Bob Dylan: A Jew with Christmas in the Heart

Dec 21, 2015 | 15709 Views | 8 Comments

’Tis the season to see “Jews for Jesus” popping up around Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the vibrant center of Jewish culture here in the city. Why, just the other day I was strolling to the iconic Little’s Shoe Store, my beloved Bethlehem of Boots, when I saw two spunky dudes dressed in blue “Jews for Jesus” t-shirts (the o in for represented by a Star of David) distributing their mission-statement flyers. But what exactly is their mission? They say it’s “to make the Messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to Jewish people worldwide.” Hmmmm. Well, a lot of my Jewish friends think they’re all a bunch of misguided, meshugge Christians.

So, what then do we make of Jews for Baby Jesus?  You know — those members of the Tribe of Judah who have written and recorded some of the world’s most beloved songs celebrating the season of Christ’s birth.  Irving Berlin composed “White Christmas.” Jews Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (born Jacob Harold Levison) wrote “Silver Bells.” Christmas-crazy Jew Johnny Marks penned such classics as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,”  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Run Rudolph Run.”  Let’s face it, Jews write some pretty catchy tunes.  If George and Ira Gershwin can realistically portray a slice of African American life by writing “Porgy and Bess,” then Mel Tormé  (surprise! a Jew!) can give us that somewhat unrealistic Ozzie and Harriet image of happy Christians “roasting chestnuts on an open fire.”

Herb Alpert Christmas LPAnd admit it — how many times have you thrown a yule log on the fire, cranked up the Hi-Fi, and noshed on lox and cream cheese while enjoying a Christmas record by Barbra Steisand, Neil Diamond, Herb Alpert, Bette Midler or Barry Manilow?  Even America’s most revered punk rocker, the late Joey Ramone (a Jew born Jeffrey Ross Hyman) – famous for his little ditties about sniffing glue and beating on brats with baseball bats –  revealed his gentler side when he composed “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight.)”  Hey, Ho, Let’s Go – Ho, Ho, Ho!

But, in the words of Jewish vaudeville sensation Al Jolson, when it comes to Jews crooning carols, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”  The distinct nasal droning of rock’s premier poet, Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan, will be blowin’ in the Christmas wind when I crank up his 2009 album, “Christmas in the Heart.”  Now I admit, I don’t listen to a single holiday song on any of my Apple devices, unless it’s one of those rare, reality-based gritty urban tunes like The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (It was Christmas eve, babe / In the drunk tank / An old man said to me: won’t see another one…).  I’ve even been known to cut short my visits to Macy’s shoe department when “sleigh bells jingling” start to ring-ting-tingle my brain.

But Bob Dylan singing Christmas carols?  Lords a-leapin’ – that’s a whole ‘nother story!  I mean, do you hear what I hear?

Bob Dylan Christmas AlbumI think Jesus listens to Bob’s music all the time. Heck, their back pages are so similar.  Bob, like Jesus, is a Jew.  Like Jesus, he was considered by many to be the Messiah of their generation. They both spoke in mystical ways and were often misunderstood. Like Jesus, Bob toured the region and had groupies. Like Jesus, he was persecuted by his own people – in Bob’s case, by the folkies who felt he sold out by “going electric.” Of course, that’s where the similarities end.  This is called satire, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I am NOT implying that Bob Dylan is Christ-like, or even that he’s bigger than Christ.  We all know how that remark almost cost John Lennon his life at the hands of those hatin’, cross-burning Christian KKK guys.

Unlike other Jews who write and sing about Christmas, however, Bob had at least some actual experience with the New Testament.  I guess you don’t have to be born a Christian to become “born again.” And that’s exactly what Mr. Dylan did in the late 1970s. A messy divorce, coupled with the ill effects of non-stop touring, notorious womanizing and excessive drinking led him to seek shelter from the storm. And he found it, in the form of Jesus. He once said, “There was a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus. I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that…. It was a physical thing. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble.”

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His conversion to Christianity outraged many, but Bob was never one to cater to the expectations of fans or peers. He released two Christian albums – “Slow Train Coming” in 1979 and “Saved” in 1980. While recording the former LP, he tried to convert record producer Jerry Wexler to Christianity, to which Jerry replied, “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let’s just make an album.” But Bob was truly on a mission. During his 1979 tour, he preached to the audience: “I told you the answer was ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and it was! And I’m saying to you now, Jesus is coming back and he is! There is no other way to salvation…Jesus is coming back to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years.” Wow, was Bobby still dropping acid at that time?

Well, thankfully, Mr. Dylan eventually tired of all this proselytizing, and became….well, one of his myriad “old selves” again (he’s a Gemini, you know). After many years, he reconnected with his Jewish roots, even visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on the day of his son’s bar mitzvah in 1983.  He’s long been a supporter of the Chabad Lubavitch movement and once appeared on a Chabad telethon.

But even though he’s no longer a full-time Christian, he believes that Christmas tunes are an integral part of America’s rich folk song tradition. When former Musician magazine editor Bill Flanagan told Dylan during a November 2009 interview that he delivered “O Little Town of Bethlehem” like “a true believer,” Bobby replied, “Well, I am a true believer.”

Jewish BobSo, if you’re a fan of Bob Dylan – no matter what your faith or lack thereof – give his “Christmas in the Heart” album a go. The record received favorable reviews, with many critics praising the sincerity with which he performs the songs. Royalties from the sale of the CD benefit a number of charities: Feeding America in the USA, Crisis in the UK, and the World Food Programme.

I only wish he had written one original holiday tune for his album. But since he didn’t, I’ve taken the liberty of penning Christmasy lyrics to one of Bob’s most interesting and acerbic songs: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” from the 1965 album that changed my life, “Highway 61 Revisited.”

“Ballad of a Fat Man”

You crawl out of the chimney
With a toy sack in your hand,
You see somebody passed out
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand,
Just what went on
In this guy’s home.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Claus?

You shake off the soot,
And you ask, “Why did you drink?”
And the guy points to his wife and says,
“Whaddya think?”
And she sits on the couch and says,
“I poured the rest down the sink.”
And you say, “Oh my God,
Another reveler stoned!”

But you know something is happening here
But you just don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Claus?

You hand out the presents,
And you sneer at the slob,
Who sobers up and realizes
You’re not there to rob.
And he says “How does it feel
To be such a blob?”
And you say, “Heathen!”
As you hand him some coal.

And something is happening here
But you just don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Claus?

You have many contacts
Among the North Pole hacks
To get you facts
When some non-believer attacks your reputation.
But some people have little respect.
Anyway they still expect you
To give gifts to those who run despicable organizations.

You’ve been with the Easter Bunny.
And he’s laughed at your looks.
With great cherubim and seraphim
You’ve discussed atheists and kooks.
You’ve been through all of Dr. Stillman’s diet books,
You’ve very well read,
It’s quite known.

But something is happening here,
But you just don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Claus?

Well, the reindeer, they come up to you
And they ask “How?”
They’ll haul your ass ’round the world
But you’re as big as a sow.
And you say, “Put these reins on,
or I’ll eat you as chow.”
And they say, “Drive that sleigh yourself,
We’re going home.”

And you know  something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Claus?

Now, here’s a rollicking version of Bob’s “Must Be Santa” – Klezmer style. It’s one of the most wonderfully wacky videos I’ve ever seen. Unlike the original, he inserts the names of eight U.S. presidents when he reads off the reindeer names: “Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen / Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon /  Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen / Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.” The young man who jumps out the window at the end is rumored to be Bob’s son.

By Dana Spiardi, Dec 19, 2013

 

 

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Responses

  1. Dave says:

    December 18th, 2012 at 9:52 pm (#)

    Jewish atheist? Is that an oxymoron? Ballad of a fat man, kinda witty , you might have a new direction to explore. Warn me next time a video like that is coming. I’ll look for that hit of acid I was saving for a rainy day.

  2. Michael Brock says:

    May 5th, 2013 at 4:53 pm (#)

    This is so cool! I thought I was the only one who ever wrote a Christmas parody of a Bob Dylan song, and here’s another! I’ll share mine with you. Why don’t you collect a bunch and see if you can get Bob to record them.

    NORTH POLE HOMESICK BLUES

    Mama’s in the tenement
    Hangin up the peppermint
    Santa’s on the descent
    Droppin off the presents
    Comin down the chimney
    Wishin he were skinny
    Face full of black soot
    Watchin out for hot foot
    Look out kid
    It’s somthin you did
    Santa knows when
    And you’re doing it again
    Don’t shout, don’t pout
    Find out what it’s all about
    Better watch your step
    Don’t you get too hep
    Stay away from no-goods
    Hanging round the neighborhood

    It’s another rainy day
    Aint nowhere to land the sleigh
    Rain, rain go away
    Gonna spoil the holidays
    Around the world in one night
    Time can get real tight
    Only flyin night flight
    Tryin t’ keep outa sight
    Look out kid
    Your next on the list
    Quiet as a church mouse
    He’s passin over your house
    Gonna have a look-see
    Try some milk and cookies
    Later over Bethlehem
    Thinkin bout the wise men
    Droppin off gifts and then
    Wonder what became of them

    Comin to the home stretch
    Feelin like an old wretch
    Santa suit is soakin wet
    Who knows what your gonna catch
    Getting tired of fake trees
    Really tired of chimneys
    Had enough of good cheer
    Glad it’s only once a year
    Good night kid
    Don’t care what you did
    So tired, so wired
    The Vienna boys’ choir
    Don’t come to the North Pole
    Tell me that it’s too cold
    Guess I’m getting to old
    Guess the story’s been told
    Don’t fuss and don’t fight
    Merry Christmas, good night…

    © 12/17/2011 Michael G. Brock
    (with apologies to Robert Zimmerman)

  3. david kremen says:

    December 20th, 2013 at 5:56 pm (#)

    Brilliant critical article. Didn’t care too much for the lyrics. And the Santa Claus song at the end, not only is the music klezmer, but the song is written in a typical Jewish popular fashion in which the refrain contains the principal sentence of each verse accumulating as the song goes on. We sing several songs like this on Pesach.

  4. frosty7530 says:

    April 6th, 2014 at 1:33 pm (#)

    Bob Dylan is intensely private. I do recall him correcting a news item that referred to him as a Singer Songwriter Bob Dylan, the Born Again Christian, who converted from Judaism. The next day, I saw his response to that item, he referred to himself as “Bob Dylan, the Jewish Singer Songwriter”. I have also read about him going to Israel for his son’s Bar Mitzvah. I just want to remark here, that it’s not uncommon for Jewish pop singers to do Christmas albums or carols. Barry Manilow, Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond have also sung carols.

  5. Ailey S. says:

    November 21st, 2014 at 9:39 pm (#)

    I have known Jews to believe in Jesus who call themselves Messianic Jews. They embraced their tradition while accepting Jesus as their Messiah. It’s non popular, but it happens from time to time.

  6. harris freedman says:

    December 14th, 2014 at 5:08 pm (#)

    If a Jew believes in Jesus Christ he is no longer a Jew, he is a stone goy.

  7. Jerry C. Stanaway says:

    April 20th, 2015 at 12:52 pm (#)

    Bob Dylan is clearly still a Christian. He’s also Jewish, which is fine since Jesus is the King of the Jews.

  8. Alan Goodman says:

    June 10th, 2015 at 10:40 pm (#)

    In the Hebrew Bible, I don’t know how you can read Isaiah 53, Zechariah 12, Psalms, etc and NOT believe Jesus is The Messiah! “pierced for our transgressions”. Who could that be? Many modern so-called rabbis avoid those chapters because they know it’s Jesus!

    God bless!

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