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Still, based on the evidence of the songs themselves, Dylan was actually paying attention in the Hebrew classes leading up to his bar mitzvah, and also in his adult life, which has at times reportedly included private studies with various rabbis, often from the Chabad movement. A cursory review of songs from the past 50 years turns up many tunes that are inflected with varying degrees of Yiddishkeit.
“Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues” Fresh off the boat (okay, the car) from Minnesota, the 20-year-old Dylan made this novelty in which he struggles to pronounce the words before letting loose with a yodel, a staple of his Greenwich Village folk-club gigs.
“With God on Our Side” Years before “Schindler’s List,” Dylan takes to task “the Germans” for having “murdered 6 million… in the ovens they fried” in this 1963 protest song.
“New Morning” Nu, morning?
“All Along the Watchtower” The 1967 song, which continues to be a cornerstone of Dylan’s live performances to this day, may be best known in its Jimi Hendrix version, but its narrative and imagery are basically a rearrangement of material cribbed from Isaiah 21.
“Forever Young” Dylan poetically rewrites a father’s blessing over his children at the Sabbath table, invoking the story of Jacob (“May you build a ladder to the stars /And climb on every rung”) to connect it to his own youngest son, who would grow up to be a rock star, outselling even his father.
“Highway 61 Revisited” A midrashic retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac (“Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son!’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on”) by the son of Abe Zimmerman, who was born just a few miles from U.S. Highway 61.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” The Grammy Award-winning centerpiece of, and hit single from, his first so-called born again album could easily be seen as a tribute to Jewish mothers everywhere. (It also alludes to Joshua 24:14-15.)
“Neighborhood Bully” Dylan warms the cockles of the most rabid, right-wing Zionist, positing Jewish history and the State of Israel like some rock ’n’ roll Vladimir Jabotinsky.
“Everything Is Broken” Swamp-rock meets Lurianic Kabbalah.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” Perhaps his best-known anthem, the song that made him a household name, it is a litany of unanswered, unanswerable questions. What could be more Jewish?
Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, 2009).