The writer Ron Rosenbaum—who is working on his own biography of Bob Dylan—was interviewed by JWeekly.com. He had recently given a lecture at Stanford University called “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.” He’s asked in the article whether he thinks Bob Dylan is an observant Jew or not.
“It’s a difficult question to answer,” Rosenbaum said. “If you read the Internet, there are all sorts of sightings of Dylan at Chabad-Lubavitcher services. Does that mean he’s become one of them? I don’t know. Does that mean any of [the sightings] are verifiable? There are enough of them to make you think there’s something to it. But who knows? He could be exploring, experimenting, whatever. He’s certainly no longer the scolding Christian that he was for a few years.”
Dylan’s departure from Christianity “was sort of gradual,” he said. “It’s not like he formally abjured it. It just seemed to slip into the past.” In fact, Rosenbaum sees a profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life, including the ’60s years.
It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that it even needs to be said that there is a “profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life.” Isn’t that pretty hard to miss? But then the Jewish experience in America includes the phenomenon of those who try to run away from their Jewishness, in a variety of senses, and Dylan has given some reason to believe that he might be doing this at different times. This article also includes a quote from an interview Dylan gave to Rosenbaum in 1977, where he said, “I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish.” That sounds like a flat-out rejection, but I would suggest that (aside from Dylan’s knee-jerk hatred of labels) it was more an expression of frustration at that particular time with his failure up to that date to find answers in Judaism as he then knew it, based on his upbringing and life experiences. The whole subject of faith in Dylan’s life was to undergo an earthquake not long thereafter, and comments from him that touch on his Jewishness post-1979 are quite different.
Ron Rosenbaum’s observations also provide another example, I think, of how secular or non-believing commentators on Bob Dylan—of which there are so many because of Dylan’s place in our culture—tend to find the subject of faith in Dylan’s work and life to be very mysterious and perplexing. I think on the other hand that listeners who themselves have religious faith can generally pick up on how Dylan is expressing his, and living it, in his songs. In particular, I think it’s clear to many such listeners that since 1979 Dylan’s work has been absolutely teeming with the reflections, questions, struggles and the blessings of someone going on his journey through life guided by faith in and love for God. Certainly, he’s avoided writing obvious “Jesus” songs since Shot of Love, but the language of faith has remained very strong if more oblique, all the way from Infidels to Together Through Life. (I’ve written enough on individual songs before, as have others, so I’m not going to belabor that now.) Underlining the centrality of those themes have been songs by others that he’s chosen to cover, live in concert and sometimes on record: “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior,” “Rock of Ages,” “Somebody Touched Me,” “Rank Strangers to Me,” “Lone Pilgrim” … his rewrite and rerecording of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” and so on and on. And, um, Christmas In the Heart was a little bit hard to miss (though maybe not for some).
I understand the fun in the whole argument about whether Bob Dylan is an observant Jew or a Christian, based on counting anecdotal reports and the parsing of comments Dylan has made during interviews with rock journos (who generally don’t understand the subject matter themselves and are easily deflected). But in 2011 it’s also a little wearisome. While others see a conflict and an either/or situation on this subject, it ought to be clear by now that Dylan personally does not. His work is filled with references to the Scripture of both the Old and the New Testaments; he attends Yom Kippur services and sings Christian hymns (though not at the Yom Kippur services so far as anyone knows); he goes on the Chabad telethon and sings a Christian song by Hank Williams … and so on. He believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he continues to attest in his now-not-fire-breathing-way to faith in that man full of sorrow and strife, the one who promised to make all old things new again: Jesus. It’s all there. Some people may find it unacceptable for their own philosophical or theological reasons, but I think that they’re better off leaving their own conflicts behind when it comes to Bob and just enjoying what they can get from the music.
In saying that people of faith more easily pick up on these things in Dylan’s work I don’t mean to suggest that non-believing listeners or critics can never understand Dylan—because some have brilliant insights—but just that the absence of a feeling for the language of faith can sometimes spread confusion in those ranks.
I’m not making a presumption about Ron Rosenbaum on that score, I hope; the article does include this:
As far as his own Judaism, Rosenbaum, who grew up Reform on Long Island, N.Y., “came to love everything Jewish,” but he is not an observant Jew. “Those who do believe fervently should be offering better answers. I’d like to be persuaded.”
Both the Jewish and Christian traditions now stretch back thousands of years, with so many great teachers, great books, great art, great examples of belief and of living … but some are still waiting for those “better answers” to come along and break down the door. But being open to being persuaded is at least a positive stance.
Not to be heavy-handed, but one of those reflections on faith from Dylan’s “post-Christian” period is irresistible to me at this point.
Maybe someday you’ll hear a voice from on high
Sayin’, “For whose sake did you live, for whose sake did you die?”
Forgive me, baby, for what I didn’t do
For not breakin’ down no bedroom door to get at you
Always was a sucker for the right cross
Never wanted to go home ’til the last cent was lost
Maybe someday you will look back and see
That I made it so easy for you to follow me
(From “Maybe Someday.”)