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Little Boy Lost, He Takes Himself So Seriously

Bob Dylan turns 70

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Bob Dylan, mid-1960s.(Bob Dylan)

The most conspicuously Jewish character in Bob Dylan’s autobiography, 2004’s Chronicles, Volume One is young Robert Zimmerman’s grandmother. “Once he said that President Kennedy wouldn’t last out his term because he was a Catholic,” Dylan remembers of a friend. “When he said it, it made me think about my grandmother, who said that the Pope is the king of the Jews.” She is one of the few characters in the book (other than himself) that we get a detailed backstory on, and absolutely the only one whose detailed backstory is explicitly Jewish. She was his mother’s mother, and she lived in the nearest city—Duluth, Minnesota—when he was growing up. She had only one leg.

My grandmother’s voice possessed a haunting accent—face always set in a half-despairing expression. Life for her hadn’t been easy. She’d come to America from Odessa, a seaport town in southern Russia. It was a town not unlike Duluth, the same kind of temperament, climate and landscape and right on the edge of a big body of water. Originally, she’d come from Turkey, sailed from Trabzon, a port town, across the Black Sea—the sea that the ancient Greeks called the Euxine—the one that Lord Byron wrote about in Don Juan. Her family was from Kagizman, a town in Turkey near the Armenian border, and the family name had been Kirghiz. My grandfather’s parents had also come from that same area, where they had been mostly shoemakers and leatherworkers. My grandmother’s ancestors had been from Constantinople.

We learn two things from this. One: Bob Dylan, who was born 70 years ago today, is descended from Turkish Jews. (Interesting!) Two: He consciously traces his lineage this way, which means some part of himself still, as of last decade, saw himself as a Jew, or as coming from Jews.

Does this matter? Who the hell knows?

As the 2006 Todd Haynes film I’m Not There conveyed perhaps better than any other artifact of Dylanology, you cannot believe a word Dylan says—never more than when he is talking about himself. Is that story really his grandmother’s story? Probably. Does he identify with her Turkish Jewish heritage? Maybe. Is he even technically Jewish at this point? I’d doubt it: He famously converted to Christianity in the late ‘70s, and has since given it up and made the odd appearance in shul, but I wouldn’t wager that he has gone through the process necessary to become a Jew again. “I is someone else,” wrote Rimbaud, and that is the shape-shifting costume that Dylan has always worn during a career now entering its sixth decade. (“They say, ‘Sing while you slave,’ I just get bored.”)

But here are some facts. Bob Dylan was born to and raised by Jewish parents in a Jewish milieu, complete with bar mitzvah, in Hibbing, Minnesota. He made his name in New York’s early-1960s folk scene, which was to an almost hilarious extent dominated by Jews (record exec Lou Levy, folk music aficionado Izzy Young, manager Albert Grossman, magazine editor Irwin Silber, and on and on). He spent the first half of his career taking pre-existing genres, tropes, and even tunes and assimilating them into his act and his identity, and the latter half as the wanderer par excellence: Jewish archetypes both. He is also—in my opinion, and certainly many others’—the best and most important popular American artist of the past half-century. And there is surely at least some extent to which the Jews get to claim him.

Back to his grandmother. “She was filled with nobility and goodness,” Dylan says quite early on in the book, before he has fully described her, “told me once that happiness isn’t on the road to anything. That happiness is the road. Had also instructed me to be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is fighting a hard battle.” It’s great advice. You’ve heard the first before, no doubt, from any number of people. And the second is attributed to Plato. Sigh. When you’re talking about Bob Dylan, there are no truths outside Bob Dylan.

Related: Dylan: Tangled Up in Jews [Washington Jewish Week]

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Pete says:

There is no “process” for becoming a Jew again. Dylan was, is and will always be – Jewish. You can put on a cross and become a priest – you’re still a Jew. There is no such thing, in the eyes of our religion, as converting away. In Dylan’s case, he may have lost his mind for a period in the 70s, but he has been firm in his Jewishness since the early 80s. In fact, the first time I saw him live was an audience member as a Chabad telethon around 1990. Zimmerman came out and did “Hava Nagilah.” It was pretty amazing.

OK, Mr Pete, and/or any other expert on being Jewish, what about me?

My upbringing paralleled Dylan’s. One difference is that, after I had gone through my bar Mitzvah training, I refused the ceremony. I told my parents that I despised the hypocrisy—something like, “It’s just a way to get people to give you watches” or some other teenage nonsense. I think my mother suspected the real reason: I despise being the center of attention. Anyhow, they they bargained that I had to complete the Jewish studies offered at the Temple up to confirmation, two years later. I did so. I was given a Bible. I tore out the dedication page, which had the Temple’s name on it. I kept the Bible, which is right beside my desk now as I write this. Over the years, I have looked at it from time to time, but hardly for spiritual advice.
I was married to a lapsed Catholic. My children know that I have a Jewish upbringing and that my family is Jewish. But they are not. I know that I will be punished for this “unto the fifth generation” if the Bible is correct. But it isn’t. So I won’t be.

I have never hidden my Jewish background, like Dylan. But I haven’t promoted it either. The reason is that I’m an atheist. Since I don’t “look Jewish”, it’s easy for me to pass as just another dude over there. But I identity as Jewish no matter what. It’s not about religion but what I owe to my ancestors. I support Israel to the max. The minute the US abandons Israel, as Obama threatens to do, I’m going to Israel to die with the rest of the Israelis. I can’t stand the thought of sitting here in comfort while half the world’s Jews are murdered.

Am I Jewish, according to you experts? I say “no”. Anyone who has known me will say “no”. But Mr Pete made me doubt.

MonkFish says:

Rogue, you are Jewish. Full stop. Thank you for your testimony.

– A Ger Tzedek

“The best and most important popular American artist of the past half-century”? You’ve got to be kidding. Even among American Jewish poet-musicians, I’d put him well behind Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen (American-based since 1967). Their repertoires are far richer and deeper than Dylan’s, both musically and lyrically, and they’ve both aged far better, winning new audiences while Dylan coasts on his aged-sixties-folkie persona. And that’s before we even venture out into the non-Jewish, non-musical provinces of American popular culture. Get a grip, Dylan fans!

No comparisons being drawn here, but was just listening to some of the tracks from Jagged Little Pill, and looked up Alanis, whose Hungarian mother’s maiden name was Feuerstein. Surprised this never attracted attention. That album stands up well, overexposed as it was.

Someone who does, I think rate comparisons with the likes of Leonard Cohen is Regina Spektor. Has anyone around here written about her?

Monk Fish:

I couldn’t see what the idea of the convert has to do w/me.

Another fact: I have a mezzuzah on my doorpost. But I never touch it when I walk by the way, etc etc. My mother gave it to me years ago and I found I couldn’t either throw it away or keep it in a drawer. I put it up to remember my mother, not because I thought I could possibly avoid punishment “unto the fifth generation”. I’m not being punished anyhow. I don’t believe in that magic stuff at all.

That’s the only Jewish custom I observe, and even this is for the wrong reasons. Where I live (Mexico) nobody has ever even seen a mezzuzah so they can’t know that a Jew lives here when they see my house (which I suppose is the reason to put one up in the first place, besides the biblical warning).

Can someone who has spent his life avoiding the company of Jews, who has never kept any Jewish custom after the age of 15, who doesn’t believe a word of the sacred texts, let alone believe in a transcendent deity, who considers himself a pagan, on the model of the ancient Romans, who would catch fire if he ever set foot at the Western Wall, who thinks that the best peace plan for Israel/Palestine is to dynamite the entire Western Wall/al Aqbar mosque, etc and put in the ugliest parking lot on Earth (if you can’t play nicely with your neighbors, I’m taking your toys away from the both of you until you decide not to bite people), etc etc, be considered a Jew, by any stretch of the imagination?

I know that if I ever went to Israel: 1. I’d be freaked out by so many Jews all over the place; 2. People would tell me to just go home because I’m not Jewish anyway. Who ever told you you were a Jew, they’d say as they dismissed with a roll of the eyes and a wave of the hand.

In spite of that, I won’t tolerate anyone badmouthing Jews when I’m around. And I know how to express extreme disdain. Plus, like I said, I prefer to die with the Jews than live otherwise.

What would some rabbi have to say? Am I in or out?

Abbi says:

Roque, as was stated above, you’re Jewish if your mother was Jewish. That’s it. Judaism is inherited from the mother like a propensity towards hair loss. There’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how many Jews you do or don’t cavort with, whether or not you have a mezzusah and whether or not Israel freaks you out or not. That’s why no one can decide if Judaism if a religion, race or culture.

Ruchele says:

Roque, of course you are a Jew (and of course Dylan is one- there is no such “process” to become what you have always been). A rabbi, above all, would find you to be Jewish because you meet the legal definition. Many of your fellow Jews would feel you are kin precisely because they share the struggle/experiences/perspectives/opinions you describe.

I don’t think MonkFish was describing you as a Ger Tzedek- I think he was signing off and referring to himself as one.

Ruchele,

I guess you’re right. But I can’t help thinking that if you met me, you’d say, “You’re Jewish!? You don’t look/act like a Jew. What was your mother’s maiden name?, etc etc” That’s the story of my life. I deserve that story for not following Jewish religion, and even for rejecting Jewish religion. Anyhow, come the next Holocaust, I don’t think people will be putting that fine a point on it. Which is why I’ll never tolerate any hint of Jew hating when I’m around.

MonkFish says:

Sorry for causing a misunderstanding Roque. I’m the Ger Tzedek and that was my signature! Belief in God – for all that it implies in explicitly held theistic dogmas and outward posturing – is not, in my opinion, a core tenet of the Jewish religion. I understand Judaism to be a particular orientation towards the world – one which affirms that there is meaning to be found in history and which confronts man with the painful reality of his power to act upon it. If the Jews can lay claim to any exclusivity it is that they are the only people who – first through a “Biblical” turn of events and then through the ages – have fully comprehended the categorical and inescapable nature of moral responsibility. Judaism is the expression in codes, rituals, metaphysical nations of the historical experience of the Hebrews (the “religion” flows the history of this people and combines with it to form the “Jews”).

That you would “prefer to die with the Jews than live otherwise” indicates that you have, in the most profound sense, thrown in your lot with this tiny segment of humanity. The Jewish people is, if I follow you, your basic existential commitment. If you ask me, that makes you an exemplary Jew.

Pete says:

Rogue-have you ever been to Israel? You’ll see hundreds of people who don’t “look” Jewish. As others have pointed out – you, my friend, are a Jew. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew: no matter what.

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Little Boy Lost, He Takes Himself So Seriously

Bob Dylan turns 70

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