October 13, 2005
Dylan’s Jewish Pilgrimage
Since leaving Minnesota, the former Bobby Zimmerman has traveled a winding trail.
You may not see it beneath the gentlemanly cowboy hat Bob Dylan wears on the cover of the "Love and Theft" album -- or behind the countrified smile on the "Nashville Skyline" record jacket. But in the early 1960s, if anyone cared to notice, the unmistakable persona of a Jewish kid emanated from America's most galvanizing performer and songwriter.
Dylan didn't kvetch like your cousin Marvin or sing Israeli songs. He was steeped in old-time American music. But his Jewishness stood out -- perhaps more in retrospect, especially in concert segments that are part of the new Martin Scorcese documentary on Dylan called, "No Direction Home."
Dylan's gently curved nose and the kinky hair suggested a Jewish gene pool. Just as importantly, the piercing gaze, the absorption and analysis of modern culture and Dylan's prophetic tone made the young singer as thematically Jewish as fundraising.
Not that people noticed or that Dylan seemed to care about Judaism when he emerged in 1961 on the Greenwich Village folk music scene. The skinny 20-year-old from Hibbing, Minn., had re-invented himself as the musical heir to folk troubadour Woody Guthrie.
By 1962, Dylan was re-animating tradition-laden folk music with original, topical songs, such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War." In 1965, he began to play his folk songs with a rock 'n' roll band. He wrote anthems that examined politics and described love in adult terms, transforming even that genre to a thinking person's music with a beat.
Then, 25 years after his 1954 bar mitzvah, Dylan began performing with Jesus on his side and recorded three Christian albums. In another sharp turn, his 1983 album, "Infidels," contained an ode to Israel, the anguished "Neighborhood Bully," and dropped the evangelizing.
Dylan later was reported to be praying with Lubavitcher Chasidim. With son-in-law Peter Himmelman, a popular Orthodox singer/songwriter, Dylan performed "Hava Nagila" for a Lubavitch telethon in 1989. Still, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer's recent concerts also have included songs from his Christian period.
So is Dylan a Jew?
His autobiography, "Chronicles: Volume One" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) -- and the dozens of Dylan biographers and chroniclers over a 43-year musical career -- leave that question unanswered.
The 64-year-old Dylan declined requests for an interview, but a higher authority, Dylan's mother, once fielded that question. Beatty Rutman, who died in 2000, weighed in during a 1985 interview with Fred A. Bernstein posted on Jewhoo.com. Asked about her son's affinity for Christianity, she said, "He never displayed it for me," adding: "What religion a person is shouldn't make any difference to anybody else. I'm not bigoted in any way. Rabbis would call me up. I'd say, 'If you're upset, you try to change him.'"
Dylan may have found his muse in New York City, but he was shaped by a small-town upbringing in the north country, as part of a small, active Jewish community. Robert Alan Zimmerman was born May 24, 1941, to Abe and Beatty Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn. The largest city along Lake Superior, Duluth was home to approximately 2,000 Jews. Abe Zimmerman managed the stock department for Standard Oil Co. until a stroke disabled him in 1947.
Dylan's father was small in stature but had been a good athlete. "The illness put an end to all his dreams, I believe," Dylan told L'Express in 1978. "He could hardly walk."
The young family moved 75 miles northwest to his mother's hometown, Hibbing, population approximately 18,000. The "Iron Ore Capital of the World" and the largest city in northern Minnesota's Mesabi Range, the city was built on iron ore -- literally. When an immense lode of ore was discovered beneath Hibbing in the early 1920s, the mining town -- buildings and all -- was moved south several miles to accommodate the new hematite.
Abe Zimmerman's brothers, Maurice and Paul, operated Micka Electric supply in Hibbing. They expanded the store to carry appliances and brought in Zimmerman as a salesman.
The Abe Zimmerman household joined a Jewish community that, in true small-town fashion, dominated the business scene downtown -- along a half mile of Howard Street, several blocks of perpendicular First Avenue and the surrounding streets.
"They all had good businesses. They had all the businesses," remembered retiree Tom Petrick during a recent coffee klatch at Hibbing's Sunrise Deli.
"The whole of Howard Street was Jewish," recalled Dorothy Shega, with only a bit of exaggeration, between sips of coffee.
The retirees and several friends rattled off the names of prominent former Jewish merchants. The Edelsteins, Beatty Zimmerman's family, owned two movie theaters, one named the Lybba after the grandmother of Dylan's mother.
Hyman Bloom owned the Boston Department Store. Jacob Jolowsky operated Hibbing Auto Wrecking. Nathan Nides owned Nides Fashion Shop, sold insurance and lent money. David Shapiro was proprietor of First Avenue Market. Jack and Israel Sher ran the Insurance Service Agency. Louis Stein and James Shapiro owned pharmacies.
Hibbing's Jewish population was small but steady -- 285 in 1937 and 268 in 1948, according to "The American Jewish Year Book." Despite Abe Zimmerman's physical limitations, the family participated actively in Jewish life: the father as president of the B'nai B'rith lodge; the mother as president of the Hadassah group. As a young adolescent, Bobby spent summers at Herzl Camp, a Zionist facility in northwestern Wisconsin.
Bobby attended cheder at Agudas Achim, a nominally Orthodox synagogue near downtown Hibbing. Shirley Schwartz, principal of the religious school when Dylan was in class, "said that 'Bob was a rambunctious kid, but a nice kid,'" recalled her son, Cantor Neil Schwartz of B'nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga, Tenn.
With no full-time rabbi in town, Bobby prepared for his bar mitzvah with a teacher he remembered as mysterious. "Suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter," Dylan told Spin in 1985. ".... He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs above where I used to hang out....
"I used to go up there every day to learn this stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I'd come down and boogie.
"The rabbi taught me what I had to learn, and after he conducted this bar mitzvah, he just disappeared. The people didn't want him. He didn't look like anybody's idea of a rabbi. He was an embarrassment. All the Jews up there shaved their beards, and, I think, worked on Saturday. And I never saw him again. It's like he came and went like a ghost."
Dylan was describing the Rev. Reuven Maier, probably a nonordained religious functionary. He lived on Howard Street above the then L & B Cafe. Apparently, Bobby didn't attend synagogue often after his bar mitzvah, because he forgot that Maier stayed in Hibbing at least another two years, according to the 1956 Hibbing City Directory.
Judaism played a minor role in Dylan's youth. Asked in a 1978 Playboy interview if he thought about being Jewish while growing up, he replied: "No, I didn't. I've never felt Jewish. I don't really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish. I don't have much of a Jewish background."
Dylan left town to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for a semester in 1959. He explained to Playboy in 1966 that Hibbing "was just not the right place for me to stay and live.... The only thing you could do there was be a miner and even that ... was getting less and less. The people that lived there -- they're nice people ... they still stand out as being the least hung-up. The mines were just dying, that's all, but that's not their fault."
In 1959, Dylan began to play in Minneapolis folk clubs, but soon sought a bigger scene. He accepted the offer of a car ride to New York in 1961 to pursue his destiny, as he wrote in "Chronicles."
A handful of Jews, most of them elderly, remains in Hibbing, said Jolowsky. Agudas Achim closed in the 1980s and has been converted into a private home. Abe Zimmerman died in 1968. His wife lived with second husband Joe Rutman in St. Paul until her death five years ago.
Dylan doesn't dismiss the significance of where he spent his childhood. Growing up in Hibbing "gave me a sense of simplicity," Dylan told the Hibbing High Times in 1978. Dylan-watchers believe that his Hibbing Jewish experiences -- and lack thereof -- are reflected in his spiritual sense and the extent to which this spirituality is colored by Judaism.
Larry Yudelson, owner of the radiohazak.com and yudel.com Web sites, which contain megabytes of Dylan data, says Dylan was looking for something that Hibbing couldn't provide.
"My sense is the religious language of salvation and faith in Jesus he picked up very early," Yudelson said. "I think about what it meant to grow up in Hibbing as a third-generation American Jew. My guess is Dylan connects to this Jewish absence, this yearning, which he finds in the old folk music. I think he has found a real American connection."
In "Chronicles," Dylan writes that the old folk songs in his early repertoire "were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic." Later, he considered some folk and blues performances he attended in New York to be "like spiritual experiences.... I wasn't ready to act on any of it but knew somehow, though, that if I wanted to stay playing music, that I would have to claim a larger part of myself."
As a songwriter, Dylan's characters often are sinners, yet outside of the three preachy Christian albums, the religious impact comes more from his skillful use of biblical allusions and metaphors. The language of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is apocalyptic, while the tone is prophetic. "Forever Young" is a bountiful blessing. "Highway 61 Revisited" revolves around the binding of Isaac. "Jokerman" is steeped in biblical references.
Many of Dylan's songs take a strong moral stand, calling for justice ("Ballad of Hurricane"), peace ("Masters of War") and faith ("Father of Night").
But using the songs to identify Dylan's beliefs probably is reading too much into the work of a well-read, versatile songwriter, who can, like most skilled performers, fully embrace the thrust of a lyric or musical theme. Many of his songs offer no religious language or ideas.
His personal statements are no more consistent. He writes in "Chronicles" that his 1971 visit to Jerusalem was a publicity stunt. "I ... got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly, and the great rags changed me overnight to a Zionist. This helped a little" in removing Dylan from the pop music spotlight. Yet on the same trip, he declared: "I'm a Jew. It touches my poetry, my life in ways I can't describe."
So is he a Jew?
Now he is, said Cantor Schwartz of Chattanooga, who makes the assertion on faith and analysis, rather than personal contact with Dylan: "Those of us who came from the hinterlands like he did predicted that [the Christian phase] wasn't going to last, and we were right."
Small-town Jews tend to adapt their practices to fit the general community, Schwartz said, recalling a 1970 Friday night service at Agudas Achim that ended early so the congregation's six high school students, including trombonist Schwartz, could don a football, band or cheerleading uniform and attend the Hibbing High game.
"Given a milieu like that, it didn't surprise me that Dylan strayed, but that he came back," he said.
However, maybe he didn't come all the way back. Scott Marshall, a born-again Christian author of "Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan" (2002, Relevant Media Group Inc.), sketched out conflicting evidence, noting that Dylan has "often been spotted at various synagogues at the High Holidays. There's no question that the men and women and children at those synagogues do not believe that Jesus is messiah."
Yet, in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, after the release of "Infidels," "Dylan said he was a literal believer in the Bible," Marshall continued. "He said the Old and New Testaments were equally valid.... All I can add is he continues to sings these songs from [his Christian albums] 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved.' My thought is if he truly no longer believes that, why in the world would he sing these songs?"
Yudelson, the Web chronicler of Dylan Judaica, cautions that Christian lyrics do not a disciple make.
"He ends up with evangelicals," Yudelson said. "He ends up with Chabad. Then he ends up with a much more normal sense that the language of the old American songs speaks to him. The Yom Kippur davening [also] speaks to him, [and] he loves his frum grandchildren."
"I don't think Dylan is one for drawing a strong distinction between 'you're inside the camp or outside the camp,'" he added. "My sense is he has a much fuzzier feeling about finding God through the music, finding God through gospel music."
Yudelson calls Dylan "a pre-denominational Jew with a vague sense of Yom Kippur, a vague sense of bar mitzvah." There's a sense of Jewishness, especially culturally, but also an overriding feeling that "you're an American."
That description fits the model of Judaism described by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen in "The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America" (2000, Indiana University Press): That all Jewish belief and practice are individual and personal. In other words, Judaism has become what each person thinks it is.
Dylan, then, is like many Jewish Americans: both assimilated and uniquely Jewish. His particular spiritual path has been so unendingly scrutinized because he became a musical icon. His narrative with all its twists -- Jewish and otherwise -- now stands as a seminal American life.
When it comes to religion, the more important consideration may be the Jewish measure of Jewishness, which focuses not on belief, but action. As a social critic, absorber and conveyor of culture and as a spiritual seeker, the former Bobby Zimmerman has embodied some of Judaism's most important traits and values. n
Andrew Muchin is a freelance journalist based in Milwaukee. His article, "Rhythm & Blues, Blacks & Jews," in Moment magazine won the 2004 Simon Rockower Jewish journalism award for arts writing.