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Dylan and the Jews

The Tale of the Tampa Concert

or

The First Annual Bob Dylan Ceremonial New Year's Bread Toss

By Jeff Rosenberg

This story actually begins a couple weeks before the Tampa show, in the waning days of the Jewish calendar year 5755.

My dad was reading the Washington Jewish Week on that September Saturday afternoon, when he excitedly called to me with the news that the famous Rabbi Manis Friedman was spending the weekend at the Potomac, Maryland Chabad Lubavitch Center, a couple of blocks from my home.

Dad knew I was interested in Friedman because of his relationship with Bob Dylan. Friedman is a prominent Chasidic Rabbi in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Dylan has apparently consulted with him regularly over the last several years. There is an endorsement by Bob on the cover of Friedman's book, "Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore?; Love, Marriage and the Art of Intimacy" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). Bob says of it, "Anyone who's either married or thinking of getting married would do well to read this book." The Chabad Lubavitch movement is sort of the outreach branch of Chasidic Judaism, attempting to bring modern, assimilated Jews closer to traditional Orthodox ways. Bob has been known to support Chabad, having performed twice on their annual telethon.

That Sunday afternoon, I was privileged to attend a small, intimate lecture by Rabbi Friedman. The man is something of a celebrity in the Chasidic community, and is known to fill huge auditoriums beyond capacity when he speaks in New York. So to see him in a small room like this was equivalent to seeing Bob in a small club rather than a huge concert hall. His talk basically followed the theme of his book; that the idea of "intimacy" has become debased in recent years by the lapse of traditional manners in society, and that this is a major factor in the rise of the divorce rate, etc. This sounds like a potentially stern and moralistic topic, I know, but Friedman is a remarkably gentle soul, with a great sense of humor, and his support for "traditional values" is rooted in a genuine love and respect for people, and a belief that love (romantic and sexual) between two people is truly sacred. It was as far from a harsh harangue by some bible-thumping hypocrite as could be imagined.

(To summarize the Rabbi's thought, I will offer just one quick example. He reminds us that Jewish law prohibits a married man or woman even shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex other than his or her spouse. " 'But what's wrong with that, Rabbi,' " he anticipates being asked, " 'surely there's nothing so intimate about a handshake....' " Then he answers, "So you think there's nothing intimate about a handshake, eh? Let me ask you this... How do you feel, if somebody is shaking your hand, and they hold on to your hand for one second, even one *fraction* of a second, longer than you might feel is appropriate. You think, 'Get this person away from me,' " don't you!" In this way he shows that we have been *socialized* to think that nothing intimate is going on in a handshake, but our instincts, our gut feelings, say quite the opposite. I am not saying that I left the Rabbi's lecture a convert to Orthodox Judaism... but he certainly made us all think, and laugh, a lot.)

After the lecture, I approached the Rabbi to have him sign the copy of his book I had just purchased, to tell him that my father and he had some mutual friends in Minnesota, and, I hoped, to talk a bit o' Bob with the man. I told him I had first heard his name through my interest in Dylan, and a smile instantly crossed his face. "Do you know," he asked me with a twinkle in his eye (but then, this man's eyes were *constantly* twinkling :) ), "that as crazy as he is, he still puts on tefillin every morning?" (This means that every morning Bob worships in the traditional Jewish way, donning a pair of leather straps and boxes called "tefillin" or phylacteries, to say his morning prayers).

I had not known that, but was fascinated and delighted to learn it.

I replied that the High Holidays were approaching, and that Bob's tour schedule made a point of skipping the specific dates of the holidays to allow for Bob's observation of them.

"Yes," he smiled and nodded.

"He wants to stop performing on Friday nights, too, but 'they' won't let him do that yet." (Jews are not supposed to work on the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday) I concluded my chat with the Rabbi by telling him I hoped we could meet again some day and further discuss the man who Stephen Pickering calls "a Jewish poet in search of God," (No, I didn't put it that way to the Rabbi), we wished each other a happy New Year, and I went away knowing that the idea I had previously had for bringing Bob a New Year's gift at the concert in Tampa, on the Saturday night between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, (following the holiest Sabbath of the year) should and would go forward....

So I arrived at the Tampa show, September 30, 1995, with a loaf of bread under my arm.

It was a very special round raisin challah which I had brought all the way south from Shalom Kosher Delicatessen and Bakery in Wheaton, Maryland. A challah is a traditional, Jewish egg bread, normally eaten on the Sabbath and holidays. At the time of the Jewish New Year, they are baked in a round shape to symbolize the cyclical nature of time, and are baked with raisins to wish for "a sweet new year." Down to North Carolina, where they don't know from challahs, I brought the loaf, wrapped in a plastic bag, meeting up with r.m.d's own Kim Fleming, and then on down to Florida. And now, in an ugly, glorified basketball gym known as the University of South Florida Sundome, it was about to meet its destiny.

Such was our eagerness, Kim and I arrived almost a full hour before even the opening act, Allison Kraus and Union Station, was scheduled to begin. This, coupled with those brownies we ate beforehand, assured that the wait for the lights to go down would seem interminable. But we decided to use the time to try and ingratiate ourselves with the nerdy young student usher whom we hoped to eventually persuade to let us down on to the floor from our front-row-of-the-stands seats. We inquired as to the auditorium's capacity, and the kid responded with an estimation based on the attendance at some more popular acts' performances there, assuring us that tonight's attendance would not even come close.

Believe me when I say that never have the words "Hootie" and "Jovi" been bandied about with more infuriating frequency than right there and then. Except for perhaps at certain times on this newsgroup. The kid did not hesitate to tell us of his dismay at having to work at a Bob Dylan concert, explaining that the more assignments he accepts, the more he is offered, so, "I'll put up with a Dylan so that maybe I can work a Jovi down the line."

I wanted to be 100% agreeable and friendly, but I could not resist telling the lad to "pay attention, you just might enjoy it in spite of yourself."

He looked at me, confused, and said, "Oh, you like him?" I inquired as to what else he thought I might be doing there, and he said, dismissively, "Oh, well y'know, a lot of people *won* tickets and stuff."

I assured him that we were indeed looking forward to Bob's performance, and he said "Well, if he surprises me, I'll be the first to admit it."

At this point the middle-aged man sitting next to us overheard and asked, "If Bob Dylan surprises you?" The kid nodded and the man said, "Oh, he'll surprise you allright." I offered a hearty "Amen." The kid explained, "I dunno, its just that I never seem to be able to understand him." To which the man sagely replied, "Well, I couldn't understand my last three wives!!! But I married 'em!" I thought that had to be the last word on the topic.

We genuinely enjoyed Ms. Krauss and her band for a good three-quarters of their set, at which point our Bob-and-brownie induced impatience began to get out of control. Both Allison and a member of her band spoke of how honored they were to be opening for Bob, Allison calling the past week a "history lesson," and assured the audience that they were in for something special.

Thankfully the break between acts was brief. We jumped to our feet when the lights went down again and danced through the opening "Down in the Flood;" I remained standing as the next song began too, at which point of course a woman sitting in the section next to us came over to inform me I was blocking her view. Whereupon I rationally laid the situation out to Jovi Boy: empty seats on the floor, jelly-faced women in the stands, and I wanna dance. He saw the light and let us go by.

The first half of the show was strong but somewhat unremarkable, save for one fascinating lyrical slipup in "Man In the Long Black Coat." Coming back to the verse after the first solo, Bob was supposed to sing, "Now there's smoke on the water, and it's been there since June..." but something made it come out, "Now the beach is deserted-- (hesitation) -- and it's been there since June" !!! That's right, in the middle of "Long Black Coat," a song he has been performing at least weekly for quite some time now, Bob's unconscious mind suddenly substituted a line from Sara, a song which, to our knowledge, he has not sung in almost two decades! It powerfully suggested to me what a hold that particular song, and by extension, that woman, must still have on the man's psyche. Wow.

The acoustic set, as always, served to cast a spell over whomever in the audience might still be skeptical at that point in the evening. As it concluded, we made our move down the aisle, ending up about six rows from the stage in time for Bob's announcement that Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers would be joining the band for the rest of the night, assuring an over-the-top finish to the show. I was close enough to see Betts, clearly looking bemused if not downright uncomfortable, as he attempted to learn under fire the Chaotic Art of Playing Guitar with Bob Dylan. He kept looking at J.J. as if to say, "What's he doin'? What am I supposed to be doin' to play with that?" To which J.J. would reply with one of his trademark shiteatin' grins, as if to say, "Just keep doin' whatever you're doin'!!! I never have any idea what to do either!!!" Whatever all of them were doin', it did sound great.

The first, electric encore of the night, was, unbelievably if somehow inevitably, Dickey's own "Ramblin' Man." I thought I might die laughing, but Bob's vocals were just a touch too inaudible for full hilarity value.

Then, as he put down his electric guitar and stood acknowledging applause at the foot of the stage, I felt that ol' challah between my knees and knew its time had come.

By now we were standing in the second row of the place, and as Bob stood signing some eager fan's Lyrics book, I got up, straddling atop the first and second row seats, thankful that the traditional round shape of the loaf also allowed for me to toss it onstage with aerodynamic, Frisbee-like grace.

It flew past his knees and landed with a soft bounce just a bit behind him, at the base of his microphone stand.

Bob must have seen it out of the corner of his eye, or heard and felt it bounce.

He gazed down to see what it was, and did what I could only describe as a quadruple-take.

First saying to himself "What was that?", then saying "Oh, it's a round raisin challah.", then, "Waitasec--- its a *round raisin challah*??" and finally... and finally... *CRACKING UP* in laughter, as if it was the funniest thing he had ever seen!!! His gaze flew forward to the audience, and as he turned to face me, me still standing atop the rows of seats, he laughed again, sweat flying off his face and making a sort of fleeting halo caught in the stage lights shining from behind him.

He had one of the hugest grins I have *ever* seen on that face, and I think Kim will confirm this.

His eyes met mine, as if asking "Was that you who threw that?" I spread my arms out and mouthed the words "Shana Tova," or Hebrew for "Happy New Year." At which point, the man's expression turned from one of amusement, slowly, to something more like humility. And he mouthed the words to me, "Thank you." Gave a curt little bow before us at the foot of the stage. And went back to pick up his acoustic guitar.

Well, I thought that was as much acknowledgment as I would receive, and much more than I ever would have dreamed of! But there was one more thank you to come. For Bob picked up his harmonica as "It Ain't Me, Babe" drew to a close, and glanced, well, no, not right at me, but in, let's say, the general direction of my general direction, and began to play.

And the harp solo he played blew loooong notes, followed by several short choppy ones, followed by more loooong ones, and again, and again. Mimicking the pattern of the ceremonial blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, in the High Holiday synagogue service. Bob returning my New Year's wishes with some of his own, to all of us there in the hall that night. I could not have been more pleased.

As we left the Sundome on Cloud 9, it was not until we arrived in the parking lot that we realized we had not gone back to revisit our friend the usher, to find out if Bob had indeed brought him 'round to our side that night. But I don't see how anyone could have failed to be swayed by the evening's entertainment, Dickey Betts and all. While, musically, that Tampa show may not have been the most transcendent of the shows I've seen in the last several months, the smile I was able to put on Bob's face of course made the night unforgettable to me. Just to think that I could return to him even a tiny fraction of the joy he has given me all these years.

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