Bob Dylan, who played his first concert in twenty years in Israel on Monday, is an unlikely admor for Israelis, perhaps not your first choice as a grand teacher and master, but he has influenced Israel for the better more than any other American Jew.
My rebbe held a tisch this week. A gathering of his followers. Like many sages of Israel, he lives abroad. Like many followers of sages, I knew that there was every risk that if I came to the tisch, it might be unsettling in tone, disappointing in content, even, at times, infuriating.
Or it might be as it turned out to be. Perfect.
Not perfect in the sense of flawless, polished, faithful to the original. Perfect in the sense of fearless. Perfect as in the meaning of what rock and roll feels like in the gut of guts. Mean and knowing and growling and real. Fearless as in willing to take on anything and everything and, in particular, your own self, your own fame and perception and even your own life's work. And, while you're at it, to get thousands of people to get up and dance and sing and roar.
Bob Dylan is an unlikely admor for Israelis, perhaps not your first choice as a grand teacher and master. "His voice suggests a cross between a coffee grinder and a lawn mower," Israel Hayom reviewer Yaakov Leviatan wrote after Dylan's Monday night performance in Israel's largest soccer stadium.
Before the concert, Israel's Channel 10 television news reminded viewers that the 70-year-old Dylan had once considered living on a kibbutz.
Looking at the crowd - which was overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly native-born Israelis - it occurred to me that I don't know of a single kibbutz that Dylan doesn't live on, his incomparable music, the brutal poetry of his words.
Waiting for Dylan in the bizarre setting of the stadium, a venue and a concert astonishingly disorganized even for Israel, his followers were unusually quiet before he took the stage. All that changed at the first chord, the first pulse of distortion, and the bottomed-out voice that sounded as if it would flame out and fail him altogether midway through the first number.
The concert lurched and bellowed along, a telescopic history of the roots of rock and roll itself, narrated and driven by Dylan's songs set to rockabilly and early rhythm and blues, jitterbug jumps through sixties power chords.
There is something uniquely dugri, something shockingly honest, something uniquely, resolutely, perhaps obsoletely Israeli about the performance.
Here is a 70-year-old man working at a physically punishing pace, at a job which demands enormous resources of endurance and presence of mind, and doing so with breathtaking originality and dedication, at an energy level that would tax a man decades his junior.
And he doesn't talk while he works.
And he doesn't talk while he works.
There are no fireworks, barely a screen to view the stage. The lighting is something from the 1860s, a gaslight glow. There is no pandering, not a word to the crowd. Dylan, the dour magician, performs the illusions, the miracles, even the dead-on self-parody – and then it is abruptly over. Not an encore. No tricks. A zetz from the rebbe, and then the rebbe is gone.
Of the handful of admorim which centuries of North American Jewry have produced, it may be said that if Shlomo Carlebach was the Yankee Nachman of Bratzlav, Dylan remains Menachem Mendl of Kotzk. The Kotzker of Rock seems to despise the entire apparatus of popular music, the relationship of stars to fans, and the perceived debt which artists owe their publics.
Like the Kotzker, bitter, raging, self-contained, there is no one remotely like Bob Dylan. And even if there were, it would be an imitation of a Dylan which Dylan himself has already left far behind.
The reviewer wrote that Dylan, who was last here in 1993, is unlikely ever to visit again. And he may be right. But the crowd in Ramat Gan showed something else. Dylan lives here. He lives in the culture of Israel. He lives in the thought processes of many of the nation's artists and intellectuals and activists, and, of course, its musicians and songwriters and poets.
He has influenced Israel for the better more than any other American Jew – and I say this with some sadness, as, along with Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, the designation includes Golda Meir, who, in retrospect, blazed Israel's current trail of refusal to read signs of peace and refusal to respond appropriately to signs of danger.
Like any true rebbe, certainly like Shlomo Carlebach, Bob Dylan is spectacularly flawed. But like any true rebbe, he has worlds to teach us about ourselves and this life, and we know this much: we are simply not going to get this stuff from anyone else.