A ‘Prophet’ In Autumn

A ‘Prophet’ In Autumn

As Bob Dylan turns 70, even the Cantors Assembly is taking notice.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

On May 24, Bob Dylan will turn 70. It isn’t hard to predict what this fact will trigger. There will be a spate of editorials in a bewildering range of publications. Radio stations across the country and all over the FM band will air marathon selections of his recordings. Book and DVD publishers will release (and re-release) Dylan biographies. Boomers will have to brace themselves for an extensive encomium in AARP Magazine.

Closer to home, Film Forum will be playing a double-bill of famous Dylan documentaries. Highway 61 Revisited, essentially a Dylan tribute band, will play at B.B. King’s. The Bowery Ballroom will offer a two-night Dylanfest. Stony Brook’s University Café will hold its annual Dylan tribute, focusing on “Blonde on Blonde.”

And the Cantors Assembly, the organization of Conservative chazanim, will have a presentation on Dylan’s songs at its annual convention, this year held in Toronto, May 22-26.

The Cantors Assembly? That one wasn’t predictable.

“I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan practically all my life,” Cantor Sanford Cohn said in a telephone interview from his West Hartford, Conn., home this week. “It occurred to me that his 70th birthday falls this year, and I suddenly realized that it is during the Cantors Assembly convention.”

Cohn, who serves as cantor at The Emanuel Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in West Hartford, proposed that the Assembly take note of this milestone birthday with a program.

“We decided to have a homemade program that would showcase some of our own chazanim, doing their own interpretations of Dylan’s music,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect, but I started listening to some 20 songs I thought would be appropriate and I got seven or eight responses.”

This event raises the inevitable question, often discussed in our back pages: How Jewish is Bob Dylan? More appropriately, how Jewish is his music? What has his influence been on the Jewish music world specifically?

Cantor Cohn readily admits that there are very few Jewish elements in Dylan’s music itself. He likens the former Bob Zimmerman to the late Debbie Friedman.

“In terms of nusakh, in terms of Jewish tam [flavor], I don’t think either of them have much of the Jewish tradition in their music,” he says. “The lyrics, on the other hand, that’s the Jewish connection.”

The multi-talented violinist and filmmaker Yale Strom, a fixture on the klezmer scene for years, harkened back to early Dylan.

“I think Dylan’s legacy for Jewish music is his early songs like ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ ‘Masters of War,’ ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ … These tunes dealt with the problems of society, the human condition. Since Abraham when he opened his tent to strangers and offered them food, water and a place to rest, through the prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah, Jews have been taught that to extol God is to care for all its creations. … Dylan certainly through these early tunes of his cared about tikkun olam [repairing the world], and created ‘Jewish’ music.”

Seth Rogovoy, whose “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, 2009) is one of the first and only books to discuss Dylan in specifically Jewish terms, links the singer-songwriter directly to the prophetic tradition.

“I think that the actual Jewish content of his work has been woefully underestimated or ignored,” Rogovoy said in a telephone interview last week. “The overarching prophetic impulse that informs so much of his work is what is so Jewish and so startling about Dylan.”

He offers Dylan’s exhausting performance schedule as evidence of both his ongoing creative energy and his sense of calling.

“He performs 100 nights a year all around the world,” Rogovoy noted. “A hundred nights a year — almost nobody performs that much; that’s every three nights with nights off for traveling. And he’s done this non-stop for over 20 years. Since he turned 50 he has consistently been on the road — every night he’s not just doing the same show. He continues every night to reinvent himself. I think that he is just driven. He is in the tradition of the prophets — that was the prophets’ job. They had no choice. Dylan is somehow channeling that mission, that vibe, that energy. He gets up there because he still has these things to say and communicate.”

Some Jewish musicians haven’t forgiven Dylan for his relatively brief embrace of Evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s. Henry Sapoznik, an acclaimed klezmer scholar and musician, said in an e-mail, “[D]espite being born in a Jewish home, being a bar mitzvah and attending a Zionist camp as a youth, Dylan [is] as Jewish as a Reuben sandwich: brought into existence by a Jew and named for him. But its very elements — milk and meat — make it unabashedly treif and untouchable.”

Cohn admitted that Dylan’s “Saved” “crossed the line for me.”

But he says of “Slow Train Coming,” which came out while the cantor was in the midst of his first extended experience in Israel, “It may be Christian, but it’s good music. It’s about God and belief and faith, and it didn’t insult me.”

Rogovoy dryly noted that Dylan’s “Christian period” amounted to little more than a year and a half, and it was followed by the most intense and sustained period of Jewish involvement of his career.

So, how Jewish is he?

Rogovoy probably speaks for most of us when he said, “All we can do is base [an answer] on what we have. How conscious [of the issue] is Dylan? I have no clue and I wouldn’t want to ask him. He has become a master of obfuscation, taken it and turned it into an art form.”

Rogovoy paused, and then laughed. “That fits his role as a prophet, too.”

The Dylan-At-70 List

There are so many Dylan birthday tributes in the offing that the simplest way to find one that appeals to you is to go online and Google “Bob Dylan 70th birthday.” That said, here are some of the local events of note:

Beginning May 18, Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) will have a week-long program of the famous Pennebaker-Leacock documentary “Don’t Look Back,” and Murray Lerner’s film of Dylan’s three appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, culminating in the controversial debut of his electric set, “The Other Side of the Mirror.” (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org. (Both films are being released in Blu-Ray this month as well, “Don’t” from Docurama, “Mirror” from Sony.)

The University Café’s annual Dylan tribute will take place on Stony Brook’s West Campus May 21 at 8 p.m. (631) 632-6000.

Dylanfest 2011 will take place at the Bowery Ballroom (6 Delancey St.) May 26-27, with a huge list of participants, including Norah Jones and Evan Dando. (212) 533-2111, www.bowerypresents.com.

Highway 61 Revisited performs Dylan’s music at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill (237 W. 42nd St.) Monday, May 30 at 8 p.m. (212) 997-4144, www.bbkingblues.com.

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