you aren’t already doing it, you should tune in to Bob’s radio show on XM. He makes lots of comments on a variety of subjects, and to me it feels more revealing of who the real person is than anything else ever has. In relation to the topic at hand, he has played some Gospel songs and made various references to preachers and Gospel singers. This week’s show included the rather obscure song “I Want Two Wings” by the Rev. Utah Smith. What this all means is of course unclear. My personal opinion is that Bob’s relationship to Christianity may be not unlike Leonard Cohen’s Buddhism as Martin described above. Most Christians (unfortunately in my judgment) don’t have the Buddhist openness to the idea of being connected to more than one tradition, but Bob is not limited by that. The evidence seems indisputable that Bob is a practicing Jew, but his continued obvious affection for the music of Evangelical Christianity would seem to intimate that he has not felt a need to repudiate his old self. A smaller imagination may require that the seeker “choose one or the other.” I don’t think Bob wants to do that. I would conclude by observing that it is a somewhat confused picture if you study the songs Bob performs in concert. As late at 2002, he was performing traditional songs like “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go” and “I Am the Man, Thomas,” as well as his own “Solid Rock.” At the same time, if my quick check is correct, the explicitly Christian songs fall out of the set lists after ’02, although many of the religious but denominationally ambiguous songs remain. (Whether there are clear Christian images in the last three albums is a point hotly debated and can’t be resolved in a short discussion.) This is only a thought of my own, but given the sad history of the two traditions in their interactions, I find it a very appealing possibility that Dylan has found a way to keep his heart and mind connected to both. I don’t feel a need to sort out the percentages. By the way, whenever I refer to the thin wild mercury music, I mention that you extracted that from Dylan. You should get a footnote whenever that comes up.

    Good points–and thanks for the credit.

    Comment by William Robertson — December 12, 2007 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  20. One idea I find helpful in understanding this stuff (insofar as one can) is that I have always thought (and Dylan-connected people I have interviewed have indirectly confirmed) that it is clear that “Bob Dylan” is a creation of Robert Zimmerman. Dylan is the long story Zimmerman has been telling. It is filled contradictions, has it great moments and its flat ones. Finally, it’s fascinating story. He has given us one hell of a ride.

    Comment by Martin Grossman — December 13, 2007 @ 12:53 am | Reply

  21. Greatest story about Leonard Cohen is the one from the Sixties in which he and Joni Mitchell were driving by the Scientology Center in LA, and Leonard said, “Joni, I’ve always wanted to try that out,” and went in. He emerged a year later! Anyone want to draw parallels betwixt Dylan, Cohen and Van Morrison and their serially exegeting the world’s religions? And what about Dylan and Judas (“Masters of War”, “Judas!!!”, “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”)?

    Yeah. Most resonant Judas ref to me:”Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side”. I like “serially exegeting” idea.

    Comment by charlie finch — December 13, 2007 @ 11:03 am | Reply

  22. In the 60`s the folk music comunity wanted to own Dylan, later on the hippies wanted to own Dylan, then the christians wanted to own Dylan, then the jews wanted to own him and all of the above mentioned groups still want to own him and use him for the purpose of saying “Bob Dylan believes in the same things as me – that proves I am right”.

    I, and a lot of other Dylan fans around the world do not want to own him or do not care about if he is a liar or a saint. We like his music, his lyrics(poetry to a lot of us), his performances and that is all!

    Leave his privat life to him self, and spend time wondering about the ways of your own private life! (That is much more interesting – hopefully.)

    Steinar Daler (Norway)

    Sad you don’t get the concept that his music is not the same as “his private life”, or he wouldn’t play it in public, right? He puts his music out there; the music filled with mysteries and ambiguities and great beauties, invites speculation, it’s also filled with spiritual references, one wants to think about how best to appreciate them. As sincere or ironic expressions for instance. But if it makes you happy to scold everyone above and thus feel somehow superior, I’d suggest you’re telling us more than we want to know about yourprivate life.

    Comment by Steinar Daler — December 13, 2007 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  23. A 2006 Theme Time Radio Hour had the theme of Bible.Bob started the show as follows,
    ” For the next hour we’re gonna be playin’ music about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, The Wisdom of Solomon, First Maccabees and Second Maccabees, First Samuel and Second Samuel, First Kings, Second Kings. We’re gonna be playing stuff that comes out of the Psalms and the Proverbs. You know all of these. Jonah and Malachi – how come nobody’s named Malachi any more? We’re gonna be playing music that has something to do with Nehemia, Esther, Job, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And of course, The Book of Revelations. So gather the family around the radio and hear the good news. Seek and you shall find.”

    Comment by Bob Storch — December 14, 2007 @ 12:36 am | Reply

  24. Dylan has always drawn from many sources, and as source material the Bible is a rich trove, but it seems to me that it is unnecessarily reductive to talk about his religious or faith inclinations. We should be talking about his work, which your Playboy interview did a nice job of back in the day. The best thing about the work– as opposed to the man, who is necessarily elusive- that I’ve read lately is Christopher B Ricks’ “Dylan’s Vision of Sin” which does exactly that. Ricks looks at the songs, not the biography, and gets to some interesting places.

    If I had a chance to interview Dylan, I’d like to know more about how working with other musicians has affected his approach. One of the interesting things about the so-called “Bootleg Series” is that it only somewhat documents a change in his live performance style– an interesting choice. Following “Lost in the Flood” he moved into a period where he routinely re-worked his material. He has frequently been criticized for this, but it seems to me that, for example, “Hard Rain” is a much more interesting recording than the other Rolling Thunder document, “Live 1975”. There really isn’t a live release that sounds like what he is doing right now; as close as I’ve heard is the tremendous version of “Down in the Flood” that appears on the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack.

    I’d want to know about how he reworks his old material with the cats he plays with now; what it was like woodshedding with The Band; and about the collaborations he recorded with, inter alia, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and the whole Traveling Wilburys thing (some sharp songs came out of that). Because his sound is so idiosyncratic, we tend to overlook Dylan’s chops as a musician, but the cat can play, and he has always had a sound in mind. Because we are word-people ourselves we tend to focus on lyrics, and overlook things like melody and songcraft, but Dylan doesn’t. I’d be interesting in hearing more about that, and less about g-d.

    All of these thiings you speak of are of course of great interest. But if you liked “Dylan’s Vision of Sin” why wouldn’t you be interested in Dylan’s vision of God? Can they be separated?

    Comment by Bill Altreuter — December 14, 2007 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  25. All very interesting. That Dylan has a strong Jewish commitment, I don’t doubt. But it bears mentioning that twice in July ’07, and once again in August, he sang in concert, “I Believe in You.” I find it hard to believe that he did that just because he likes the melody.

    Comment by Rick Abrams — December 15, 2007 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  26. Ron,
    The following comes from a website dedicated to nothing but musings of Bob and the Jews:

    Jewish Dylan Anecdotes
    Robert Zimmerman’s Bar Mitzvah
    “A friend of my mother’s who attended Minnesota during Dylan’s frat boy days… [said] he met Dylan more than once, and all he ever talked about was how he had the biggest Bar Mitzvah in the history of Hibbing.”

    –Greg, via Rec.Music.Dylan

    Dylan as Bar Mitzvah Guest
    This interesting tale of Dylan attending someone else’s Bar Mitzvah took place in a Minneapolis synagogue in the 70s, according to Ken, who says the scene was “reported by a friend of mine who married a cousin of Bob’s.”

    “Bob was evidently very taken by the Yiddish singing that was going on at the party and started tape recording all the older folks singing. What began as a frosty relationship between this scruffy guest and the rest of the folks took a real positive turn when they found their common bond – music.”

    –Ken, via RMD

    Dylan as Wedding Guest
    Alan Zoldan tells the following:

    Our synagogue’s Rebbetzin hails from Minneapolis, and her mother once attended a wedding of some distant cousin along with Bob.

    Three of the women attending had a tradition of singing a medley at all family simchas. Bob seemed apprehensive and muttered something about how “they better not ask me.”

    One of the women, overhearing this, then exclaimed “Oh take it easy! Nobody’s here to hear you!”

    A little shot of humility, along with the hor d’oeuvres!

    Dylan & Rosh Hashanah 1974
    The November 21, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone featured an article entitled “Blood on the Tracks: Dylan Looks Back,” by Larry Sloman. It previewed of that upcoming album, providing some background on its recording, beginning September 16th:

    Hammond heard of the session the day it started “and I could hardly believe it,” he said. “So I went over there. I said to Bob, ‘This is a strange day to start recording,” because it was Rosh Hoshanna and it was hard to get musicians. And Bob said, “Well, why not today? It’s the new year, isn’t it?'”

    –Mark Landis

    Passover with Lubavitch and Dylan, St. Paul Minn.,1984
    “The night of the Seder, I was listening to the Dylan albums – even the “Slow Train Coming” album, which is moving even with the “Christian” message.

    I went to the Lubavitch House, and there were services beforehand. In between the services, the rabbi gave a sermon. After he was done, he went running out of the room. He came back in with – well, you know who.

    I just about fell on the floor.

    I then had Passover Seder with Dylan and the other 40 or so people there.

    He had brought his family.

    His presence took away my role as an observer, for only he could do this. He seemed to watch certain things very intensely. I remember him looking at a young boy he was sitting next to in a manner that I had not seen before.

    On the other hand, he also seemed to be searching for something (the true spirituality of the early Chasidic movement, I suspect) and not finding it. There was an attempt at some spirited singing and dancing by the Rabbi and others, but it seemed without true Spirit.”

    –J.M. via the ‘Net

    Tracking Bob’s Passovers
    “He was at a seder with us [in 1985 or 86]”

    –testimony heard first hand from source requesting anonymity.

    Crown Heights in the 80’s
    In the late eighties I was a regular at the house of Meir R. Meir and his wife are ex-hippies turned elders of the Lubavitcher ba’alei teshuva [returnees to Tradition].

    At some point, Bob was a regular in their house in Crown Heights. I guess he could relate to them better then to regular Lubavitchers. I met Bob in their house twice, on a Shabbat meal and on Purim, when Bob came with his friends and his then 15? year old son. I am from Russia, so Bob talked to me about his trip to Moscow. He was upset that the Russians (it was just at the start of perestroika) did not allow him to visit Odessa, his grandparents’ hometown.

    –e-mail from A.N.

    High Holiday Dylan-Spotting
    In 1989 I attended high holiday Chabad services in Pacific Palisades, CA. It was there that I meet with Bob Dylan for the first time.

    Having been a large fan since college, it was beyond belief that my favorite folk musician could be sitting in the same room.

    Of course I had to meet him, and of all things one might say after the traditional Shana-Tova, I asked who was the “Jokerman?”

    His face turned flush white and he became speechless. Moments later I was balled out by his close friend for having asked such a question. Some connection! Thought you would be amused to know.

    –e-mail from R.G, 10/28/01.

    1994 or 1995
    It was either 1994 or 1995. I was davening at Chabad of Pacific Palisades, California. I was asked by the rabbi, a boyhood friend of mine, to help newcomers into shul by giving them a tallis, a machzor. I gave out honors, asking people to and assisting them with opening the ark. saying the brachos if they got an aliyah.

    One of the machers of the shul was a boyhood friend of Bob. Right as we were beginning mincha, in walks in Bob Dylan along with a younger man. I gave Bob and his “Shamesh” a tallis and a machzor. I showed them the place. they sat in a corner and bob was reading the English part of the machzor.

    As a Lubavitcher myself, I must admit that blue eyed stare that I got from Bob on that day as I showed him the place and helped him put on his tallis was very similar to the blue eyed stare that the Rebbe used to give as I passed him for “Dollars” and “Kois Shel Brochah.”

    They both have/had penetrating stares that made you feel as if they are peering into your soul. Also, both have a shade of blue eyes that makes/made you feel as if you could look into their soul. As if you are looking into a clear blue pool. As if you are looking into a pure soul. He specifically conveyed to his boyhood friend that he did not want an aliyah. Instead the rabbi asked me to honor him with P’sicha for Avinu Malkeinu.

    I walked up with him and he opened the ark. Yes there was a hush in shul as people recognized who was opening the aaron.

    After he opened the Ark he alternated between looking into his machzor, at the Torah and at me to see when he should close it.

    The congregation began to sing Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu v’aneinu, ki ein baanu maasim.

    The first time they sang it he began to sway with the music. As they began singing it again, I heard him hum the song along with the crowd.

    After Avinu Malkeinu was over, he closed the ark, I shook his hand and walked with him back to his seat. He stayed in his corner until after Ne’ilah. he then spoke with the Rabbi, the son of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, of Chabad of California. He then looked for me, walked over and thanked me, shoking my hand and leaving.

    At that time, I was a huge Deadhead and, let’s face it, Dylan wasn’t much of a performer back then. He was often drunk, moody or crabby at concerts. I would listen to the old stuff, but Dylan the man. They were saying he was washed up and I believed them.

    But, as I heard him hum Avinu Malkeinu, the Lubavitcher in me kicked in. Here I was, watching a man’s “pintele yid” inspire him to come to shul, to daven, to sway, he was definitely “shukeling,” to hum Avinu Malkeinu and to see him with the “awe” that a Jew is supposed to have on Yom Kippur. In that moment, I became I huge Dylan Ba’al Teshuva. And I have been a Chasid of Rabbeinu Bob since.

    –Yaakov Arnold

    Keeping a low profile this year over Yom Kippur, musician Bob Dylan attended
    services at Chabad of Encino. He received an aliyah during the morning service, attended Yizkor and didn¹t leave until the end of Neila, when the holiday had ended.

    — LA. Jewish Journal, Merav Tassa, Contributing Writer

    Forward to speculation on Israel’s wars and Dylan’s muse.
    Back to Dylan & the Jews main page.

    Created and copyright by Larry Yudelson, publisher of YudelLine: One Jew’s News and Views and RadioHazak: Israeli Music on the Internet. Send suggestions and comments to larry at © 1991-2006.

    Comment by patti munter — December 15, 2007 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

  27. Terrific analysis by one of the most perceptive journalists ever to cover Dylan. Almost as interesting a question as whether Dylan still accepts the salvation of Christ as his religious outlook is a related question: why has virtually EVERY Dylan interviewer since the early ’80s avoided directly probing Dylan on this? Are they ALL that polite? Or is this standard ground-rules?
    BRYAN STYBLE/Seattle on 5/17/2009

    Comment by BRYAN STYBLE — May 17, 2009 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: