First published in the Washington Jewish Week
Greenwich Village, 1961: Bob Dylan takes the stage at Gerde's Folk City. The 20-year-old Dylan hasn't yet written the soundtrack to the sixties, been anointed prophet of his generation, converted to Christianity or dabbled with Lubavitch Hassidism. But already he's going after an establishment--a Jewish establishment, for that matter.
"Here's a foreign song I learned out in Utah," he twangs into the microphone. He strums his guitar, and continues tunelessly: "Ha! Va! Ha-va! Ha-va-na! Havah Nagilah. Yodeleihoo!"
With the yodel and a finishing harmonica flourish, Dylan had outlined an epitaph for the Hebrew folk songs sung by folksingers like Theodore Bikel and the Weavers as part of a vaguely leftist, working- man's ethnic repertoire. The mockery was was prescient: The left would not be strumming love songs about Israeli soldiers much longer. Dylan, with his inspired instinct for the authentic, was first to smell the phoniness.
"Talkin' Havah Negeilah Blues" appears for the first time on the new Bootleg Series compilation of "rare and unreleased recordings," an album that fills in many gaps in Dylan's musical career -- particularly this past decade, when the trail-blazing rock star seemed to weave between fundamentalist Christianity and Hasidic Judaism. This most recent period is well documented in Clinton Heylin's new biography, Dylan: Behind the Shades. Both the book and the record were released in time to salute Dylan's 50th birthday in May, 1991 -- a suitable occasion to reexamine his Jewish life since the days when he mocked the quintessential American Jewish tune.
Dylan has, if only from the ironic sideline, taken part in --and sung at-- the deepest spiritual crises of his generation of American Jews: the drama of the civil rights struggle, the comforts and exoticism of the Jewish homeland, and the spiritual excitements of Lubavitch.
He also became a Christian--the one leader he followed--and never really looked back and renounced it--because, like many a hasid, he found God through the music. And in America, the roots of the music is Christian.
Next: Chapter 2: Abe Zimmerman and Hibbing's Jews
Sidebar: The history of Havah Nagilah