Friday, 28 May 2021

Bob Dylan at 80, his Jewish roots,
and Biblical imagery in his songs

Bob Dylan at the bar mitzvah of his son Jesse at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 1983

Patrick Comerford

The talk shows, the newspapers, the arts programmes, and radio and television discussions have devoted much time throughout the week to the 80th birthday of Bob Dylan on Monday (24 May 2021).

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on 24 May 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, in the American Mid-West In 1947, after his father was stricken with polio, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota.

Dylan’s parents took active roles in the Jewish community in Hibbing: his father as president of B’nai Brith and his mother as president of the local Hadassah chapter. Dylan attended religious school at the community’s only synagogue, Agudas Achim, and he attended the Zionist Herzl Camp in Wisconsin where he played guitar, piano, and harmonica with his fellow campers.

His bar mitzvah in Hibbing at the age of 13 had a guest list of around 400, rumoured to be the largest ever in the town. At the University of Minnesota, he began calling himself as Bob Dylan, or Dillon, but he never fully explained why he adopted this pseudonym. He left after a year and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City.

He recorded his first album, Bob Dylan, in 1962, and in 1963 he released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which included the civil rights anthem ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’

Many of his songs since then have recurring Jewish themes. The title song from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) alludes to the binding of Isaac:

Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’
God say ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’
God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run’
‘Well,’ Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’

In his song ‘Not Dark Yet’ on his 1990s album, Time Out of Mind, he sings: ‘I was born here and I’ll die here against my will. Against your will you were born, against your will you will die.’ This is a paraphrased passage from Pirke Avot, or the Sayings of Our Fathers in the Mishnah.

In ‘Forever Young,’ the lyric ‘May God bless and keep you always’ is taken directly from the priestly blessing.

He also alludes to his Jewish roots in songs such as ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ which draws on Isaiah 21: 1-10, ‘With God on Our Side’ and the little-known novelty ‘Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues.’

Despite the Jewish and other religious allusions in his work, Dylan said in a 1966 interview that he never really felt Jewish. He aroused controversy when he converted to Christianity and became an evangelical in the late 1970s.

About the time his album Infidels was released in 1983, Dylan began to distance himself from Christianity and the Church. He travelled to Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of his son Jesse’s and was photographed at the Western Wall wearing tefillin and praying. His song ‘Neighborhood Bully’ on that album is a challenge to anti-Semitism and an ode to Israel and its policies. However, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1984, he denied that the song was a Zionist political statement. In the late 1980s, he started showing up on the telethons run by the Chabad Hasidic movement.

President Barack Obama awarded Bob Dylan the Medal of Freedom in 2012, and he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. At any one time, his current religious label is always in question, and his relationship with his own Judaism seems to remain ambivalent.

For my Friday evening reflections this evening (27 May 2021), I am listening to Bob Dylan’s song, ‘With God on Our Side.’ My Facebook friend Heather Kiernan drew my attention earlier this week to this song, written by Bob Dylan during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear disaster.

The song was an attempt to confront the US with its own bloody history, but also warns against forgetting the Holocaust.

The poet concludes that there is one thing that will always remain true: God is a God of peace.

With God on Our Side by Bob Dylan:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too Was soon laid away And the names of the heroes
l’s made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side

Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

Shabbat Shalom

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