by Seth Rogovoy
While Bob Dylan has, throughout his life and career, engaged in all sorts of mythologizing and playful biographical falsification, it has never been in the service of denying his heritage. While Dylan didn’t exactly grow up to be Shlomo Carlebach, the happy, guitar-strumming Hasid, he never strayed too far from his roots, nor did he deny them. One of his earliest original numbers, in fact, was a parody of “Hava Nagilah,” then and now (thank you, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman) probably the best-known Jewish song in the world. Throughout his career, his songs have been peppered with biblical allusions and paraphrases and informed by Jewish themes and concepts. How much of this is the result of a conscious effort on Dylan’s part to address these issues, and how much is simply the result of magpie tendencies that see him draw variously from Shakespeare, French symbolism, movie dialogue, blues clichés and even obscure Japanese yakuza novels? Well, only Dylan can answer that — and even then, probably not.
Still, based on the evidence of the songs themselves, Dylan was actually paying attention in the Hebrew classes leading up to his bar mitzvah, and also in his adult life, which has at times reportedly included private studies with various rabbis, often from the Chabad movement. A cursory review of songs from the past 50 years turns up many tunes that are inflected with varying degrees of Yiddishkeit.