The many sides of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s Jewish identity has long been a point of conflict and controversy. His short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity dismayed many, heartened a few and confused all. But at least two commentators are certain that Jewishness and Judaism inform the core of the former Robert Zimmerman’s beliefs and music.

Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, the director-writer and co-writer, respectively, of the new Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” which opens theatrically in wide release on Nov. 21, are convinced, after living with their project for many years, that Bob Dylan remains a Jew.

“I’m Not There” is part of a mini-floodlet of new Dylan filmed material that is hitting theaters and DVD stores this month. Also being shown for the first time are Murray Lerner’s compendium of concert footage from Dylan’s folkie days, “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan, Newport, 1963-1965,” and an hour-long collection of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal “Don’t Look Back,” called “65 Revisited.”

But “I’m Not There” is stirring the most controversy. As practically everyone seems to know by now, Haynes’s film divides Dylan’s life into six personae, each represented by a different actor. We see Dylan progress in fragments from a 12-year-old African American boy (the wonderfully serious Marcus Carl Franklin) through a soft-spoken poet (Ben Wishaw); an earnest folkie who eventually is reborn as a Christian preacher (Christian Bale); a troubled actor, father and husband (Heath Ledger); a snarky pop star (Cate Blanchett); and a mellowed outlaw (Richard Gere). For each of these aspects of Dylan, Haynes devises a different visual style, ranging from the black-and-white faux-cinema-vérité-cum-Fellini of the Blanchett sequences to the amber twilight of the Gere passages.

By all rights, this should feel gimmicky, even foolish. But Haynes invests each of his “Dylans” with a powerful presence that is the perfect counterpart to the music of each period in Dylan’s career, and at the same time links all the personae to a central humanity. In its own oddball way, “I’m Not There” is among the best pieces of music criticism I’ve seen or read on the subject of Bob Dylan. It is a jigsaw puzzle, with its various pieces scattered around the table by a deft, if quirky hand. It’s a film that rewards close attention and deserves repeated viewings.

The film’s one significant omission is the place of Judaism in Dylan’s life.

“That is the most secret and well-preserved of his personae,” Todd Haynes replied when asked about that gap at the New York Film Festival. “I think Dylan’s relationship to his Jewishness is much more private than any of the other roles he has played; it’s kept close to his relationship with his family life, and I don’t think we’re supposed to know more about it than that.”

“[Judaism] is the one central thing in his entire biography,” Moverman said in a telephone interview last week. “Whether it is overt or not, it is there. Even the Christian period occurred as a reaction against his Jewishness, and that lasted only three years, and the next thing you know, Dylan is doing Chabad telethon appearances.”

One could argue, I suppose, that Moverman and Haynes are biased. Moverman is an Israeli now living in Brooklyn, for whom, in his words, “being Jewish and Israeli are a huge part of my identity.” Haynes is half-Jewish by his mother, and when it was pointed out to him during an interview last week that halachically he is a Jew, he sat upright on a sofa and said with a huge grin, “And I’m damned proud of it.”

Haynes acknowledges that he didn’t have a religious upbringing. Raised in the San Fernando Valley in a largely Jewish community, he notes that “I never felt like a member of a minority group. I didn’t understand jokes about Barbra Streisand’s nose. I thought she was glamorous and sexy.”

Although he is not religious, Haynes feels he is deeply imbued with a sense of his own Jewishness.

“I identify it, and its manifestations, through an innate sense of the role of the entertainer and the comic; the origins of popular theater and the role of humorist are at their heart Jewish phenomena, and the leftist historical associations, the commitment to progressiveness that are the historical associations with Judaism in America,” he said, adding “I see that in Dylan as well. For all his desire to efface himself, he is the natural inheritor of the role of the Jewish performer. It’s there in his wit, his politics and his performances — the way he throws himself into them.”

Haynes admits he can’t identify with the performer side of Dylan: “That’s the big difference between us. As a performer he is insistent on living in the moment, and a film director’s job is about as far from that as possible. He’s not reflective in nature; I am. The job of a director, of necessity, requires all kinds of planning and preparation.”

In fact, Haynes believes that his own most Jewish trait is his inclination towards reflectiveness.

“The history of Jewish thinking is analytical and reflective,” he said.

Murray Lerner has been filming pop music performances for several decades now, and in recent years he has begun to make the results more widely available for both theatrical and home video use. His Dylan film, centered on the singer-songwriter’s appearances at the 1963 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals, shows how each of those performances represents a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. The first was his coronation as the “king of the protest singers,” a label Haynes makes clear Dylan loathed. The second performance was one of the most famous of Dylan’s career, the moment when he first played with an electric band, tossing aside the too-heavy crown of folksong royalty in exchange for the colorful robes of rock ‘n’ roll prophet. If you wanted to see two early Dylan performances preserved, these would be on the short list.

Lerner’s method is utter simplicity. He plants the camera where it can see the performer, usually just far enough away to show him in the larger physical context of the stage; he is sparing in his cuts to different camera angles, never imposing his own rhythmic choices on the music, and shows us audience reactions only between numbers. The result is an intense focus on the artist as creation takes place, and, in this case, the results are compelling.

In defense of Madonna

I interviewed Madonna in the early ’90s. At the time I was the managing editor of “In Jerusalem,” a weekend section of The Jerusalem Post. Madonna was in the ‘hood as part of an influx of A-list pop stars who made a symbolic trek to the Holy Land to show support for the fledgling peace process. Other famous notables included Sting, Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention a red carpet full of actors, movers and shakers, and wannabes.

Recently, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Richie, were in Jerusalem celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday and attending a kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) conference. They were joined by celebs Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell and designer Donna Karan. Madonna met with Israeli president Shimon Peres, and the two exchanged gifts. He gave her a copy of the Tanach. She gave him a volume of “The Book of Splendor,” the guiding text of kabbalah. Madonna is not a Jew. Nor is her hubby. Yet she wears the red kabbalah string around her wrist, calls herself Esther as well as an “Ambassador for Judaism.”

But as those of us know, it’s not so easy being Jewish.

The ultra-Orthodox community has cried “Shanda without a sheidel! They proclaim Madonna and her merry band of tinseltown kabbalists an abomination. They say she has turned kabbalah into a three-ring circus, and in response they have engaged in an impassioned we-don’t-want-her-among-us campaign.

Truth be told: Many of those holier-than-thous who are bad-mouthing Madonna were once themselves on the wrong side of the tracks, before they rediscovered Judaisim and 613 new ways to live their lives.

Let’s set the record straight: Madonna is good for the Jews.

In a world chock-full of anti-Semites, the pop icon is displaying her heartfelt connection to Israel and Judaism in klieg lights. She celebrates Jewish pride, and she declares through her words and artistic endeavors that Judaism provides a profound source of meaning and spiritual depth. Unlike many doubters who were born Jewish — the assimilators, the self-haters and the apathetics — Madonna, the Material Shiksa, is proud of her inner Jewishness, and is not afraid to wear it, sing it, shout it, love it.

With one flash of the camera, Madame M does more for the Jews than our Jewish lobbies combined: In short, Madonna has made shul cool.

She inserts kabbalah teachings in her music and even in the context of her best-selling children’s books. And Lord knows, we Jews need to do whatever we can to appeal to our Internet-brainwashed kids. With intermarriage skyrocketing, and Hebrew School “totally boring,” Madonna’s stories, particularly “The English Roses,” is a beautifully recreated modern kabbalah tale. Her protagonist, Binah, is a motherless teenager who embodies the gift of mitzvah. Her difficult life sets a shining example for a group of rich, spoiled “Gossip Girls,” who are insanely jealous of Binah’s physical beauty. Binah teaches the girls how to appreciate what they have, and that being a good friend is much more fulfilling than buying the latest iPod Shuffle.

Madonna is not a liar (she never said she was a virgin, she said she was like a virgin). She is and has always been unapologetic, a woman without regrets. She couldn’t care less what you think, as she abides by her own set of principles. Not to mention that she is a physical wonder to the 40-plus crowd. Nearing 50, Madonna has never looked better. Her body is toned and strong, her face is more beautiful than in her youth. Her eyes now glow with the wisdom of an incessant seeker, who was once lost and is now found.

Make no mistake, we are not talking Saint Madonna here. Everybody knows she has been there, done that to the nth degree, but in her controversial journey, Madonna is an inspiration to those who have lost their way, proving that they, too, can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

And her light happens to shine upon Jewish teachings. How bad is that?

Accept her, embrace her. While the likes of Britney and Lindsay are rehab hopping, and other it girls are spending their days trying to avoid the slammer, Madonna the Goy is busy running around the world being a Good Jew.

So here’s to you, Esther. Bruchim Habaim, as they say in the Old Country. Any time you need a holiday, you are not only welcome in my house, but also at my Sabbath table.

Lisa Frydman Barr is a Chicago-based writer.

Proud to Have Guilt

Once Mireille Silcoff had been hired to edit a new quarterly Jewish magazine for young people, she needed to give it a name.

“At one point I just started asking people, ‘What are the first things you think of when you think about your Jewishness?'” Silcoff recalled. “You can’t imagine how many times ‘guilt’ came up. And ‘pleasure’ came up enough to be interesting.”

Guilt & Pleasure — “A magazine for Jews and the people who love them” — hit newsstands across North America last month, offering readers content ranging from long-form essays and memoirs to fiction, comics, photography and archival material.

The magazine aims not only to inform and entertain, its creators say, but to get Jews talking about issues they think ought to be more fully explored.

Each issue of Guilt & Pleasure will revolve around a theme. The first, called “Home & Away,” will examine issues of “place and identity and the nexus between them,” publisher Roger Bennett said. It includes original contributions from novelists Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and Etgar Keret as well as graphic artist Ben Katchor. The second issue will look at fights and battles; the third will be about magic.

Each edition will be connected to interactive Web-based discussion guides.

As a “strong proponent” of secular Jewish culture, Shteyngart — who wrote the best-selling “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” — says typical Jewish newspapers, emanating from a “very organized community basis,” don’t speak to him. Guilt & Pleasure, which he called a Jewish Paris Review, does.

“For as long as there have been Jews in America, there have been Jewish secular cultural enterprises,” he said.

Still, he sometimes wonders what, if anything, binds non-religious Jews.

“What among secular Jews makes us a community? Are we a community? I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

But he’s hoping Guilt & Pleasure will spur some discussion on the topic.

For more information, visit

Authors Divided Over Identity, Issues

What do four Jewish American writers talk about when they
sit down together to discuss their craft? If the program, “The Next Generation
of Jewish American Writing,” held at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this
month is any indication, the answer is that they try as hard as they can to
talk past their differences but don’t quite manage to do so.

As soon as featured novelists Rebecca Goldstein (“Mazel”),
Thane Rosenbaum (“The Golems of Gotham”), Gary Shteyngart (“The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook”) and Dara Horn (“In the Image”), as well as the evening’s
moderator, David Ulin, himself a writer, took their seats onstage, the
limitations of the forum — presented by The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and
The University of California Humanities Research Institute — became clear.
These writers have very little in common outside of their Jewishness, and even
then they had diverging definitions of that identity, from cultural affiliation
to history to the importance of ritual observance.

The question that hovered over the discussion that followed
each author’s short presentation was as simple as it is hard to answer: Is
Jewishness enough to hold them together as a unit any more than linking them by
some other part of their identities?

For starters, their themes and concerns could not be more
different. In her six works of fiction, Goldstein has focused primarily on
dramas of the mind, plumbing philosophy and theoretical mathematics and
sometimes — 5/9ths of the time in her calculation — Jewish identity.

Rosenbaum, the child of survivors, has written a trilogy of
post-Holocaust books, the most recent a fable, complete with the ghosts of
writers past, set in 1990s Manhattan.

Shteyngart, who moved from Leningrad to New York as a child,
has written a novel that tells an immigrant’s story, updating a classic
American narrative for the 21st century.

Finally, Horn, who consciously draws on the long and rich
history of literature written in what she terms the “Jewish languages” of
Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, weaves the biblical tale of Job into the structure
of her debut work.

Even the Judaism that emerges in their works barely
overlaps. While Goldstein has repeatedly wrestled with the intersection of
traditional Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the rigors of rational
philosophy on the other, Rosenbaum’s fictive world has been shaped by that
20th-century Jewish preoccupation, the Shoah. Shteygart views himself, and his
protagonist, as more immigrant than Jew (although he wisely understands the
marketing strategy of labeling his novel “Jewish”) and Horn’s stated intention
in writing her book was to produce a work of fiction that is not “about
anti-Semitism” as so much Jewish American literature of the past century has

Then there’s the problem of “generation.” Shteyngart and
Horn were both born in the 1970s. They were in grade school when Goldstein
first began publishing her novels. Even she acknowledged that the “young” label
(as in “young Jewish American writer”) doesn’t quite fit her any longer. But
the difference goes beyond chronology. Goldstein’s writing itself is of a
different generation. Her cultural influences — yes, philosophy, but also the
attitudes toward gender equality, religious affiliation and other social
questions — were shaped at the same time as they took form in the larger
American context. Her younger colleagues were born into a world that was
already grappling with these and other knotty dilemmas.

But all that is almost beside the point, because when
talking about Jewish American literature, any generation seems to be put into
relation with those luminaries who defined Jewish American fiction after World
War II: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick. They are held
up as the founding generation, as if nothing was put down on paper before them,
and no distinction is made among those who have followed.

This is a mistake. While programs such as the one at the
Skirball are wonderful arenas in which to showcase current and up-and-coming
talent, they often end up circling around the rather uncomfortable question of
defining what a “Jewish writer” actually is.

Not surprisingly, that happened on Sunday, when Horn herself
brought up what she called the “squirm factor.” Why, she asked “do we feel more
uncomfortable with the label ‘Jewish writer’ than any of the other labels that
can equally be applied to us?”

My guess is that the answer lies precisely in the balancing
act that these writers have to perform: Jews buy books. Jews read books. Jews
are a good audience for books, so any claim to Jewishness helps an author sell
books. The more books he or she sells, the more chances that writer will be
able to publish the next one.

But any author is so much more than just Jewish. She is a
woman, a philosopher, a mother, a sister, a convert from the closed world of
Beis Yaacov to the equally cloistered universe of academia, and that’s just
Goldstein. We, the public, seem to insist that writers pigeonhole themselves
for our benefit, and they — no fools — oblige us. We are, after all, their paths
to literary immortality.