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

Praying in Pentecost 2021:
101, Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham

Saint Martin in the Bull Ring is 19th century Victorian Gothic revival on the outside, but inside has 12th and 13th century carvings and tombs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Seasons of Lent and Easter this year, I took some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Sunday was the Day of Pentecost (23 May 2021), and I am continuing with photographs for the rest of this week from six churches in the ‘Major Churches Network,’ churches once known as the ‘Greater Churches’ in England.

The Major Churches Network was founded in 1991 as the Greater Churches Network. It is a group of Church of England parish churches with exceptional significance, that are physically very large, listed as Grade I, II* or exceptionally II, open to visitors daily, have a role or roles beyond those of a typical parish church, and make considerable civic, cultural, and economic contributions to their community.

These churches are often former monastic properties that became parish churches after the English Reformation, or civic parish churches built at a time of great wealth.

Inside Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham

This morning (28 May 2021), my photographs are from the Church of Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, the original parish church in Birmingham. I have known this church since my teens, travelling between Birmingham and Lichfield, and have visited it occasionally when I have been in Birmingham for USPG meetings.

Saint Martin’s is known as ‘the Mother Church of Birmingham’ and stands between the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the markets. The Selfridge’s building facing Saint Martin’s in the Bull Ring has become a modern architectural symbol of Birmingham.

The name of Birmingham is Anglo-Saxon, but it is not known whether there was a church here at that time. When the new town of Birmingham was developed at the time of the Market Charter of 1166, Peter de Birmingham may have moved his manor house to the Moat Lane site and built Saint Martin’s as a new church.

The present Victorian church was built on the site of a 13th-century predecessor, which dated from 1263 or earlier. The church was enlarged in mediaeval times, with a lofty nave and chancel, north and south aisles and a north-west tower with a spire. By the mid-16th century, the church had a clock and chime maintained by the Guild of the Holy Cross at an annual cost of four shillings and four pence.

John Cheshire rebuilt 40 ft of the spire in 1781, which was strengthened by an iron spindle running up its centre for a length of 105 ft. It was secured to the sidewalls at every 10 feet by braces. Several metres from the top of the spire were replaced in 1801, when they were found to have decayed. The tops of the four pinnacles surrounding the main spire were also rebuilt. By 1808, the spire had been struck by lightning three times.

The brick casing was removed from the tower in 1853 by Philip Charles Hardwick, who added the open-air pulpit.

The church was demolished in 1873 and rebuilt by the Birmingham architect Julius Alfred Chatwin (1830-1907), who retained the earlier tower and spire. During the demolition, mediaeval wall paintings and decorations were found in the chancel, including one showing the charity of Saint Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar. Two painted beams were also found behind the plaster ceiling.

The exterior is built of rock-faced Grinshill stone. The interior is of sandstone with an open timber roof, which shows the influence of the great hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall, where Chatwin had worked under Charles Barry and AWN Pugin. Chatwin also enlarged Saint Philip’s Cathedral Birmingham in 1884-1888 (see this Prayer Diary, 13 May 2021).

The beams are decorated with fine tracery and end in large carvings of angels. The roof weights 93 tons (94.5 tonnes), spans 6.7 metres over the 30.4 metre long nave and is 18.2 metres high.

The Victorian floor tiles are by Minton and display the quartered arms of the de Bermingham family.

From east to west, the length of the church is 47 metres (155 ft), including the chancel, the arch of which rises to 18 metres (60 ft).

The Pre-Raphaelite window in the South Transept by Sir Edward Burne-Jones was made by William Morris in 1875. The West window is a copy made in 1954 of the window made by Henry Hardman in 1875 and destroyed in the Blitz.

The mediaeval-style stone statues on the north and west fronts were designed by Chatwin and sculpted by Robert Bridgeman’s of Lichfield. They depict King Richard I in commemoration of his visit to Birmingham ca 1189 confirming the market charter, and Saint Martin of Tours giving his cloak to a beggar.

The Rector of Saint Martin’s is the Revd Jeremy Allcock, and the Assistant Priests are the Revd Elsie Blair-Chappell and the Revd Abba Tiruneh.

A statue of Saint Martin designed by JA Chatwin and sculpted by Bridgeman’s of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 11: 11-26 (NRSVA):

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’

18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ 22 Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

25 ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

Saint Martin in the Bull Ring and the Bull Ring in Birmingham at night (Photograph: Verity Milligan / Saint Martin’s Parish)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (28 May 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us have open minds and welcoming hearts in all we do.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Martin’s in the Bullring is the ‘Mother Church of Birmingham’ … but Selfridges in the Bull Ring has become a modern architectural symbol of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org