Bob Dylan Bar Mitzvah and Jewish Tradition

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Bob Dylan Jewish Background

Words and Music—Traditional

The emotional tethers of Judaism are as long and strong as the umbilicus. First- and second-generation offspring of Jewish immigrants found many powerful reasons for assimilating into the American grain. In the New World, the biblical-cum-medieval Jewish traditions had no apparent appeals and many obvious drawbacks.

“In Hibbing, the Finns hated the Bohemians and the Bohemians hated the Finns. Nearly everyone hated the Jews,” a teacher at Hibbing High told me. “A lot has been done to break down the barriers, but it wouldn’t be true to say they have all broken down.” The boy called Bobby Zennerman and Zimbo by his playmates before he called himself Bob Dillon sought assimilation. But before he drew his own maps, he followed by rote his parents’ traditions, which reached a culmination when Bob turned 13.

Bar Mitzvah means “of an age to observe the commandments.” The formal ceremony is rooted in antiquity but became a ritual during the Middle Ages. German Jews refined the formalities to celebrate a boy’s attaining legal majority by allowing him to join the public reading of the Torah, the Law of Moses. The festival that Abe and Beatty arranged for their eldest son was lavishly American. Beatty was delighted that out of the 500 invited, 400 attended. “This is only a small town,” she noted with pride.

To prepare, Bob studied Hebrew. With the nascent ear of the musician, he mimicked the exotic sounds. His teacher, Rabbi Reuben Maier, of the only synagogue on the Iron Range, Hibbing’s Agudath Achim Synagogue, was pleased at Bob’s progress. At Friday night meetings, he showed off the prodigy, wishing all his students were as bright and as dutiful. Confirmation day arrived, and Bob stood on the synagogue rostrum with his rabbi, his prayer book, and five thousand years of prophets and pogroms behind him. He was dressed in white, with a raised silken hat on his head and an ornate fringed shawl around his shoulders. He delivered the Hebrew scripture in a form of chanting known as cantillation.

The elders told Bob he did a “tremendous” job at the crowded, ostentatious gathering afterward. Having attained manhood, having confirmed his belief in the God of his fathers, Bobby was ready to start living by no commandments but his own.