Bob Dylan Is America’s Greatest Jewish Artist
“I’m just like Anne Frank,” Bob Dylan sings on his latest album, “like Indiana Jones, and them British bad boys the Rolling Stones.”
The strange confluence of these images ‐‐ an icon of the tragedy of the Holocaust, a blockbuster movie character and a British rock band ‐‐ seems to sum up the extraordinary and extraordinarily enduring enigma that is Bob Dylan.
Easily one of America’s most legendary musicians, Dylan has been recording for six decades; touring for just as long; been called the voice of his generation, a washed-up has-been and one of the great comebacks in music history; and picked up an Oscar and a Nobel Prize along the way. Yet he never enjoyed a number one hit until a few months ago, when “Murder Most Foul,” with its desperate, daunting and disconcertingly serene portrayal of the killing of JFK and the sweep of recent American history somehow caught the anxiety of our present moment.
Despite those decades of success and adulation, and sometimes dismissal and contempt, Dylan has remained a carefully‐cultivated mystery. In an age of absolute social media nakedness, Dylan is that strangest thing ‐‐ a pop culture icon who has managed to remain all but unknowable, a strange series of labyrinths and masks, a Russian doll whose layers peeled back one by one reveal nothing.
However, with the release of his new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which has swiftly become, of all things, the hit of the pandemic, it seems worth reflecting on a possible solution to the mystery of who Dylan really is — he is a quintessentially Jewish artist, and perhaps the greatest Jewish artist of the past century.
To say the least, this is a daring assertion. When we have a century that has produced Jewish artists from Philip Roth to Stanley Kubrick, putting Dylan at the top is a hard sell, even with a Nobel Prize thrown into the equation. Even more daunting, perhaps, is to attempt to figure out what kind of Jewish artist the ex-Robert Zimmerman might be.
One comparison might prove revealing ‐‐ if there is any clearly Jewish artist who is closest to Dylan, it would be Leonard Cohen. They are both folk-based singer-songwriters whose poetic lyrics captured the mood of a generation; restless artists whose integrity and uncompromising work seemed to defy trends and the relentless commerciality of the music business.
Cohen, however, is a much easier sell as a Jewish artist. Indeed, he was Jewish to the point of exhibitionism, never ‐‐ unlike so many artists, including Dylan ‐‐ changing his obviously Jewish name, and he littered his work with Jewish resonances and echoes, while remaining publicly close to Israel and Jewish tradition.
Dylan is a very different kind of Jewish artist. Steeped in the Americana (that is, mostly non-Jewish) music tradition, he has played folk, blues, rock n’ roll, gospel, country, indeed almost everything, but except for one brief moment on a Chabad telethon, nothing resembling Jewish music. At the same time, his lyrics, with a few exceptions, such as “Forever Young” with its “may God bless and keep you always” and the pro-Israel anthem “Neighborhood Bully,” seem bereft of Jewish references. He even briefly abandoned his ancestry to convert to fundamentalist Christianity, though ‐‐ at least according to Chabad ‐‐ he later came back into the fold.
Yet there are strong, if quiet, indications that Judaism remains important to Dylan. He has been photographed wearing tefillin at the Western Wall, is rumored to have studied Talmud and Kabbalah, briefly flirted with the JDL, considered joining a kibbutz, and has obviously been highly influenced by biblical literature.
Indeed, while his songs generally lack direct quotes, the prophetic literature in particular may be the strongest of all Dylan’s myriad influences, from the apocalyptic imagery of songs like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to declarations in “Rough and Rowdy Ways” of “I aint no false prophet” and “thump on the Bible, proclaim the creed.”
The question then remains: what kind of Jewish artist is Bob Dylan? The answer probably lies in the simple fact that Bob Dylan is a Diaspora Jew. In the Diaspora, Jews who do not completely cloister themselves ‐‐ such as Haredi Jews ‐‐ must engage with the larger society, which is overwhelmingly non-Jewish. This creates an interesting paradox ‐‐ in being different from the larger society, a Jew must always be, to some extent, an outsider. But in being an outsider, he also stands at a strange remove from that larger society, and this gives him a unique perspective, so that he often understands that society better than its mainstream members. Put simply, the Diaspora Jew understands non-Jews and their culture better than they understand themselves.
And in this, there is also a certain freedom. In having to adapt themselves to a vast and sometimes cruel non-Jewish culture, Jews always have a choice in how to do so. One choice is, like Leonard Cohen, to proclaim oneself, to embrace difference, and live, one might say, out of the closet. Another is to make the usually futile attempt to assimilate completely, which in its extreme becomes self-hatred.
But there is another choice: To embrace the freedom born of difference. To play with the paradox of simultaneously belonging and not belonging. To make of one’s difference a source of fertility and creativity rather than neurosis. And this, more than anything else, is what Dylan has done.
Indeed, Dylan has never assimilated into the United States, he has assimilated the United States into himself. He has become the great myths and forms of America, and then remade them in his own image, swirling them together into something new and strange, but also exciting and original.
His work encompasses the entirety of American culture: its writers and poets, its singers and musicians, its movie stars and cultural icons, its presidents and slaves, its revolutionary bards and reactionary rebels, its tragedies from the murder of Medgar Evers to the sinking of the Titanic to the Kennedy assassination ‐‐ again, almost everything. And if he were not Jewish, there is no way that he could stand outside, take it all in, and turn it into something as different and creative as he himself is. As he once wrote, “I’m gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel, and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
And this, in turn, gives him what the Diaspora has always given Jews: the ability to become what you want to be, to forge an identity independent of the strictures of being part of a consensus society. Living as one among a very different many, the Diaspora Jew must wear masks, he must play with identity, he must become one of them and not one of them, and above all, he must be quick on his feet, able to navigate that society better than its own members, and always retain that sense of play and humor that has kept the Jews alive across so many centuries of being strangers to everyone but themselves, and is so evident in all of Dylan’s work.
Dylan plays with that series of masks, becoming and becoming again; often, one imagines, watching gleefully as the world yet again tries to figure him out.
And there is one other quintessentially Jewish quality that drives this fertile playfulness with which Dylan has always been one of and the other to American society. He himself points to it in the first song of his new album: “I go right to the edge. I go right to the end. I go right where all things lost are made good again.”
If there is any quality that defines the Jews, it is that we do things right to the edge and right to the end. We are not a people of half-measures. When we do something, we do it all the way, without compromise or equivocation, for good or for ill.
This has sometimes been our Achilles’ Heel, but it is also our greatest strength, and in many ways, Dylan personifies it more than any Jewish artist of the past century, and as such, ought to be placed at the head of his peers, “where all things lost are made good again.”
Benjamin Kerstein is an Algemeiner columnist.