'We didn't know that he was Jewish or from Odessa'

Poetry and revolution: Searching for Bob Dylan in Ukraine

The city of Odessa and its Jewish community are bringing it all back home to honor the legendary folk singer as one of their own — with mixed results

Gavin Rabinowitz is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Participants at the Limmud FSU conference in Odessa, Ukraine lean against a poster hailing singer Bob Dylan as a pride of the city on Saturday October 21, 2017 (Gavin Rabinowitz/ Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Participants at the Limmud FSU conference in Odessa, Ukraine lean against a poster hailing singer Bob Dylan as a pride of the city on Saturday October 21, 2017 (Gavin Rabinowitz/ Times of Israel)

ODESSA, Ukraine — “Bob Dylan! One more pride of Odessa,” reads the large billboard standing in front of City Hall in the Black Sea port city of Odessa. It is painted, with a famous image of the bard in one of his iconic pork pie hats.

“The City of Odessa and Limmud FSU congratulate the citizens of Odessa for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in the field of literature,” says the sign — one of 12 placed strategically around the city — proudly claiming the American folk legend as one of their own.

The campaign was initiated by Limmud FSU, an organization that seeks to bolster the Jewish identity of Jews of the former Soviet Union, and which held a conference attended by more than 1,000 locals in Odessa last month.

It’s a method they have used very successfully in the past: highlighting famous people of Jewish heritage who have come from the cities, towns and shtetls where they hold their conferences. The organization has found it to be an effective way of bolstering pride in the identity of the local Jewish communities, many of which were shattered in the Holocaust, and then subjected to decades of Communist oppression.

“We are celebrating an important family that went to America, the most famous Jewish American singer who won the Nobel Prize last year,” Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler told the gathered delegates at a Saturday night party.

Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler (L) and communications director Natasha Chechik pose in front of a poster honoring Bob Dylan outside the Odessa municipality building (Courtesy/ Limmud FSU)

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. Following a series of vicious pogroms, in 1907 his paternal grandparents emigrated there from Odessa, then part of the Russian empire, now in modern-day Ukraine.

“We will celebrate the wonderful gift that Odessa gave the world. This shows that the Jewish roots that come from Odessa last forever,” said Chesler. “When you dig in Ukraine, you see the top talent of all the world,” he said, also mentioning Jewish musical greats Leonard Cohen and Barbara Streisand, whose roots were also reportedly in the area.

Participants at the Limmud FSU conference in Odessa Ukraine take part in a folk dancing activity on Saturday October 21, 2017 (Boris Bukhman /Limmud FSU)

By all rights Jewish Odesssans should have been bursting with pride over Dylan; possibly the most influential musician of his generation and the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, the first time the prestigious award was bestowed on someone primarily seen as a musician.

And yet despite the hype and hyperbole, the locals just weren’t that into him.

He’s not very popular here

Diaspora Museum curator Amitai Achiman (R) and his translator lecture on Bob Dylan at the Limmud FSU conference in Odessa Ukraine on Friday October 20, 2017 (Boris Bukhman/Limmud FSU)

On the first morning of the conference there was a special lecture on Dylan given by Amitai Achiman, a curator at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv (currently under a renovation from which it will emerge as the Museum of the Jewish People). Achiman initiated the museum’s Bob Dylan display “Forever young: behind Dylan’s revolution and legacy” that marked the musician’s 75th birthday.

But only about 15 of the 1,000 participants turned up.

“I had no idea he had roots in Ukraine, but I will tell my Jewish friends. We didn’t know that he was Jewish or from Odessa,” said Olga Brodska, 20, one of the few who did come.

“The Ukrainian people should be proud of him. Maybe it’s not too late; in Ukraine everything moves slowly,” she said, acknowledging that “he’s not very popular here, maybe only in small groups, or people over 30.”

But apparently the over-30s weren’t fans either.

Organizers also brought over Israeli singer Eric Berman, who has translated several of Dylan’s songs into Hebrew.

At a concert by Berman, in which he played a mix of his own music and Dylan covers, he had to contend with a steady stream of participants walking out in the middle.

To be fair conditions were not ideal for Berman, nor for the crowd as he played music they had never before heard, translated into a language they did not understand and performed under a harsh glare of fluorescent lights in a room that was designed to host conferences.

And when he did play his own, slightly more upbeat music, the crowd finally got into it.

Israeli singer Eric Berman performs Bob Dylan covers in Odessa, Ukraine on October 21, 2017 (Gavin Rabinowitz/ Times of Israel)

Wrong name, wrong parents

If the Ukrainians were not so interested in Dylan, it also seems that Dylan hasn’t been clamoring to be a Jewish Ukrainian folk hero either.

“One of the reasons he changed his name was to become an American singer, I’m not so sure he wanted to be connected to his eastern European roots,” said Achiman.

In an interview with CBS News in 2004, Dylan put it bluntly: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free,” he said.

Although he tried to shake himself free, Dylan has  maintained strong ties to Israel throughout his life. He visited the country several times in the late 1960s and 1970s and even took steps toward joining a kibbutz. He played three shows in Israel: in 1987, 1993 and 2011.

Bob Dylan, third from left, with his son Jesse, in the white tallis on right, at the Western Wall in September 1983. (Facebook)

Dylan, who famously took two weeks to acknowledge his Nobel Prize, was silent on the issue of his Odessa roots too, with his representatives not responding to a request for comment.

And yet, as the conference explored the history of the Jews of Odessa and the legacy of Dylan, unmistakable parallels began to emerge. Two themes intertwined: poetry and revolution.

The cradle

The Odessa that Zigman and Anna Zimmerman left for the New World was a seething cauldron of Jewish life.

At the end of the 19th century, the Jewish community was the second largest in the Russian empire, about 140,000 Jews, who made up some 40 percent of the city’s population.

They were largely secular, very political and devoted to the arts and culture. To read the names of Jews active in Odessa in those years is like taking a stroll through the streets of modern Tel Aviv:  Lilienblum,  Ahad Ha-Am,  Ussishkin,  Dizengoff,  Borochov,  Jabotinsky,  Tchernichovsky , Bialik and more.

“The leadership which brought the State of Israel into existence started in Odessa,” said Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, who spoke about the impact of Odessa’s Jews on Israel.

The 142-meter-long Potemkin Stairs in a photo from between 1890 and 1900 (Library of Congress)

While many of the city’s Jews were active in the Zionist cause, just as many were members of groups like the Bund and equally devoted to Communism.  In 1905 Odessa was the site of a workers’ uprising supported by the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin and Lenin’s Iskra newspaper. The uprising and the “Potemkin steps” were immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s famous motion picture, still a major tourist attraction in the city.

1905 also saw a deadly pogrom in which more than 300 Jews were killed, persuading the Zimmermans and many other Jews to leave.

But amidst the revolutionaries living and working in Odessa at the time were the poets, particularly Hayim Nahman Bialik (who would become Israel’s national poet) and Shaul Tchernichovsky. They created poetry out of a dead language, giving life to modern Hebrew.

Shaul Tchernichovsky (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shaul Tchernichovsky (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Odessa is the cradle of Jewish literature,” said Achiman. “There was an amazing fermentation here, a bubbling, it was the first time ever that people have created a literature in a language that they were not using on a daily basis.”

And echoed in this story, were the refrains of Dylan — the poet, and the revolutionary.

It’s not clear how much of the culture of Odessa would have come through to Dylan at home, but certainly some.

In an interview with Robert Shelton in 1968, Dylan’s father, Abram told of the family’s journey.

“My parents came in 1907. They came from Odessa, Russia. They came to Duluth because other people from Odessa had come to Duluth. You always settled where you knew somebody,” Abram said, although he acknowledged that the suburb Dylan grew up in was mostly Scandinavian.  There were, he said, “a few Jewish families here and there but there was no ghetto there.”

Nevertheless, they spoke Yiddish.

“We spoke Yiddish in the house, like everybody else. My whole family spoke Yiddish. I didn’t know any Jewish home that didn’t speak Yiddish,” he said.

Blowing in the wind

Dylan may or may not have imbibed the Jewish tradition growing up, as seen in a life of constant internal change. He meandered from Judaism to born-again Christianity, to Atheism and wherever else his search took him.

But he certainly got the revolution.

Bob Dylan performing at the Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, March 23, 1975. (Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images via JTA)

From causing outrage by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to confronting social injustice, war and racism, he used his harmonica, guitar and strained voice to lay down the soundtrack of 1960s and beyond. Dylan told the world that “the times they are a changing.”

And he certainly got the poetry.

Giving him his Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited him  for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Academy said Dylan’s songs were “poetry for the ears.”

“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound,” it wrote about the famously private singer.

Odessa may not have embraced Dylan as organizers would have hoped. And, as Achiman said, it’s certainly a stretch to tie Dylan directly to the Hebrew poets. “His poetry tradition is based on the American tradition and not really Tchernichovsky or Bialik.”

Nevertheless, like Dylan who stands in the shadows at his concerts, briefly appearing in the spotlight, in looking at Odessa there were hints of Dylan, just as in listening to Dylan there are flickers of Odessa.

“There could be something in the spirit of Odessa that came into him,” said Achiman. “There is something in him that represents them.”

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