A Jewish lens into Bob Dylan

A childhood friend recounts the singer’s Jewish roots all the way from summer camp to meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

DYLAN & ME: 50 YEARS OF ADVENTURES By Louie Kemp Westrose Press 211 pages; $29.95 (photo credit: Courtesy)
DYLAN & ME: 50 YEARS OF ADVENTURES By Louie Kemp Westrose Press 211 pages; $29.95
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The acknowledgments page of Louie Kemp’s memoir Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures reads like a Who’s Who of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, Minnesota and further afield. “Special thanks to... Cantor Braverman, of blessed memory... Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zushe and Zissi Cunin of Chabad of Pacific Palisades... Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory,” Kemp writes.
There’s even a mention of Kemp’s ex-next door neighbor, Seinfeld creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David.
It is through a primarily Jewish lens that Kemp, a seafood industry mogul, tries to explain many of the motivations of his best friend, America’s most famous songwriter, Bob Dylan.
Referred to in the book almost exclusively as “Bobby,” the two met in 1953 at a Jewish summer camp in Minnesota. Though they lost touch through much of the 1960s, Kemp received regular dispatches on Bobby’s escapades from Dylan’s mother, Beatty.
In the mid-1970s, Kemp goes to visit Dylan in New York, their first meeting in more than a decade. After exchanging pleasantries, his boyhood friend hustles him into the car and out of the blue drives them from his Greenwich Village apartment to Willamsburg. “All of the signs in the shop windows were in Yiddish or Hebrew... thousands of Orthodox Jewish men strolled the streets in their traditional black hats and coats,” Kemp writes. “I’d had no clue that a place like this existed, certainly not in a major metropolitan city like New York,”
While Kemp, who became observant of Shabbat and kashrut, appears to currently be more involved in Jewish practice than Dylan, he makes sure to point out Bobby’s Jewishness time and again.
“We [Jews] seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to persecution, discrimination and injustice, and many of us have devoted our lives to battling these things,” Kemp posits. “There’s no question in my mind that Bob’s drive to write songs that mattered was born at least in part from his roots as a Jew.” Kemp also makes sure to note that “Bobby’s forebears had been founding members of... an Orthodox synagogue formally known as Adas Israel Congregation.”
This framing of Dylan as being constantly influenced by his Judaism sets up a particularly interesting clash when Dylan had a come-to-Jesus moment in the late 1970s.
“Within the context of his own Judaism,” Kemp writes, “he developed an appreciation and acceptance of Jesus.” Who really knows what the reclusive Dylan himself would say about his views on Jesus? However, most Dylan scholars would disagree with Kemp’s interpretation. The commonly accepted storyline was that Dylan became born again and his Judaism had nothing to do with it.
But Dylan being Dylan, his interest in Christianity eventually waned, and Kemp took him to pay visits to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and study with other rabbis. Kemp writes that Dylan made a donation to Chabad of Minnesota in 1994 when Schneerson died. Perhaps Kemp’s encouragement of a return to Jewish roots had something to do with Dylan’s 1985 record Infidels, which features a photo of the artist on top of the Mount of Olives on the back cover. The record’s single is “Jokerman,” a song rife with biblical symbolism and quotations from Scripture. “Neighborhood Bully,” a paper-thin veiled pro-Israel song (not one of his finest), comes a couple of tracks later.
“There is no doubt that our time spent studying with the rabbis had influenced him. Bobby was clearly returning to his Jewish roots, guided by his ancestors, the rabbis, the Rebbe, and the Torah itself,” Kemp writes.
Dylan and Me is a quick read and would be an even thinner tome if the comically large text size weren’t better suited for a children’s learning-to-read book than an adult memoir. It’s short and sweet, and though it’s not a juicy tell-all in the traditional sense, there are plenty of witty stories about Dylan and his contemporaries, especially during the era of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a circus-esque tour which Kemp managed in 1975 and 1976.
There’s a food fight with Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn getting thrown out of Kemp’s mother’s house for smoking pot in the basement, and a Passover Seder with Marlon Brando, in which the movie star eats too much chazeret (bitter herb) and turns an “unusual shade of chartreuse.”
You do get the sense that some of these stories may have been better transmitted orally, and an attempted email interview with Kemp suggests that the author may have received more than a little help from co-author, singer-songwriter, novelist, politician, animal rights activist and all-around Renaissance man Kinky Friedman, who is credited on the cover.
Even so, Kemp’s Huckleberry Finn-esque tales of growing up with one of the most notable figures of the 20th century makes for a fun read for fans of Robert Allen Zimmerman, the voice of a generation.
By Louie Kemp
Westrose Press
211 pages; $29.95