The following essay about Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen was written by Jackson Mossey, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
For my major paper I chose to write about Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen and how their Judaism influences their music. I have grown up listening to lots of Dylan and Simon but I was recently introduced to Cohen and his music. Among these three singer/songwriters, Leonard Cohen is the most influenced by religion and culture. I have discovered lots of new music since the start of this project.
Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) was born in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24th, 1941 in a Jewish household; his Hebrew name was Shabtai Zissel. On May 22nd, 1954 in Hibbing, Minnesota, he was Bar Mitzvahed by an Orthodox Rabbi, Reuben Maier. His parents, Abram and Beatrice Zimmerman, were a big part of Hibbing’s Jewish community at the time.
Robert Zimmerman began songwriting in his teen years under the name Bob Dylan and played at local clubs. He took the name Dylan, derived from his mother’s maiden name, Dillon. He attended the University of Minnesota for less than a year before moving to Greenwich Village in Manhattan, in January 1961. Dylan’s idol Woodie Guthrie was living in New York. He visited Guthrie regularly, who at that time was dying of Huntington’s disease. Heavily influenced by Guthrie, Dylan’s own music quickly became representative of the civil rights movement. Some of his songs that heavily influenced the times were: Blowing in the Wind, Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, The Times They Are a Changing, and Like a Rolling Stone.
Dylan’s songs of protest are not focused on Judaism, but certainly reflect his Jewish values of equality, perseverance and struggle. However, there is a recorded version of Dylan doing Hava Nagila. Dylan’s song, Forever Young, written in 1973, is based on the Jewish blessing parents say for their children on Shabbat and was perhaps inspired by the birth of his son Jacob in 1969. “May God bless and keep you always”, is a reference to the blessing, “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung” is a reference to Jacob’s dream.
Another example of a Jewish influence in his songwriting is the song Highway Sixty-One Revisited; it has multiple biblical references. Each stanza contains a conflict that then gets resolved by traveling on Highway 61. The song opens with a retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac. The highway is significant both musically and in civil rights. Highway 61 is the road from his hometown in Duluth, Minnesota which goes south to the musically significant city of New Orleans. The Highway also represents a major route out of the Deep South for African Americans looking for better opportunities.
The first stanza based on Genesis 22:
God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61″
Dylan wrote All Along the Watchtower in 1967. It seems to tell a story referencing a biblical passage from Isaiah 21:1-10 that tells of the fall of Babylon. Dylan resented society’s arrogance and mourned the loss of humanity’s innocence. It is likely this song is about the war in Vietnam. In the 80s Dylan became interested in the Chabad movement. He spent time with rabbis in Brooklyn and Israel and felt very close to his religious peers at that time.
In 2016 Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan did not accept his prize until April of 2017; he was initially reluctant to accept the award because he said he never regarded his songs as literature. In conclusion, Dylan’s music seems to reflect the Jewish values of bettering the world, activism, and equality. I will now play a portion of, “All Along the Watchtower”.
The next person I will speak about is Paul Simon. Paul Simon grew up in Forest Hills, Queens to Hungarian immigrant Jewish parents, Louis and Belle. They spoke Yiddish at home. He had a typical Jewish upbringing. His father was a professional bass player and his mother was a schoolteacher. As a child his parents tried to persuade him not to be a musician. They nicknamed him “Cardozo” after the Sephardic Jewish US Supreme Court justice. He did eventually attend law school for just one year. His family was mixed about how Jewish they were; on High Holy days there would be tension about going to synagogue because Simon’s mother wanted to be observant, while his father did not.
Simon met Art Garfunkel in the 6th grade, both acting in a production of Alice in Wonderland. They began writing and performing together and gained popularity through high school in Forest Hills. In college, Simon was president of the Jewish fraternity. While at Queens College, Simon played and made demos with Carole King. In early 1964, the duo (Simon and Garfunkel) auditioned with Columbia Records and later that year they released the first EP: Wednesday Morning, 3 am. Simon wrote most of their songs; in fact he wrote all of their top hits. The duo broke up in 1970 but Simon’s musical career continues to this day. He released Graceland, one of my favorite albums, which is about peace. Simon explored different music, too, with South American and South African musicians. He was a big part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Unlike any of his Jewish peers (Dylan and Cohen) Paul Simon never made any Jewish moves in his music. He did, however, discover the rhythms of Africa and Brazil. He became inspired when Simon and Garfunkel played at Monterey Pop, a music festival, along with many other artists including South Africa’s Hugh Masekela. He was a protester of South Africa’s apartheid system and Paul Simon asked if they could work together after Monterey. Before Graceland, other artists had put out albums for peace and protest, including songs from Stevie Wonder’s albums prior to Graceland. While Simon recorded Graceland his band was made up of all South African musicians and he made sure they were treated and paid very well. Although there are no specific Jewish references in his music, he stands out as the most humanistic Jew of the three musicians I researched because of his political actions protesting against the South African government and by performing for the South African people during apartheid. My band and I will now play a portion of “Me and Julio Down by The School Yard.”
Leonard Cohen is my next subject. Leonard Cohen grew up in Quebec, Canada. He was from a family of Talmudic scholars who founded a synagogue in 1846. Cohen never left his deeply connected Jewish faith throughout his life and became likely the most prominent, meaningful Jewish songwriter of the modern era. Later in life he became an ordained Buddhist monk. Many Jews have been drawn to Buddhism and do not see it as conflicting with their Jewish heritage. Cohen was such a poet of modern Judaism that last year, when the Reform movement, the largest American denomination, published its first new prayer book for the High Holy Days since 1978, the rabbis who compiled it decided to print the lyrics to several of Cohen’s songs right alongside the Hebrew text. The song, “The Story of Isaac” is about those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another. Cohen introduced this song on his album “Live Songs,” released during the Vietnam War. It tells the Old Testament story of Abraham nearly killing his son at God’s hand, with haunting relevance to all subsequent wars and current-day political conflicts.
Leonard Cohen’s final album, “You Want it Darker”, released in October of 2016, just 19 days before his death, opens with a rushing wind sound…he’s making an inquiry to creeping soul distress, personal and universal. The chorus of the song repeats the Hebrew word “Hineni,” meaning “Here I am,” which was the word that Abraham used to respond to God when God called on him in the Bible. “Hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my Lord”. These verses were sung by Cohen’s hometown synagogue’s chorus on the album. Cohen also evokes the first line of the Jewish mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, translated as: “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name.” Cohen has many, many dark metaphors in his music. The album is his last, and darkest album for it was created while he was dying. The album’s music is mostly played very softly, yet rhythmically. It also has backup singers who hum along with him, adding another level of color. The instruments represent darkness very well with a strong accented bass sound.
Drawing upon traditional Jewish prayers and songs is nothing new to Cohen’s work. For instance, Cohen’s song “Who by Fire”, first written in 1974, is an adaptation of the High Holiday prayer “Unetaneh Tokef”, which is sung on Yom Kippur and asks: “who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water…”. Cohen’s song “Who by Fire” is also about different ways people live, die, and suffer in the upcoming year but Cohen adds his own litany of ways people leave this world, but then asks “who is calling?”. Cohen is questioning who determines one’s own fate. The final song I will present is “You Want it Darker.”
I learned a lot and grew to appreciate music on a deeper level from writing Dylan and Simon’s activism, and how they have changed with the times. All starting in Jewish households in towns and cities of North America, these three musicians have had such a great impact on the world as artists, speakers, poets, human rights activists, and much more. They inspired so many to speak up through music that their achievements go beyond simply entertaining us as Jewish musicians.