The very first time I heard Bob Dylan sing was way back in the summer of 1963 or 1964 at a relatively small ocean-front venue off the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J. The evening belonged to the folk-singer Joan Baez, but at one point she introduced her scraggly sidekick, who sang a couple of social protest songs with a hoarse and grating voice. To be honest, I was underwhelmed; “there is no music in him,” I mused. “He’ll never go anywhere.” So much for my ability to predict the future of American popular culture.
Since then, I have heard Dylan in concert twice more: once during the summer of 1999, when he shared the stage with Paul Simon at the Tweeter (now Comcast) Center in Mansfield, Mass., and again in the summer of 2006 at Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium.
While I am grateful to have had these three opportunities to hear Dylan live, his real influence upon me has been his many recordings: records, tapes, CDs. Over the decades, I have come to associate particular Dylan songs with particular periods of my life – the highs, the lows, the in-betweens. These songs – “Girl From the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “All Around the Watch Tower,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and, especially, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – have provided the background sound, the music, the poetry, the rhythm for the ups and downs of my one-way journey through time: destination unknown, ticket non-refundable. In one way or another, I have been tangled up with Bob Dylan ever since my undergraduate days at Columbia College.
Despite the fact that Dylan grew up in a Jewish home in Hibbing, Minn., as Robert Allen Zimmerman, son of Abraham and Beatty, he has always seemed to me to be somewhat ambivalent about his Jewish identity. Indeed, according to many reports, he actually became a born-again Christian in 1979; however, with hindsight, that flirtation appears to have been relatively short-lived.
There are those who insist upon Dylan’s essential Jewishness, pointing to particular Jewish themes in some of his lyrics: for example, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in “Highway 61 Revisited” or his “prophetic” voice on issues of social justice in many of his earliest works. Add to this the fact that in his later years he has been known to associate with certain Chabad rabbis. As Seth Rogovoy put it in the October 5, 2012 online issue of the “Jewish Daily Forward,” “While Bob Dylan has, throughout his life and career, engaged in all sorts of mythologizing and playful biographical falsification, it has never been in the service of denying his heritage … he never strayed far from his roots, nor did he deny them.”
Even if I could be persuaded of Dylan’s positive sense of Jewish identity, I was at first highly skeptical to read in J.J. Goldberg’s Sept. 12, 2013 online “Forward” piece that he had designated Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as the opening “act” of an ersatz Yom Kippur service in song.
In his column, “Songs to Atone By: Dylan, Jolson, Streisand, Oysher,” Goldberg explained that he had “put together a selection of songs that sum up the day and capture its spirit … I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, from the introductory prayer to the Kol Nidre, the Maariv service, some highlights of the Mussaf, the Jonah story and finally Neilah and absolution.” Goldberg has chosen renditions of traditional liturgy, such as Kol Nidrei and Avinu Malkeinu, as well as “American songs that capture message and flavor” of Judaism’s Day of Days.
Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” has been in my ear and in my soul for decades. The original version, composed in 1973 for the soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” tells in two short verses the simple but poignant story of a wounded deputy who senses he is soon to die:
“Mama, take this badge off of me/I can’t use it anymore./It’s getting dark, too dark to see/I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
“Mama, put my guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore./That long black cloud is coming down/I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
The song’s chorus holds a poetry of melody and rhythm which brings me – at least metaphorically – to heaven’s door.
Four times Dylan insists: “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
There is, of course, no way of knowing what inspired Dylan to write these words. I suspect that the poet/songwriter himself does not know. Nor is there any single way to interpret these words. Has Dylan consciously or perhaps unconsciously drawn upon the Yom Kippur imagery of the worshipping congregation assailing the gates of heaven – sha’arei shamayim – with songs of prayer and repentance? Again, no way of knowing. What I do know is that when I approach Yom Kippur 5775, eleven months from now, the “knockin’” words and melody and rhythm of Dylan’s song will help carry me on my journey towards renewal and release.
James B. Rosenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.