A Foreign Song I Learned in Utah
What could be more Jewish than winning the Nobel Prize? According to a recent accounting, of the 850 recipients since the prize’s inception, 181 (or 21.294 percent) have been Jews. If the Nobel Prize were the electoral college, Jews would be the state of Wyoming, represented way beyond their actual size in the population.
So when Bob Dylan became the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016, it could be seen as further proof of his Jewishness. And in fact, just about every Jewish newspaper, magazine, and website, from the left-leaning Forward to the right-careening Jewish Press, dutifully noted the ethno-religious connection. The association was more or less reflexive. Everybody knows that Dylan is a Jew—even if he did once convert to evangelical Christianity. And gone are the days when an Elderhostel lecturer might try to simulate hipness by revealing to his assembled class of alte kakers that the now septuagenarian enfant terrible of rock was actually born Robert Allen Zimmerman.
Still, what beside his birth name is really Jewish about him? Ask that and you’ll get a standard array of answers. It’s his questioning pose, some say, which echoes the interrogative Jewish sensibility (Dylan’s first hit, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is comprised of nine unanswered questions). Or it’s his prophetic voice, others insist, perpetually challenging authority in lyrics drenched in Old Testament imagery (his “All Along the Watchtower,” for instance, strongly evokes Isaiah 21). Or—in an argument that’s as hard to refute as to prove—it’s his very constructed identity, his Bob Dylan-ness, an intricate garb of concealment behind which the modern-day Marrano occasionally winks in bemused acknowledgement of his authentic Semitic self.