Bob Dylan’s holiday spirit

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Rabbi Joshua Boettige

This winter season, fans of the 67-year-old "original American Idol," Bob Dylan, are being treated to a new Dylan album unlike any that has come before: a Christmas album. This news is being heralded as stunning and bizarre by Jewish and Christian Dylan fans alike, who despite their differences in religion, are united in their confusion about this recent album from the old poet/prophet. Some loved it, some hated it. Reviews range from "mind-crunchingly wrong" to "brilliant" to "downright weird."

Dylan, who is Jewish but had a high-profile born-again Christian phase in the 1980s, has always been sly and evasive about his religious leanings, and has succeeded in cultivating a mystery around his spirituality of choice (as well as around pretty much everything else). After the album came out, when a British paper asked him about his current faith, he replied only, "I am a true believer" (one can imagine him winking as he said it).

The thing is that, upon actually listening to the album, one hears a lot of joy in it. Dylan is clearly having fun, celebrating the genre, and at the same time saying, perhaps, to not take ourselves, or our differences, too seriously this holiday season.

I think of Dylan when I hear the wonderful story about Jews and Christians arguing about who the messiah is: the Jews are insisting that the messiah has never come, and the Christians are insisting that he has come once before. When the messiah finally arrives, both groups crowd around and shout, alternatingly, "Isn’t it true that you’ve never come before?" and "You’ve been here once before already, right?" The messiah responds softly, "My friends I have been here many, many times, but you have been so busy arguing with one another that you have not noticed."

Tellingly, Dylan called the Christmas songs he heard growing up in Minnesota, "folk songs." For many Jews in America, Christmas songs are folk songs. In our family, I loved growing up with Mitch Miller’s Christmas album "Sing Along with Mitch" on the stereo (he was also Jewish, by the way). Even as my family lit the hannukiah and celebrated eight nights of Hanukkah, "Sing Along with Mitch" reminded me that I was also part of a larger fabric. The songs comforted me somehow. As a parallel, I’m sure many Christian kids connect to Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, which celebrate religious freedom and courage in the face of intolerance, both themes of Hanukkah. Indeed, we draw from each other’s wells. It is one of the gifts of living in this country.

There is a thread in both Jewish and Christian traditions and indeed in this season itself, that urges us to turn towards the possibility of joy and laughter in our lives, toward the possibility of greater understanding. At the end of the video for "Must be Santa," Dylan and Santa Claus (the Jewish troubadour and old Saint Nick himself) stand outside on the porch of a home that is having a raucous Christmas party and give each other a look that almost says, "Hey, you’re alright."

In the end, Dylan succeeds in keeping the mystery of his faith intact, while proving, as one reviewer put it, that "his roots are everywhere." On a song recorded a few years ago, he sings, "I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned/ain’t no altars on this long and winding road." Jewish or Christian, Dylan is clearly winking at us.

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger serves Congregation Beth El in Bennington.


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