Bob Dylan was a hero to a generation.
“Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.”
That was me during my sophomore year at Boston Latin School, standing in front of my English class reciting Bob Dylan lyrics. This song was my choice for declamation, a required public speaking exercise where you memorized and recited a famous speech, poem or monologue. (Because there’s nothing quite as special as watching hormone-rampaged teen boys attempt to be classical orators by memorizing Lincoln speeches, soliloquies from Shakespeare, and the occasional poem by Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot.) I, however, chose to recite Bob Dylan lyrics, much to the dismay of my English teacher.
This is just one of many Dylan memories that have been flashing back to me for the past few weeks since Bob Dylan celebrated his 79th birthday. Dylan was a hero to a generation. No one wrote songs like him. No one sang (I use the word loosely) like him. No one had his attitude. And he was clearly Jewish. A Jewish rock star? And he wasn’t alone.
This was a time when some of the biggest music stars like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Carole King took pride in and often drew inspiration from their Jewishness. As the artistic director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, I think about those times a lot. Not in the nostalgic “boomer music rules” sense, but as an example of how art and culture can shape identity.
I was a teenager at a time when Jews used their outsider status as creative inspiration. Hearing a Dylan song on the radio somehow affirmed my Jewishness. Now, let’s be clear: Dylan, Simon, Cohen, and King did not teach me how to be Jewish. Rather, they validated my Jewish teen identity. Hearing them, I felt I could be proudly Jewish and still be a rock star. It’s just too bad I had absolutely NO TALENT.
But what about now? Are there musical stars high school and college students can look to for some signs of Jewish identity?
The best I can come up with is Jeff Tweedy from Wilco (probably my favorite current band), Jennie Lewis from Riley Kiley, Pink and Drake as leading Jews in the pop music world. But their approach, like the worlds they grew up in, is totally secular. I don’t think they have ever written a successful song that refers to Jewish texts. Is anyone writing lyrics like, “God said to Abraham, kill me a son,” from Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” or “Who By Fire,” Leonard Cohen’s version of the Yom Kippur prayer Unetanneh Tokef?
While Dylan and Cohen were growing up, being Jewish meant being different. By its very definition, with assimilation, Jews became like everyone else. And as wonderfully egalitarian as that may be, I selfishly long to hear some great young singer/songwriter use their Jewish identity as a launching pad for being the voice of their generation. I just hope they can sing better than Dylan.
Happy birthday, Bob! And thanks.