As a high schooler back home in Hibbing, Minnesota, Bobby Zimmerman appeared reticent, if not actually embarrassed, about his ethnic background. An old girlfriend told Toby Thompson that when she asked him if Zimmerman wasn’t a Jewish name, “Bob didn’t answer at all, he just looked straight ahead with his face sort of funny.” Well, he always was a man for surprises, and now there’s ubiquitous talk of Dylan’s emerging consciousness of himself as a Jew. The following compendium of the current Dylan rumors and reports was gathered by Jonathan Braun and originally appeared in “The Flame,” a publication of the Union of Jewish Students at City College of New York.
The latest outpouring from the Dylan rumor machine concerns something which has been fairly well-known to the youth community for quite a while: Dylan’s Jewish identity. The news-making ingredient, however, is Dylan’s alleged newfound Jewish pride; and according to the current stories, Dylan’s involvement with Judaism is taking an unusual shape.
The following are a sampling of the Dylan rumors currently in circulation throughout the New York area:
• Dylan has traveled to Israel for the last three summers, each time paying an incognito visit to the Western Wall.
• Dylan is considering buying a house in Jerusalem, and has even weighed the possibilities of permanently settling in Israel.
• Dylan wanted to use his “real” name, Robert Zimmerman, on the cover of his Self-Portrait album.
• Dylan has been lined up for a United Jewish Appeal extravaganza in Madison Square Garden.
• Dylan has contributed $2000 to the Jewish Defense League.
Although Dylan is unavailable for comment – he can be reached only through a Greenwich Village Post Office box and a battery of secretaries – it doesn’t take much investigating to learn that by and large, the stories turn out to be fabrications of unknown, but clearly over-zealous, young Jewish nationalists. Strangely, only the JDL tale contains a kernel of truth.
Rabbi Meir Kahane, flamboyant leader of the JDL, says that he has spoken to Dylan in recent weeks – that Dylan is “sort of confused” about his Jewishness – but that he has not yet given money to the JDL.
“Dylan did promise us money,” said Kahane at a “Purim Protest Megillah Reading” for Soviet Jewry at the United Nations, “but so far, we’re still waiting.”
As for the story – apparently originated on the campus of Brooklyn College – that Dylan has been signed for a gala UJA affair – it has been flatly denied by UJA officials who admitted wishing the story was true.
“I know nothing about Bob Dylan performing for us,” UJA crack-a-jack fund raiser and entertainment specialist Murray Peters told The Flame, “but if you should hear anything, be sure to tell me about it.”
So much for the specific rumors; nevertheless, there does seem to be some basis for believing that Bob Dylan, like so many of his fans in recent years, has been struggling with his identity in an attempt to find value in being Jewish.
“Dylan has told me,” said folk singer-actor-political reformer Theodore Bikel, “that Israel appears to be one of the few places left in this world where life has any meaning.”
A Yeshiva University student who claims to have spoken to Dylan last spring, asking him to perform at the then upcoming “Israel Birthday Be-In” in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, says that Dylan refused the offer because his appearance would attract too many people who had nothing to do with the cause.
“When I started to explain the importance of the event,” the student said, “and the fact that it was in honor of Israel’s independence, he said, ‘I know, man, I identify.’ ”
Despite that polite rejection to appear at the mini folk rock festival, Israel’s Jerusalem Post carried a headline which announced a performance by Dylan at the event. To this day, there remain Israeli officials who believe that Dylan sang for Israeli freedom last May 10th in Sheep Meadow.
Stripped of its sensationalist fantasy, the possibility that Bob Dylan may be examining his Jewish heritage is actually quite plausible. Dylan, after all, is Jewish; and at a time when increasing numbers of Americans, particularly young Americans, are experiencing an intense rebirth of ethnic consciousness, it is more than likely that an artist critic of society – even if he has become a silent critic – like Dylan, would find himself taking a fresh look at his past.
As one City College Dylanologist said, “It would be just like him to keep us guessing about his Jewishness. If he really does get into being Jewish he just may join both UJA and the JDL.”
This story is from the July 8th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.