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Dylan and the Jews


Dylan's Yiddish writers

Bob Dylan was profoundly influenced by the sons of Shalom Aleichem and Sholem Asch. Here's how:

Shalom Aleichem

Shalom Aleichem was the pen name for Shalom Rabinovitz, the author and humorist known as the "Mark Twain" of Yiddish literature. Born in 1859 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, he died in New York City in 1916.

Shalom Aleichem's son, Norman Raeben

Norman Raeben was Dylan's art teacher in 1974. The techniques for seeing Dylan learned with him were the inspiration for "Tangled Up in Blue." And Norman's frequent use of the word "idiot!" led to "Idiot Wind."

Sholem Asch

Sholem Asch (1880-1957) was a Yiddish novelist and dramatist.

Born in Kutno, Poland into a scholarly Orthodox family.

His typical characters "like their creator, yearn for an ideal and search for a faith," according to the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Asch was "a first-rate storyteller who clothed romantic idealism with a realistic style. He stressed the individuality of his characters as well as their national and social environment, their moral deliberations, and their religious strivings.... deeply attached to the legacy of the Jewish past, which he enshrined in novels and drams of aesthetic beauty and moral grandeur, he connected the Yiddish world to the mainstream of European and American culture." (E.J.)

His "monumental" trilogy, Farn Mabul ("Before the Flood", 1929-31, translated as Three Cities, 1933) describes Jewish life in the first two decades of the 20th century in St. Petersburg, Warsaw and Moscow.

A more controversial trilogy dealing with the founders of Christianity was "enthusiastically received by the English press, but not by the Yiddish. The Yiddish daily Forward, to which he had hitherto contributed regularly, not only refused to publish the work, but openly attacked the author for encouraging heresy and conversion by preaching Christianity. Only a very few critics discussed the literary merits of the book, most of the Jewish press following the Forward's lead in attacking Asch. The result was an estrangement between Asch and Yiddish literature, the author even withdrawing from Jewish social life. His critics claimed to discern the missionary element in all the writing of the subsequent dozen or so years." (E.J.)

Though he died in London, Asch spent his last years in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Sholem Asch's son, Moses Asch

Moses Asch was the founder/head of Folkways Records, which made available the music of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Without this music, what would Dylan have been?

Tom Piazza, writing in the April 1995 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, gives a history of Folkway Records and of Moses Asch:

"Born in Poland in 1905, Asch arrived in the United States when he was ten years old. He spent a few years in German in the early 1920s, studying electronics, but by the time he found himself back in New York, in 1926, his interest in American folk music had been stirred by his discovery, in a bookstall on a Paris quay, of John Lomax's book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

"While building radio equipment and arranging sound systems for clients ranging from Yiddish theaters to burlesque houses on the Lower East Side, Asch came up with the idea of creating a record label to document the music that the larger commercial labels tended to leave alone.

"His idea was nourished not only by a love for the music itself but also by a brand of leftist populism in which folk expression was a voice for the disenfranchised. By taste and political conviction, Asch was attracted to the raw and the otherwise unheard.

"In the early 1940s he started two record companies, Asch and Disc. Both failed. Before folding them Asch recorded his most important artists -- the singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie and great twelve-string guitarist and singer Leadbelly.

"In 1947 Asch started Folkways, and this time it worked. Until his death, in 1986, Asch was Folkways' president, chief financial officer, talent scout, audio engineer, and sometimes shipping clerk."

.....

"In 1987, the Smithsonian bought out Folkways, agreeing to keep all 2,200 Folkways albums in print. By writing or calling Smithsonian/Folkways (414 Hungerford Drive, Suite 444, Rockville, MD 20850; 301-443-2314 or fax 301-443-1819) one can order any Folkways title and receive a high-quality cassette, along with the original descriptive notes, for about $11. A free copy of the The Whole Folkways Catalogue, which lists every title, should be ordered first.

"It is," concludes Piazza in The Atlantic Monthly, "the definitive guide to Asch's bold, eccentric, priceless legacy."

It was an indirect impact on Dylan, but very major.

Thanks to Seth Kulick for pointing out the Asch connection.

Forward to a personal statement by Moses Asch. Or if you've had enough with children of Yiddish writers, skip ahead to a collection of anecdotes about Dylan's Jewish experiences.
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