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Dylan and the Jews

Larry Yudelson: Behind the Shades

In which the creator of Tangled Up in Jews explains his madness, his motivation, and a bit of the meaning of Bob Dylan for the Jewish community.

Before featuring me in his column on cyberspace that runs in several Jewish newspapers, James Besser asked me several questions about my interest in Dylan and the Web. As it happened, I sent him my answers after his deadline, but here they are:

Q: How did you get interested in the Jewish aspect of Dylan?

A: I got my first Dylan album -- Greatest Hits vol. I -- from my aunt for what was probably my 12th birthday. I liked it a lot,and I remember asking Rabbi Bushwick, who taught the Isaiah class in the Hebrew High School and was basically a hippy, with long hair in a pony-tale and a potter by trade, what albums he recommended I get next. (Highway 61 and Blond on Blond, for the record). The beginning of the madness really started, however, in May of 82 or 83 -- I was staying up all night writing a term paper, and Fordham University's radio station (excellent reception in Washington Heights -- a primo reason for attending Yeshiva College!) had an accompanying all night birthday salute to Mr. D. of which I taped 90 minutes, including all of Blood on the Tracks. That tape has since been lost (stolen, to be honest, from a car parked four blocks from Yeshiva -- a primo reason not to attend!) but it provided an excellent introduction to post-60s Dylan.

As the otherwise shortsighted article in the current Tikkun notes, both Dylan and adolescents specialize in anticipatory nostalgia, and at a certain point of despair, thinking about a girl I had a crush on who had up and married in Israel, Dylan's lines, "All the people we used to know are an illusion to me now/Some are mathematicians/Some are carpenter's wives" hit home -- people were starting to drift off into the category of "wives." I suppose that's part of why that song metamorphosed for me into Tangled Up in Black, which also owes some of its origins to a Purim issue of Sh'ma with a reference to Tangled Up in Blu [Greenberg].

Around this time rumors were spreading that Dylan had recorded an album with Lubavitch which I found quite exciting. After all, the fact that Dylan was at this time Christian was not a pleasant thing. So when the album did come out in 83, Infidels, I rushed to get it. And even though it wasn't Hasidic, it was clearly Jewish -- and clearly more Jewish than, say, a New York Times reviewer could understand. It was clear to me then, and remains so now, that Man of Peace is as much an indictment on Dylan's Christian missionary friends as Neighborhood Bully is a strong enough defense of Menachem Begin's policies to do Norman Podhoretz proud.

The real origins of the Web page, though, came in the article I wrote for the Washington Jewish Week about Dylan and the Jews. I'm not sure exactly what the history of the article's creation was, but it owes a large measure to a biography, Dylan: Behind the Shades, by Clinton Heylin, which had lots of Jewish material.

The Web site came about from two motives. One was the simple decision to put up a web site, which led me to consider what information I could publish that would both reflect who I am and be of some use -- or at least interest -- to others. The other was a sense of communal responsibility to the community of Dylan fandom. Let me explain. I had been for a couple of years a subscriber to a Dylan mailing list. Currently titled HWY61-L, it's really a convenient e-mail delivery of the voluminous postings to the rec.music.dylan Usenet bulletin board. Being part of the list has dramatically upped the ante in my level of fandom -- I am now informed, for example, of every concert Dylan plays and what the set list was. The fact that Tangled Up in Blue is now part of the acoustic set thrills me to no end. The list is also useful for those interested in perhaps living outside the law and swapping tapes of performances, outtakes, and other bootleg material. One is better off not elaborating for a family newspaper, I suppose.

In any case, it was clear that my Jewish knowledge made me a valuable resource for the anarchic confederation of volunteers known as EDLIS -- Electronic Dylan Lyric Information Service. However, I never relished the thought of responding to questions in real time and, more painfully, juggling all the relevant files on my crowded hard disk so I could send them out with repeated queries.

With my Web site, however, I can post things once -- and they stay there. This is partially an answer to your question that "Some people might argue that this is a trivial use of a powerful technology." On a strictly technical level, maintaining the files on the WELL's web server, to be looked at only by those interested, uses far fewer of the Internet's bits than putting them on mailing lists and news groups that are copied around the world. In reality, of course, all this pales in terms of bandwidth next to companies like Disney and Time Warner trying to get kids to download enormous video files of the latest films.

The real answer, though, is that what I'm doing with the web site -- and what the mailing list does -- is building a community. I'm communicating. And that is a powerful use of any technology.

Q: Do you get any reactions to your page?

A: The feedback has been wonderful. As a journalist, I don't think I've received any letters that were not either a)objections, b)corrections c)notes from a grateful source/subject [those are the ones that really make you lose sleep!] or, perhaps the most numerous, d)notes from nuts. I have received so far at least a couple dozen letters, everything from parents helping their kids do research for school paper, to an old Dylan chum saying right on!, to even a note from someone at a Jews-for-Jesus e-mail address. (He claimed, with some truth, that some of my arguments are a bit forced.)

Q: Do you think Dylan's Jewishness is an important issue?

A: I do believe that Dylan's Jewishness has a lot to teach us. His spiritual searching has always been at the core of his music. But spiritual searching is not something the organized Jewish community is particularly comfortable with. The Establishment freaks out when the younger generations (which still includes those, like Dylan, who have moved well past 50) make cracks about their synagogues, and tune out when they start to speculate that maybe we all indeed "have to serve somebody." Where Jewish leaders are preaching continuity, Dylan quietly raised five children, saw them to bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, but is most at home perpetuating the culture of the Woody Guthrie and the old blues singers. At the same time, he has an intense desire for God and salvation, a tremendous awareness of man's sinfulness and an appreciation of how much compassion is required in this world. His is an intense, spiritual emotional message, very Hasidic, with much to teach the Jewish world.

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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.