Bob Dylan is a Jewish American singer, musician and songwriter, widely regarded as one of the greated and most popular in American history.
Dylan (born May 24, 1941) was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman to parents Abe and Beatty
Zimmerman. Abe's parents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, were Jewish immigrants
from Odessa, Ukraine. He spent his early childhood in Duluth, Minnesota, but in 1947, after Abe was stricken with polio, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota.
In the 1950's, Hibbing had a stable Jewish community of about 300 people,
and Dylan's parents took active community roles - his father serving as president
of B'nai Brith and his mother as
president of the local Hadassah chapter.
Dylan attended religious school at the community's
only synagogue, Agudas Achim and he attended the Zionist Herzl Camp in Wisconsin where he played guitar, piano, and harmonica with his fellow
campers. At 13, he had a Bar
Mitzvah in Hibbing with a guest list of around 400, which according
to Moment magazine is rumored to be the largest ever in the town's
Much of his youth was spent listening to the radio,
where he discovered blues, country music, and rock and roll. He was
heavily influenced by Little Richard and Carl Perkins, and began performing
in high school garage rock bands called The Shadow Blasters and The
Golden Chords. In 1959, he went off to college at the University of
Minnesota. began introducing himself as Bob Dylan (or Dillon). He has
never fully explained why he adopted this pseudonym, although there
are many rumors regarding its origin. He quit school after one year,
and found his way to Greenwich Village, New
On April 24, 1961, Dylan participated in his first professional recording session, playing harmonica on the song “Midnight Special,” with folk singer Harry Belafonte. After gaining some crucial exposure later that year through a piece in The
New York Times, Dylan was signed to a record deal with Columbia
Records. His first album for Columbia was Bob Dylan, recorded
in 1962. It was in his first few albums where he developed his own genre
of protest songs, where he observed and criticized what he perceived
as injustices in American society.
In 1963, he released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,
which included the civil rights anthem "Blowin' In The Wind."
The 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary adopted the song and turned
it into an international hit single. By the end of the 1960s, Dylan
was already considered a musicial "prophet" by his contemporaries
for his genre-defining lyrics. Many of his songs also had recurring
Jewish themes. The title song from Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
alludes to the Binding of Isaac:
"Oh G-d said to Abraham,
'Kill me a son'/ Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'/ G-d say
'No.' Abe say, 'What?'/ G-d 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?'/ G-d says, 'Out on Highway 61.'"
In his song "Not Dark Yet" from the 1990s era album Time
Out of Mind, he sings, "I was born here and I'll die here against
my will. Against your will you were born, against your will you will
die." This is a paraphrased passage from Pirke
Avot, or the "Sayings
of Our Fathers" from the Mishnah ("Talkin' Hava Nagilah Blues," by Seth Rogovoy, www.jewsrock.org).
Despite the Jewish and other religious allusions in
his work, Dylan said in a 1966 interview with Playboy that he
never really felt Jewish. "I don't really consider myself Jewish
I'm not a patriot to any creed. I believe in all
of them and none of them ("The Unauthorized Spirtual Biography,"
by Nadine Epstein and Rebecca Frankel, Moment, Aug. 2005). Dylan
aroused controversy when he converted to Christianity and became an evangelical in the late 1970's.
In 1983, around the release
of his album Infidels, Dylan began to distance himself from Christianity
and the church. He traveled to Israel for his son Jesse's Bar Mitzvah and was photographed at the Kotel wearing tefillin and praying.
His song “Neighborhood Bully” from Infidels is an
ode to Israel and its policies. Israel is never named directly in the
song, but Dylan illustrates how Israel is outnumbered in the Middle
East and surrounded by hostile nations, and how Israel is constantly
labeled by its enemies as a bully simply because it is struggling for
Though much of his most famous and important work was based in the
1960's, Dylan continues to tour and release albums even today. Dylan continues to perform on his
"Never Ending Tour," playing as many as 100 shows per year.
His current religious label is always in question, but whether he is
Jewish or Christian, Bob Dylan remains the single most influential songwriter
of popular music.
In May 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Bob Dylan
the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.