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.
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).