A Nice Jewish Cultural Icon. Sort of.


Chronicles: Volumes One
By Bob Dylan
304 pages. Simon & Schuster. $24.

If you bought Chronicles: Volume One hoping to hear Bob Dylan say, “I’m Jewish,” you wasted $24. Same goes if you thought that relocating the musician from stage to page would force from him a lucid statement about his Christian period. Want to know if the rumors that he attends Chabad House High Holiday services are true? Then you’re sure to be let down. Chronicles, a weird, rather under-edited autobiography, demonstrates that Jewish concerns aren’t the first, or even second or third, thing on Dylan’s mind. And yet we know—everyone knows—that Dylan is a Jew, and we’re thrilled by this fact. So we wind up scrutinizing Chronicles with Talmudic intensity, looking for evidence that Dylan is indeed a member of our tribe, a familiar habit to many Jewish Dylanologists.

Consider the following scene. Dylan and some of his songwriter pals—Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Graham Nash—sit around one night singing songs at Johnny Cash’s house, with various members of the Carter family, whom Dylan describes with the cliché “the royalty of country music,” in attendance. After each player in the circle performs, someone offers a complimentary critical bromide such as “You put all of yourself into that tune.” Dylan plays “Lay, Lady, Lay” and hands off the guitar to Graham Nash. Then Joe Carter asks, “You don’t eat pork, do you?”

As a Jew and a Dylan fan, I expected something here. I thought: Now he’ll admit to being Jewish and tell this fellow where he could cram his rather anti-Semitic query. Here’s a chance for Dylan to talk about how Jews throughout history have had to defend themselves against such aggressive insinuations. Maybe he’ll even address the issue of kashrut. Alas—and of course—he did none of the above. Instead he quoted something he’d heard Malcolm X, of all people, say on the radio: “I don’t eat something that’s one third rat, one third cat and one third dog. It just doesn’t taste right.” The response cracked up Johnny Cash, and Dylan called Carter "quite a character," but it made me feel cheated.

Cheated? OK, that's a bit strong. And it is somewhat silly to expect Dylan-the-autobiographer to be a cheerleader for Judaism. (He hasn't, after all, been terribly outspoken about it in the past.) Which makes me think: Why do we Jewish Dylan fans feel this strong need to claim him for ourselves? Aren’t the scraps of Jewish information, such as the well-known factoid that Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman, enough to sustain us? The answer, of course, is no. It may be unfair to the man, and his new book, but we can't help but hope that Dylan feels, at least secretly, a kind of Jewish pride.

Speaking of pride, Dylan seems quite proud of the deliberate way he performed his do-it-yourself rechristening. His original plan was to perform under his first and middle names (a technique employed by Comedy Central star Jon Stewart, whose given name is actually Jon Stewart Lebowitz). "What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen," he writes. "As far as I was concerned, that was who I was—that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king." (What would you rather be: a scrawny Jewish kid from Minnesota or a Scottish king?) He was going to change Allen to Allyn, but then read an article about a saxophonist named David Allyn and abandoned that plan. Then he “unexpectedly” read some Dylan Thomas poems, liked the sonic symmetry between Dylan and Allyn, and went with the former. The memoir spends quite a bit of time talking about the sounds and spellings of stage names—“Spelling is important,” says our songwriter—but never talks about how, well, Zimmerman is Jewish and all his other nomenclatural ideas aren’t. No surprise there.

The most overtly Jewish moment in Chronicles comes when Dylan has become famous, moved to Woodstock, started a family, and grown quite paranoid. (It’s that feeling of “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press,” that he sings about on “Idiot Wind.”) He didn’t much like the way he was treated in town, or by the counterculture, or by the media, so he set out to change this. He moved his family around. And he started performing strange little acts: “Unexpected things like pouring a bottle of whiskey over my head and walking into a department store and act[ing] pie-eyed, knowing that everyone would be talking amongst themselves when I left.” To really shake things up, he reports: “I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”

Oy! Thing is, Dylan neglects to say that the trip to Israel was for his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah. (In a similar way, he doesn’t see the need to mention his own Minnesota-based bar mitzvah either.) As for his Zionism, he doesn’t say anything about it in Chronicles, but I’d advise the curious reader to look into the song “Neighborhood Bully.”

The coy attitude toward his Jewishness can be uncomfortable for the reader simply looking to crown Dylan King of the Jews. He is not, and never will be, our Representative Jewish Artist. Besides, Dylan really isn’t about giving comfort to his audience, any audience. He is always, and only, himself. And to that, as music fans if not Jews, we more or less have to say, "Amen."