Bob Dylan: The Unauthorized Spiritual Biography
By Nadine Epstein and Rebecca Frankel
In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan performed at tiny Greenwich Village folk clubs, acoustic guitar strapped across his compact shoulders, harmonica perched on a metal rack around his slender neck. His chord changes were simple and his voice a soft-grating croon. With lyrics that were eerily profound, the Midwestern folksinger soon found himself labeled a “prophet” of his generation.
The young musician’s fans were spiritual, not religious in the traditional sense; many were abandoning the churches and synagogues of their parents in search of something new. But even those Jews who felt little connection with Judaism could not suppress a hint of pride as they listened to songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” anthems that were reverently taken up by other 1960s legends like Judy Collins, The Byrds and Peter, Paul & Mary. Bob Dylan, the poet of their generation, was Jewish.
Those young Jews who worshiped in the Temple of Dylan never wanted him to be anything other than what he was: a musical troubadour preaching his own brand of spirituality. They couldn’t have foreseen the day, nearly two decades later, when Dylan would come forward as a man reborn, singing his love for a Christian savior. “Are you ready to meet Jesus?” asked a song on his 1980 album Saved. “Are you where you ought to be?/Will He know you when He sees you/or will He say, ‘Depart from Me?”
Jesus long ago vanished from Dylan’s lyrical vocabulary. At 64, he wears a gentlemanly cowboy hat in place of the corduroy cap from his Greenwich Village days, and lines now gather around his blue eyes. Yet, as he continues to crisscross the world on his Never-Ending Tour, he remains as much of an enigma as ever.
After decades of wondering about his religious identity, Moment takes a look back at Dylan’s spiritual journey. We begin in Hibbing, the small Midwestern mining town where Bob Dylan once lived, back when they called him Bobby Zimmerman…
US 50 is lined with the still-bare trees of early April blending with the evergreen spruces and jack pines. Past the rolling Minnesota hills, corrals of horses and cattle give way to hints of commercial life. Motels and fast food joints common to any Midwest highway flash by. A small sign appears ahead. “Hibbing” it says in large, white letters, “20 Miles.”
Like other small cities, Hibbing has its claims to fame. Built on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in the 1890s, it boasts a six-mile by three-mile, 500-foot-deep gash in the earth—the Hull-Rust Mahoney mine—the world’s largest open air mine. It’s also the birthplace of baseball great Roger Maris, Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale and the once-mighty American company known as Greyhound Bus.
Soon enough you’ve passed the mile stretch of modest homes and are heading west on the handsome main drag—Howard Street—into downtown Hibbing, six or so blocks of turn-of-the-century brick buildings interspersed with newer structures. Many are vacant or underused, but during World War II, when demand for iron was at its peak, businesses here prospered. Most were owned and run by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had come to stay with landsmen until they could get on their feet. They stayed on, despite the fact that they were isolated from most of their American Jewish brethren, and became the vital center of the town’s commercial life.
By the 1970s, most of these businesses were gone. “When the mine closed and the miners lost their jobs, people were forced to move, and so the Jews who owned the stores lost their customers,” says Steve Jolowsky, 45. One of the handful of Jews remaining in Hibbing, Jolowsky runs his family’s scrap yard.
Hibbing’s downtown stands as a monument to its once vibrant Jewish community. “Every single store except for the J.C. Penney’s was owned by Jews,” recalls Neil Schwartz, 53, who grew up in Hibbing and is now a cantor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A glance at the 1942 Hibbing City Directory confirms this observation: Hyman Bloom owned the Boston Department Store, Jacob Jowolsky operated Hibbing Auto Wrecking. Nathan Nides owned Nides Fashion Shop, sold insurance and lent money. The First Avenue Market was owned by David Shapiro, Jack and Israel Sher ran the Insurance Service Agency and Louis Stein was the proprietor of Stein’s Drug Store. The Edelstein-Stones owned a string of movie palaces, including the local drive-in and the Lybba Theater on Howard Street, named after Bob Dylan’s maternal great-grandmother Lybba Edelstein, who came to the United States from Lithuania in 1902.
On May 24, 1941, 10-pound Robert “Bobby” Allen was born to Abe Zimmerman and his wife Beatty at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. Beatty had grown up in Hibbing, 86 miles to the northwest. Abe was the son of Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, Jewish immigrants from Odessa.
Bobby’s bris was held in the Zimmermans’ apartment in the largely Jewish central hillside district of Duluth, where Abe managed the stock department for Standard Oil. When Bobby was six, Abe, an avid athlete, fell ill with polio and was left with a weak leg that made walking painful. The family moved to Hibbing where Abe went into business with his brothers Maurice and Paul, who owned and operated an electric supply, appliance and furniture store.
The home the Zimmerman family eventually settled into (another son, David, soon came along) is easy to find. Its photo is posted on the Hibbing website along with its street number, 2425 Seventh Avenue East. The two-story, boxy, blue stucco house has a maroon-red door. Three smartly trimmed bushes flank the walk to the front steps. Seventh Avenue is wide with little traffic. It’s lined with trees and small houses, some with porches, and seems steeped in generations of quiet and calm. It’s all very ordinary.
It was here that Bobby Zimmerman grew up, surrounded by a loving family and a stable Jewish community that numbered nearly 300. There was nothing exceptional about his childhood. His father was president of B’nai Brith, and his mother was president of Hadassah.
Beatty, says Robert Shelton in his 1986 biography of Dylan entitled No Direction Home, was a “bubbly woman, blond, headstrong, nervous, volatile and warm.” Abe was “a short man with an appealing smile,” who was more often than not seen with a cigar. Their home was “clean and orderly” and “always ready for a visit.” They were the kind of parents who would read and re-read the Mother’s and Father’s Day poems penned by their not-yet-famous son, pulling them from a drawer to share with visitors.
Bobby attended religious school at Agudas Achim, the community’s only synagogue. “Bob was a rambunctious but nice kid,” religious school principal Shirley Schwartz told her son Neil, the cantor who now lives in Tennessee. In the summers, Bobby attended Herzl Camp, a popular Zionist camp in northwestern Wisconsin, where he swam and boated, learned Hebrew and played piano, guitar and harmonica with his fellow campers.
When Bobby came of age, 400 people attended his Bar Mitzvah party—rumored to be the largest ever held in Hibbing—at the city’s grand Androy Hotel. Bobby had prepared for his Torah and Haftorah readings with Reuben Maier, an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn. They studied in an apartment at 419 East Howard, right above the L&B Café, which had the best jukebox in town. The rabbi’s arrival in Hibbing was, according to Dylan in a 1985 interview with Spin magazine, serendipitous.
“The town didn’t have a rabbi…. He showed up just in time for me to learn this stuff. He was an old man…with a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs of the café, which was the local hangout. It was a rock ‘n’ roll café where I used to hang out too. I used to go up there every day to learn this stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie. The rabbi taught me what I had to learn and after he conducted the Bar Mitzvah, he just disappeared…. I never saw him again…. He came and went like a ghost.”
In the same interview, Dylan went on to say that he believed Rabbi Maier was forced out of the community because he was Orthodox, and too different from the more assimilated Jews of Hibbing. “Jews separate themselves like that. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, as if God calls them that. Christians too. Baptists… Methodists, Calvinists. God has no respect for a person’s title. He don’t care what you call yourself.”
The tone of Dylan’s recollection may give a hint of what it was like to be a Jew in a town dominated by descendants of the great Scandinavian immigration about whom Garrison Keillor, that other American poet from Minnesota, so fondly spins tales. A teacher at Hibbing High told biographer Robert Shelton that while many barriers had been razed, some remained. “In Hibbing, the Finns hated the Bohemians and the Bohemians hated the Finns. Nearly everyone hated the Jews.” According to Shelton, one of Dylan’s classmates said, “The kids used to tease Bob, sometimes. They would call him Bobby Zennerman because it was so difficult to pronounce Zimmerman. He didn’t like that…. His feelings could be hurt easily. Later in high school he wasn’t so well liked, mostly because he stayed to himself so much.”
“All I did was write and sing…dissolve myself into situations where I was invisible,” Dylan said of his teenage years, when he hid away in his family’s attached garage with rock bands called The Shadow Blasters and The Golden Chords. Shelton connects this need for invisibility to the struggles of what he called alien assimilation. “The thirty or forty Jewish families of Hibbing still had to huddle together against the cold. Abe, who loved to play golf, couldn’t belong to the Masabi Country Club.”
A grandchild of immigrants, Bobby nevertheless was deeply American. He attended public school, where he did well when he wanted to, and had non-Jewish friends including girlfriend Echo Hellstrom. It’s quite possible that his sense of social justice was honed by the Hibbing miner strikes of 1949 and 1952. And his taste in music was heavily influenced by the energetic sounds of Little Richard and the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll he picked up at night on his AM radio. He liked to emulate his favorite rebel, James Dean; when he performed at his high school talent show, the quiet Zimmerman surprised many with his rocking music, irritating the principal and delighting his peers.
In the fall of 1959, when Hibbing’s Jewish population had dropped to 155, Bobby Zimmerman set off for college, leaving his family and small-town Judaism behind. In this way, he was no different from thousands of young Jews throughout the Midwest: they were all part of the same downward spiral that eventually led Hibbing’s stores and theaters to close and Agudas Achim to be shuttered and sold as a private home. Merchants’ children left because they didn’t want the businesses, in part because they were waning, and in part because their hometowns offered few opportunities.
“The only thing you could do [in Hibbing] was be a miner, and even that…was getting less and less,” Dylan told Playboy in 1966. “The people that lived there—they’re nice people—they still stand out as being the least hung up. The mines were just dying, but that’s not their fault.”
Bobby enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where it is said that he considered joining a Jewish fraternity before declaring it meaningless. But much to his father’s dismay, he preferred performing at coffee houses to schoolwork, and adopted the decidedly non-Semitic sounding name Bob Dylan.
Late in 1960 he headed for Greenwich Village. His arrival was well timed. This talented and driven young man came into a world on the cusp of change populated by Beat poets and folk singers, influenced by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger—three Dylan idols who had been recorded by Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records and son of the great Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch. Rock ‘n’ roll was about to join forces with massive political activism and give birth to a new generation of American music.
Dylan hung out at small clubs, absorbing the scene in what some call his “sponge” period. As he writes in his 2004Chronicles, Volume One, the old folk songs in his early repertoire were his “preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” He later describes some of the folk and blues concerts he attended when he first came to New York as “spiritual experiences…. I wasn’t ready to act on it but knew somehow, though, that if I wanted to stay playing music, that I would have to claim a larger part of myself.”
“Being a musician means…getting to the depths of where you are at,” Dylan told Playboy in 1966. “And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing…. Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music.”
Dylan quickly gained attention. In October 1962, he recorded his first album, Bob Dylan, which alternated a beguiling mixture of old spirituals and mournful ballads such as “In My Time of Dyin’,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow with new material such as “Song to Woody.” (Dylan regularly visited Guthrie—who had married a Jewish woman and was fascinated by all things Jewish—as he lay ailing in a hospital.)
With this album under his belt, Dylan felt ready to invent his own blend of musical styles. In 1963 he released the albumThe Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which included “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that Peter, Paul & Mary transformed into a hit single and a civil rights anthem.
By the end of the 1960s, Dylan had turned popular music on its head, says Scott R. Benarde, author of the book, Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories. “He bent and broke songwriting rules, contemplating God, morality and justice in songs as few had done, inspired if not invented the musical form of folk rock…recorded folk, blues, country rock…defying those who would label him, and irritated fans by rendering his classic songs unrecognizable in concert. Through it all he never looked back.”
Dylan was a spiritual seeker at the dawn of a new era and he poured his yearnings into his music. He was heavily influenced by gospel and bluegrass, both outgrowths of the country’s Christian roots. His lyrics, like those of his musical heroes, were laden with biblical imagery.
The title song from Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited opens with a direct allusion to the Torah: “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’/God say ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’/God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin’ you better run’/‘Well,’ Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’”
Despite the recurrence of Jewish themes in his work, Dylan was not easy to read. He was famously coy and often evasive while giving interviews, and he was particularly contradictory when speaking about religion. This made it easy for fans to invest his lyrics with their own meaning, says Ron Rosenbaum, discussing his 1978 Playboy interview with Dylan. “At times he spoke like a prophet with that elliptical logic reminiscent of the biblical teachers, and that same sense of cutting to the core meaning of things.”
Some of Dylan’s lyrics reflected an ongoing struggle with religion that bordered on the existential. “When the Second World War/Came to an end/We forgave the Germans/And we were friends/Though they murdered six million/In the ovens they fried/The Germans now too/Have God on their side,” he wrote in “With God On Our Side” on his 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Dylan was hungry for knowledge and willing to redefine himself spiritually in order to find it. “Got no religion,” Dylan would tell Izzy Young in 1961. Young was the owner of the Folklore Center, the hub for Village folk musicians. “Tried a bunch of different religions. The churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds, and neither can I. Never saw a god; can’t say until I see one.” Later, in his 1966 interview with Playboy, Dylan said that he had never really felt Jewish. “I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish.… I’m not a patriot to any creed. I believe in all of them and none of them.”
But if Dylan evaded religious labels he wasn’t afraid to challenge the agnosticism that was prevalent among 1960s intellectuals. “I remember seeing a TIME magazine cover on an airplane a few years back and it had a big cover headline, ‘IS GOD DEAD?’” Dylan told Playboy. “I mean, that was—would you think that was a responsible thing to do? What does God think of that? I mean, if you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself? You know, I think the country has gone downhill since that day.”
By 1966, the young man from Hibbing was battling the pressures of success. When a motorcycle accident left him with a concussion and cracked vertebrae, he decided it was time to take a break from celebrity life. “I was pretty wound up before that accident,” he told Spin in 1985. “I wasn’t seeing anything in any kind of perspective. I probably would have died if I had kept on going that way.”
He had married model and former Playboy Bunny Sara Lowndes (the former Shirley Nozinsky) in a civil ceremony in 1965. They settled into a very private life in Woodstock, New York. Dylan adopted Maria, Lowndes’ daughter, and the couple had four more children: Jesse, Sam, Jakob and Anna.
During this period Dylan released several albums, some more critically acclaimed than others. His spiritual “I Shall be Released,” recorded in 1967, may have reflected Dylan’s relief at being out of the spotlight, suggests Larry Yudelson author of the article “Tangled Up in Jews,” which was published in Washington Jewish Week in 1991. Certainly, the lyrics could lead one to that conclusion: “I see the light come shining/from the west down to the east/Any day now, Any way now/I shall be released.”
The song “Forever Young” on the 1974 album Planet Waves may have been written for the couple’s youngest son, Jakob. Scott R. Benarde notes that it is based on the parents’ Blessing of the Children on Shabbat. The blessing begins: “May God bless you and keep you.” Dylan’s song opens with “May God bless you and keep you always/May your wishes all come true/May you always do for others/And let others do for you.”
On his 30th birthday, Dylan was in Israel. According to biographer Robert Shelton, he visited a Jerusalem yeshiva where several American students asked him why he avoided talking about his Jewish identity. Shelton says that Dylan responded, “I’m a Jew. It touches my poetry, my life in ways I can’t describe. Why should I declare something so obvious?”
Another intriguing Jewish connection from this period involves Norman Raeben, the son of noted writer Shalom Aleichem. Raeben was Dylan’s art teacher in 1974 and his lessons are said to have inspired Dylan’s painfully honest “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“Norman Raeben taught me how to see…in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” Dylan writes in 1978. “And I didn’t know how to pull it off. I wasn’t sure it could be done in songs because I’d never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was Blood on The Tracks. Everybody agrees that it was pretty different, and what’s different about it is there’s a code in the lyrics and also there’s no sense of time.” He went on to explain that this artistic renaissance had come at a price: once he learned to refocus his energies on what he did best, his wife ceased to understand him.
By 1977, the peaceful period in Dylan’s life had come to an end. His breakup with Sara, memorialized in Blood on the Tracks, was followed by an ugly custody battle over their children. Then Dylan made a move that few have forgotten to this day. It was touched off by a mystical experience.
“Jesus put his hand on me,” he explained to Karen Hughes in 1980 in an interview later published in the New Zealand newspaper The Dominion. “It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up…. I guess He’s always been calling me.”
Not since Shabbatai Tzvi’s 17th century about-face did an exit from Judaism shock the tribe like Dylan’s Christian period. While he was just one of many seekers who turned to born-again Christianity during the 1970s—becoming what was then known as a Jesus Freak—it came as quite a surprise when the quintessential individualist accepted Jesus as the Ultimate Authority.
Dylan’s mystical experience led him to spend time with a southern California Christian group called the Vineyard Fellowship and eventually to accept Jesus, says Stars of David author Benarde. Shortly after, Dylan recorded his first Christian album Slow Train Coming. The title song became a top 40 hit and won Dylan a Grammy for Best Male Rock Performer in 1980. His low-down “Gotta Serve Somebody” (meaning Jesus) also got lots of radio play, says Benarde. His album Saved disappointed fans, although the 1981 Shot of Love restored some of his popularity.
Throughout this period, Dylan sang his Christian songs and talked of Jesus at concerts. His public embrace of Christianity left his fans perplexed. Jews were especially uncomfortable. “I remember how disgusted my mother was,” says Hibbing’s Steve Jolowsky. Cantor Schwartz recalls that Dylan’s conversion “certainly was a topic of discussion in whatever Jewish community I was a member of.” But he adds, “Those of us that came from the hinterlands like he did predicted that it wasn’t going to last, and we were right.”
Dylan’s mother Beatty, who died in 2000, weighed in on the subject during a 1985 interview now posted at jewhoo.com. Asked about her son’s Christian period, she said, “He never displayed it for me,” adding that “what religion a person is shouldn’t make any difference to anybody else. I’m not bigoted in any way. Rabbis would call me up. I’d say if you’re upset, you try to change him.’”
After a few years Dylan stopped spreading the word and began to distance himself from Christianity. In 1983 he traveled to Israel for his son Jesse’s Bar Mitzvah and an Israeli photographer caught Dylan wearing tefillin and praying at the wall. His album Infidels, which was released that same year, includes an ode to Israel called “Neighborhood Bully.” Dylan, says Benarde, “uses the song to make an impassioned defense of the Jewish homeland. He illustrates how Israel (never named in the song but quite obvious), vastly outnumbered and surrounded by a hostile world, still is tagged as the region’s ‘neighborhood bully’ for the mere act of surviving. Casting Israel,” Benarde adds, “as the ‘neighborhood bully is exactly what the Palestinians have managed to do two and a half decades after Dylan wrote the song.”
“The neighborhood bully just lives to survive/He’s criticized and condemned for being alive/He’s not supposed to fight back/He’s supposed to have thick skin/He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in/He’s the neighborhood bully.”
By this time, according to “Tangled Up in Jews” author Larry Yudelson, Jesus had vanished from Dylan’s lyrical vocabulary, replaced by “the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.” Yudelson reports that Dylan told an interviewer about his born-again period: “[It] was all part of my experience. It had to happen. When I get involved in something, I get totally involved. I don’t just play around the fringes.”
In the years that followed, there were many Dylan sightings in Jewish venues including Chabad telethons, during one of which he is reported to have said, “Chabad is my favorite organization in the whole world, really.” According to a 1986 article by Mike Santangelo in The Daily News, Dylan spent several years in the 1980s studying with the Lubavitcher Jews of Brooklyn, receiving instruction from Talmudic scholars and listening to tapes of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. Since then he has been seen praying with Chabad in Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York.
Dylan is now patriarch of a large and mostly Jewish family, though exact details are not publicly known. In his recent Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, biographer Howard Sounes revealed that Dylan secretly married gospel-rock singer Carol Dennis in 1986. They had a daughter and divorced in 1992.
In the late 1980s, Dylan’s eldest daughter, Maria, a lawyer, married Peter Himmelman, a well-known and talented musician. Himmelman, who grew up in Minnesota, discovered Chabad as a young man, and the couple has chosen to send their four children to Jewish day schools near their home in Santa Monica, California.
Dylan’s eldest son Jesse may also be observant, and his youngest son, Jakob, now 35 and frontman for the critically acclaimed band, The Wallflowers, has spoken publicly about his Jewishness. “I am Jewish and that’s what’s there,” the young Dylan told Mick Brown of The Daily Telegraph in 2000. In an article in Details, Jakob said that he and his brothers came by their biblical names because of their parents’ interest in Judaism. A few months ago, in an interview with Anthony DeCurtis in The New York Times, just before The Wallflowers released their new album (on May 24th, Bob Dylan’s 64th birthday), Jakob reveals what it was like to grow up with a famous father. “Do most kids have people crash their Bar Mitzvah?” he asks.
When nighttime falls in Hibbing, the quiet settles even deeper. Few establishments are open for business and the words of one former visitor come to mind: “Hibbing by night is any small town on the edge of nowhere.”
Zimmy’s Bar and Grill is usually the first stop for those Dylan pilgrims who make it to Hibbing. The door and awning of the brick-square restaurant are mismatched shades of red, and the predictable Dylan memorabilia hangs on the walls. A few locals sit at the bar.
“It’s pretty easy to spot out-of-towners on a Dylan quest because they usually come in alone,” says co-owner Linda Stroback-Hocking, who moved to Hibbing from Philadelphia and is a huge Dylan fan. Once they arrive, the Dylan seekers study the decor, buy T-shirts and shot glasses, and order Hard Rain Hamburgers and Hurricane Carter Reuben sandwiches.
Nearly 45 years after Dylan left Hibbing, he plays on, so busy performing in the out-of-the-way venues he prefers that he can’t have much time for the homes he keeps in Minnesota, California and New York, let alone his boat in the Caribbean. All that really can be said is that he remains true to himself. The man known for making statements that are out of step with logic that he has presented earlier remains consistent in his devotion to self-discovery.
Perhaps the time has come for his Jewish fans to forgive Robert Zimmerman for his brief sojourn away from the faith. Many ardent Jewish Dylan admirers believe that he had to leave Judaism in order to return more fully. Scott R. Benarde suggests that we “consider Dylan’s fling with Christianity his moment of Yisrael, of ‘wrestling with God.’”
A friend who knows Bob Dylan well, and who wishes to remain anonymous, offers this: “Being Jewish and being connected to G-d in the traditional Jewish way is an important part of who Bob is. He knows his talent and success are gifts that have been given to him by G-d. When it is Bob’s time to be called back to his creator, Jewish people, family, friends and fans will say Kaddish for him according to the Jewish tradition. And it will be good, and his soul will be happy.”
Andrew Muchin contributed to the reporting of this story.