Knockin’ on (Nobel) heaven’s door
Jewish writers, critics weigh in on Dylan’s literature prize and his Yiddishkeit.
‘Whatever the counterculture was,” writes Bob Dylan in his memoirs, “I’d seen enough of it. I was sick of the way… that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion.” And so “I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap [and] all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little.”
Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature will help a lot. Forty years after his countercultural heyday, he’s now reached the Olympus of Nobel’s rarefied imprimatur; his lyrics are already studied at Harvard and across academia, and ever more shall be so, wherever words are cherished.
His Yiddishkeit was mentioned in the very second sentence of his Nobel accolade, “He grew up in a Jewish middle-class family,” his lyrics infused with biblical allusions and inspiration, from “Gates of Eden’s” reference to Genesis and the Golden Calf; the sacrifice of Isaac in “Highway 61;” Isaiah’s “All Along The Watchtower;” to “Forever Young’s” quoting the father’s Friday night prayer for his children. He named his publishing company after the shofar, “Ram’s Horn Music.”
Many critics didn’t question Dylan’s splendor but whether his songs, no matter how splendid, were “literature.” Then again, the 150 Psalms of the Bible were originally songs and Dylan’s songs are often akin to Psalms when they’re not closer to short stories — “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” or “Isis” — that happen to rhyme.
Dylan himself disparaged his literary credentials. He’s said with a wink that he’s just “a song and dance man.”
So when the Nobel Prize was announced, many critics first paused before applauding. Morris Dickstein, a former president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and author of the acclaimed Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, told NJJN that his response veered from “surprised” to “well deserved.”
“I was just as surprised as everyone else,” e-mailed Dickstein, “though I’ve always been blown away by Dylan’s best work. He always had “a great way with language, some of it all his own, some of it derived from surreal poets he’s read, from Rimbaud to Ginsberg. Above all it’s absolutely memorable, always a vital element in poetic language. But I’ve never thought of it as great poetry on its own, only as sung, as perfectly married to the voice and the music. That in itself is a kind of breakthrough for the Nobel Prize.”
But the Nobel Prize? “If the Nobel had ever been pure, disinterested, and exactly on target, then I might say no,” said Dickstein. “But think of how quirky it’s always been, how political—always serving different agendas. Just as the Nobel for [Isaac] Singer was really for the whole body of Yiddish literature (ditto with [S.Y.] Agnon and Hebrew literature), the prize for Dylan recognizes the immensely creative turn that rock took in the 1960s,” and why people “are still listening” 50 years later.
Dylan won, said the committee, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song traditions” He has written more than 500 songs, many brilliant, but few songs in the last 40 years penetrated the culture — counter or otherwise — as did the iconic output of his first 15 years (from the “Bob Dylan” album in 1962 through “Desire” in 1976.) The Nobel committee, however, did acknowledge “masterpieces” of more recent vintage, such as “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997) and “Modern Times” (2006).
Dylan has written two books: the hallucinatory Tarantula, a collection that The New York Times called largely unreadable (1971); and Chronicles Vol. ” (named after a book in the Hebrew Bible), a far more coherent, evocative and highly praised memoir (2004).
When Dylan’s name was floated, The New Republic simply dismissed him: “Bob Dylan, 100 percent is not going to win,” wrote Alex Shepherd. “Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.”
After he won, Cynthia Ozick, whom The New York Times called “one of the greatest fiction writers and critics alive today,” told NJJN that Dylan’s award could be “political. That may very well be a factor because it is always a factor,” as were several other Nobel Prizes, such as for Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago) that were seen less as a reward for literature than for the writer’s political significance. The Nobel committee did not entirely disagree, noting Dylan’s “large number of albums revolving around topics such as: the social conditions… politics.”
Dylan “first became known,” said Ozick, “as someone who was anti-war,” and whose “Blowin’ In The Wind” was the anthem of the civil rights movement. There’s that, and “a little nostalgia attached, a quite lovely bow to the history of American folk music. But literature used to mean books. Now it means a guitar? There’s something about it that’s trivializing.”
Thane Rosenbaum, the author of The Golems of Gotham, a novel that refers to writers who committed suicide after the Holocaust, told NJJN, “There is a community of American writers, Jewish in particular, who have been stunned that [Philip] Roth has been kept out all these years. For those people, Dylan’s prize must be stunning, if downright insulting. There are endless awards to give musicians; Dylan’s won them all. Meanwhile, when it comes to fiction, we’re trying to keep this business alive.”
But Rosenbaum, like most critics, came around to agreeing with the choice: “It’s not that Dylan isn’t deserving. He’s a wordsmith. The body of work is there. The committee is not resistant to picking poets, and without the music he would still stand out among poets.” Even so, as with Elie Wiesel, “you can make the argument that Dylan was even a better candidate for the peace prize, when one thinks of [the fusion of] social activism and song.”
Dylan came out of the west in 1961, a mystical gunslinger of a folksinger. He hair seemed a halo; his insights ageless. He heard words in the rattle of freight trains, and the wind of New York winters. He came, he said, from “a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn’t faze me.”
He is not the first American Jew to win the prize but the most Jewish. He was like Anne Frank’s ornery brother who after the Holocaust didn’t particularly think people were good at heart. “We forgave the Germans,” he sang in brick-walled cellar clubs, “though they murdered six million, in the ovens they fried.”
Later on, he sang about Israel: “The neighborhood bully, he just lives to survive / criticized and condemned for being alive / He’s not supposed to fight back, supposed to have thick skin / He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in / … Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill. Running out the clock, time standing still.”
In the Village of the 1960s, he hung around with an Israeli couple, Sali Ariel, now a 69-year-old artist in Herzliya, and her then-husband, Terry (Tuvia Chaim) Noble, a kipa-wearing character who lost his leg working on a kibbutz. In their apartment, Dylan got to know Rabbi Meir Kahane (Arlo Guthrie’s bar mitzvah teacher), and Dylan later recalled being influenced by Sholom Aleichem’s son, Norman Raeben, and spending serious time with Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Kinky Friedman, Jewish outlaws and artful dodgers of the era.
Before long his writing moved far beyond protest songs. “Tangled Up in Blue” suggested as much:
“She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
I thought you’d never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
‘From me to you…’”
He was changing but “the past was close behind.” Ginsberg, at one point, described his singing as “Hebraic cantillation never before heard in U.S. song.”
In Minnesota, Dylan’s parents kept a kosher home, and two years before leaving for New York he was spending Zionist summers in Camp Herzl. More recently he’s been seen at a Chabad for Yom Kippur and was called to the Torah by that name that Robert Zimmerman never changed: Shabtai Zisel Ben-Avraham. He said he wanted to write poetry that could have been from the Other World.