While Bob Dylan has, throughout his life and career, engaged in all sorts of mythologizing and playful biographical falsification, it has never been in the service of denying his heritage.
This son of a middle-class appliance salesman from the Upper Midwest, who grew up with a Yiddish-speaking grandmother down the hallway in an extended Jewish family that was at the nexus of Jewish life in Hibbing, Minn. — mom was president of the local Hadassah, and dad was president of B’nai B’rith — wound up making several trips to Israel in the late-1960s and ’70s (during one visit, he even began the application process for moving his family to a kibbutz). He sent his children to the same Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin that he attended for four or five summers as a teenager.
By the time he arrived in New York City’s Greenwich Village 51 years ago, he intended to make a name for himself on the folk scene — and that name was Dylan, not Zimmerman (the name is German and not Jewish, anyway, although his forebears were from Russia), and Bob fashioned himself a latter-day Woody Guthrie (as it turns out, Guthrie himself had a whole secret Jewish side to his work, born of his close relationship with his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt).
So while Dylan didn’t exactly grow up to be Shlomo Carlebach, the happy, guitar-strumming Hasid, he never strayed too far from his roots, nor did he deny them. One of his earliest original numbers, in fact, was a parody of “Hava Nagilah,” then and now (thank you, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman) probably the best-known Jewish song in the world. Throughout his career, his songs have been peppered with biblical allusions and paraphrases and informed by Jewish themes and concepts. How much of this is the result of a conscious effort on Dylan’s part to address these issues, and how much is simply the result of magpie tendencies that see him draw variously from Shakespeare, French symbolism, movie dialogue, blues clichés and even obscure Japanese yakuza novels? Well, only Dylan can answer that — and even then, probably not.