As a regular reader of Paul Prather’s columns and a lifelong fan of Bob Dylan, I read with particular interest Prather’s Oct. 21 column on Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan.
But as a Jew and an active member of Central Kentucky’s Jewish community, I was alarmed by Prather’s assertion that Dylan’s brief encounter with evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s remains strong to this day and that he has remained a practicing Christian since that time.
That is clearly not the case, and this short phase of Dylan’s life was soon replaced by his most Jewish one.
The column states that “in the late 1970s, Dylan, a Jew by birth, converted to Christianity.” Dylan was more than “a Jew by birth.”
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman (or to give him his Hebrew name: Shabtai Zizl ben Avraham) to an observant Jewish family, Dylan had a decidedly Jewish upbringing as part of the tight-knit Jewish communities of Duluth and Hibbing, Minn., growing up in a kosher home and attending a religious-Zionist summer camp, Camp Herzl.
He attended Hebrew School at an orthodox synagogue, and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah as any nice Jewish boy would.
Prather later states that “in the 1980s, rumors spread that Dylan had renounced his conversion. However, recent reports suggest this wasn’t true, and that he remains a practicing Christian.”
This may be wishful thinking on Prather’s (and other Christian evangelicals’) part, but it’s simply not the case. Following his brief interest in Christianity in the late 1970s, beginning in the early 1980s Dylan began to publicly embrace his Jewish roots.
He started showing up on the telethons run by the Chabad Hasidic sect, he was spotted at a number of Yom Kippur services at Chabad synagogues, and he was sighted davening (praying) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and visiting rabbinic sages. He even considered moving to Israel.
There are reports that Dylan completed an application to join a kibbutz in Israel. His brief interest in evangelical Christianity was followed by an awakening of Dylan’s Judaism, and the release of his most Jewish song ever, “Neighborhood Bully.”
It is also worth noting that Dylan took his son to Israel for his bar mitzvah ceremony and sent his children to his religious-Zionist camp alma mater, Wisconsin’s Camp Herzl.
This “nice Jewish boy” turned into a “good Jewish man,” making a few side trips along the way.
Dylan is deeply Jewish and always has been, even as he questioned his faith during his brief encounter with Christianity. Prather’s suggestion that Dylan remains a Christian strikes an unpleasant chord among Jews, having been subjects of forced conversions and worse by Christians throughout the Common Era.
Jews are rightfully proud that Dylan, a Jew, is the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
I am disappointed that Prather’s column attempted to undermine that pride and honor.
Michael J. Grossman is a Lexington attorney and former president of the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass.
At issue: Paul Prather column, “Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan wrote terrific Christian songs, too”