Bob Dylan: ‘Prophet’ and Medal of Freedom recipient

Biographers of Dylan, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, explain how Judaism permeates his work.

May 26, 2012 06:54
Bob Dylan performs on stage

Bob Dylan performs on stage. (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)


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Most rock stars are retired by 71, but not Bob Dylan. He’s touring, performing and later this spring receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the US.

US President Barack Obama will present the medals to Dylan, President Shimon Peres, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and 10 others.

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Born Robert Allen Zimmerman to Jewish parents and raised in Hibbing, Minn., many Dylan fans might not truly appreciate how much Dylan’s heritage infuses his work. But Seth Rogovoy certainly does. In his book Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Rogovoy explores how Judaism influenced the songwriter.

Rogovoy reveals the ways in which Dylan walks in the footsteps of the Jewish prophets, explaining the profound depth of Jewish content—drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Kabbalah—at the heart of Dylan’s music, and demonstrating how his songs can only be fully appreciated in light of the Jewish themes that inform them.

According to Rogovoy, Dylan’s spiritual roots are evident throughout his 50 albums.

“Bob was raised in a traditional Jewish household with Yiddish speaking grandparents living in the house with a great-grandfather nearby who would daven every day and study Talmud every afternoon. Bob was exposed to all of this,” Rogovoy told JointMedia News Service. “His family was at the center of the Jewish community in the town he grew up in.”

Another profound experience outside Dylan’s home, Rogovoy said, was his experience at summer camp.


“Like many Jewish boys and girls of his generation, Bob went for four summers to Camp Herzl, the Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin,” Rogovoy said. “A testimony to the impact it had on Dylan is that several of his lifelong friends are people who he met at Camp Herzl. You can take the Dylan out of Hibbing but you can’t take the Jew out of Dylan.”

According to Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America, being brought up in a Jewish household in the Minnesota iron range in the 1940s and ’50s could only have influenced every aspect of his life and work in some way, especially his spiritual side and its appeal to audiences.

“Every poet—and, I suppose, every artist—has a spiritual side,” Sean Wilentz. “If you mean specifically his roots in Judaism, I suppose it’s done something to appeal to some listeners who don't ordinarily take popular music too seriously.”    

Dylan was praised in the White House’s April 26 Medal of Freedom announcement as being among “the most influential American musicians of the 20th century,” for “his rich and poetic lyrics” and for work that has “had considerable influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has had significant impact on American culture over the past five decades.”

Wilentz said Dylan’s art “transcends the national and linguistic barriers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, precisely the time when American popular culture reached a new apogee of influence around the world.” Dylan “tapped into and then enlarged an international, American-inspired youth culture that was unprecedented, then held that audience while touching the imagination of a later generation,” he said.
Howard Sounes, author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, told JointMedia News Service that “Jewishness is absolutely integral to [Dylan’s] life and work.”

“It is who he is,” Sounes said. “As one of his Jewish friends said to me when I was researching the book, ‘He’s really Jewish. He was bar mitzvahed!”

When Dylan attended college in Minnesota, he moved into the Jewish fraternity house Sigma Alpha Mu, and in September 1983, he visited Jerusalem for his son’s bar mitzvah.

“He is a true and original artist who interprets his own life and the world in a way that makes us think about our own lives in a deep and powerful way,” Sounes said.

Rogovoy acknowledged that Dylan did make up stories about his background, but not to hide his Jewish heritage. To Dylan, the most important things are the songs he writes and sings, Rogovoy said. “One of the first original songs he ever wrote and performed was “‘Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,’” Rogovoy said. “Hava Nagilah was probably the most famous Jewish song of the 20th century and it was played at every [Jewish] wedding. In many of his songs he addresses directly, lyrically, issues of Jewish history.”

For example, Dylan writes about the Holocaust in his song “With God on Our Side”:

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

But it’s not just the horror of the Holocaust Dylan writes about; he writes about mystical experiences. “Dylan is always talking about face-to-face experiences of the divinity,” Rogovoy noted.

As Dylan and his band get set to perform in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, audiences continue to celebrate his work. On May 24-25 WVUV, Fordham University’s listener-supported radio station, hosts Dylan Fest 2012, a celebration of his songs with Adam Green, Fabrizio Moretti, Nicole Atkins, Cory Chisel and Boz Scaggs.

Rogovoy said Dylan performs in the mode, style and message of ancient prophets. He said Dylan is one of the best at channeling the moment into a transcendent experience for the listener. There is no formula.

“It helps to see Dylan in the context of the biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both in terms of subject matter, and his relationship to the people he’s prophesizing to,” Rogovy said. “The main purpose was to scold. You’re not living up to your end of the bargain. He’s berating them for not living up to the moral and ethical agreements they have and warning them of the consequences. Bob Dylan has done that from the very beginning and he’s still doing it.”

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