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Dylan and the Jews


Prophet Motive

Soon after, the rumors went round that Dylan had returned to Judaism and was studying with the Lubavitch Hasidim in Brooklyn. The summer of 1982 he went to Israel for the bar mitzvah of his son, already 15, and was photographed at the Western Wall. Had he returned?

The inner sleeve of this 1983 album, "Infidels," showed him crouching on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem. Jesus had vanished from his lyric vocabulary (though New Testament allusions remained), replaced by "The Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy." "Neighborhood Bully," his first political song since 1976, discomfited the rock press with a hard-rocking defence of Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and invasion of Lebanon. In "Man of Peace," to this listener at least, Dylan seemed to turn on the Christian missionaries who had saved him.

And in what could be interpreted as a Jewish justification of his Christian phase, Dylan sang in "I and I":

"Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice's beautiful face/ And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

He told an interviewer about his born-again period, "that was all part of my experience. It had to happen. When I get involved in something, I get totally involved. I don't just play around the fringes."

The problem was, at least for one Washington-area rabbi who had painfully excommunicated Dylan from his record collection when the singer converted, was that Dylan's return to Judaism, if it was that, was taking place without the publicity of his departure. Dylan would not leave his Christian stepping stones behind. Even as he recorded "Infidels," he still professed belief in the Book of Revelation.

"Whether you want to believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you're aware of the messianic complex, that's all that's important...people who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if He was here. That's my idea of it anyway," he said in 1985.

Earlier he had acknowledged his heritage, while separating himself from the Jewish community:

"Roots, man--we're talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn't want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah--these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them?...I ain't looking for them in synagogues with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much," he said in 1983.

Evidence of his Jewish involvement continues to mount. One friend of mine saw him at a Minneapolis bris (circumcision ceremony). Another heard he davens at the UCLA Hillel. One writer tells the story of how Dylan attended synagogue in jeans, scruffy beard and a battered hat and was recognized by the rabbi and invited to open the ark. The congregation was abuzz: Why was this apparent bum being honored?

Most recently, Dylan he wrote a cover blurb for Rabbi Manis Friedman's Why Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore, in which the influential Minneapolis Lubavitch rabbi defends traditional Jewish rules of sexual modesty.

In a musical contribution to Lubavitch -- one well short of the album of Hasidic songs he was rumored to have recorded in 1983 -- Dylan appeared on a 1988 Lubavitch telethon playing harmonica while his Sabbath observing musician son-in-law played guitar and sang. The tune: Havah Nagilah.

An ironic choice, certainly, because whatever Dylan has gotten from Lubavitch, it does not seem to be the philosophy of singing and rejoicing extolled in "Havah Nagilah." "Arise, brothers, with a happy heart!" is not the message of Dylan's recent music. His 1989 album "Oh Mercy", which was hailed as his best of the decade, reveals instead an intensely lonely man of faith, closer to the spiritual uncertainty of the Kotzker rebbe than the gregarious Lubavitch.

The first side of the album focuses on a "Political World" where, as in the Kabbalistic myth, "Everything is Broken." His only solution: is to "Ring Them Bells" (so the world "will know that God is one.") The side ends with "The Man in the Long Black Coat," who comes to town quoting the Bible and takes the narrator's woman away. A Hasid, perhaps?

The flip side is soul-searching and introspection, summed up by one title: "What Good am I?"

The same religious tension suffuses the more recent "Under The Red Sky," despite a light-hearted boogie-woogie tone: "God knows there's a purpose/God knows there's a chance/God knows you can rise above the darkest hour of any circumstance."

The album concludes with "Cat's in the Well," which, like much of the songs on this album, sounds at first like a nursery rhyme, a reminder that "Ring Around the Rosie" was about the plague. In Dylan's last words so far, the leaves fall like ashes, like the hard rain. "The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door/The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war/The cat's in the well, the leaves are starting to fall/Goodnight my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all."

The age of 50, taught the Sages of the Mishna, is the age of counsel. Other rock stars of his generation may still be singing silly love songs, but Dylan seems, in his elusive way, to be counseling, even during the Grammy Awards where he preached, in the name of his father: "Son, it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if this happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend you ways."

For most of his career, Dylan shrugged off efforts to crown him a prophet. From the beginning he knew the spiritual power and responsibility of the singer. He described it in a hymn to his first folksinger idol, "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." Toward the end of this long poem, released on "The Bootleg Series," he asks: "Where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'?" He concludes with his own answer:

You can either go to the church of your choice

Or you can go to the Brooklyn State Hospital

You'll find God in the church of your choice

You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion

I may be right or wrong

You'll find them both

In the Grand Canyon

At sundown.


Created and copyright by Larry Yudelson, publisher of YudelLine: One Jew's News and Views and RadioHazak: Israeli Music on the Internet. Send suggestions and comments to larry at yudel.com. © 1991-2008.