Bob Dylan at 80

Bob Dylan has never made it easy for the legions of fans, critics, scholars and journalists who analyze his music with almost Talmudic fervor. Famously unforthcoming in interviews, which are rare, the protean singer-songwriter and Nobel Prize winner has succeeded in keeping listeners guessing over the course of his nearly six-decade recording career.

Dylan, who turns 80 today, remains a mystifying figure in American popular culture, even as many of the songs from his 39 studio albums — the most recent of which, Rough and Rowdy Ways, came out last year — feel as relevant today as they did when they were first produced, including “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” and “Hurricane,” among countless other hits.

“Bob Dylan displayed the wit and wisdom of an 80-year-old man from the very first time we heard him at age 21 in 1962,” Seth Rogovoy, the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, told Jewish Insider in a recent email exchange. “The point is not so much age as it is timelessness.”

Even obscure works from Dylan’s lesser-known albums manage, on occasion, to speak to the moment long after they have been released. “Neighborhood Bully,” from Dylan’s 1983 record Infidels, was released a year after the First Lebanon War and two years after an airstrike in which Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad. But its themes have clear parallels with the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. The song, a hard-driving rock number, never explicitly mentions Israel, yet it is widely interpreted as something of a Zionist anthem in the form of a biting satire lambasting those who would fault the Jewish state for defending itself in a hostile region.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive

He’s criticized and condemned for being alive

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in

He’s the neighborhood bully

“It’s so right for this moment, with the whole discussion of Israel being totally hypocritical,” argued Barry Shrage, a professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and the former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. 

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan (Wikicommons)

For Barry Faulk, a professor of English at Florida State University who specializes in 20th century popular music, “Neighborhood Bully” speaks more broadly to what he regards as an aspect of Dylan’s political temperament that in some ways cuts against his reputation as a countercultural icon. “It reminds me that Dylan has long worked outside, even against, the secular liberalism that was the core value of his early audience,” Faulk told JI, describing the song as one of his favorites in Dylan’s extensive oeuvre.

True to form, however, Dylan has kept his distance from “Neighborhood Bully,” a controversial song that has garnered its fair share of criticism over the past few decades — and is, somewhat mysteriously, unavailable on YouTube despite that other songs from Infidels can be accessed on the site.

Dylan has never performed the song live, according to Terry Gans’s 2020 book Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to ‘Infidels.’ The singer only seems to have discussed it once, in a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone in which he denied that the song was a Zionist political statement. 

“You’d have to point that out to me, you know, what line is in it that spells that out,” Dylan told the journalist Kurt Loder, adding: “‘Neighborhood Bully,’ to me, is not a political song, because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talkin’ about it as an Israeli political song — even if it is an Israeli political song — in Israel alone, there’s maybe 20 political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, what party.”

But when Loder asked if it would be “fair to call that song a heartfelt statement of belief,” Dylan seems to have let his guard down ever so slightly.

“Maybe it is, yeah,” he replied. “But just because somebody feels a certain way, you can’t come around and stick some political-party slogan on it. If you listen closely, it really could be about other things. It’s simple and easy to define it, so you got it pegged, and you can deal with it in that certain kinda way. However, I wouldn’t do that, ’cause I don’t know what the politics of Israel is. I just don’t know.”

Despite his self-proclaimed ignorance of Israeli politics, Dylan has nevertheless maintained a connection with the Jewish state throughout his career. He has visited Israel a number of times and played a handful of shows there, most recently in 2011. In 1983, the year he put out “Neighborhood Bully” — released in Hebrew by Ariel Zilber in 2012 — Dylan celebrated his son’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. 

Still, on a personal as well as an artistic level, Dylan also seems to have demonstrated something of an ambivalent relationship with his own Judaism. Born Robert Zimmerman, Minnesota’s Jewish son briefly flirted with born-again Christianity in the late 1970s and early ’80s — during which time he produced a trio of evangelical albums, the first of which Slow Train Coming, is regarded as a classic of the form. 

“He put poetry on the jukebox — put the Bible on the jukebox!” said Liz Thomson, a London-based author and Dylan expert.

But while Dylan’s music has always retained something of a Biblical subtext, he has rarely alluded to his Jewish roots, with the exception of some songs such as “Highway 61 Revisited,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “With God on Our Side” and the little-known novelty “Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues.” 

“For the most part he is not explicit about these themes,” said Elliot Wolfson, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who contributed an essay on Dylan’s “Jewish gnosis” to a new collection, The World of Bob Dylan.

In many ways, that approach is in keeping with Dylan’s persistent effort to evade any kind of label, according to the music historian and critic Ted Gioia. “For me, Dylan will always be the musician who didn’t care about having a personal logo, or attaching his name to a running shoe, or launching a high-priced fashion line,” he told JI. “If you believe his songs, he expected us to have higher aspirations than that. Even now, I’d like to think that’s what he wants his legacy to be after he’s gone.”

Gayle Wald, a professor of English at The George Washington University, echoed that sentiment. “From a certain perspective,” she said of Dylan, “he’s not very satisfying because he’s not intelligible, always, as a Jew.”

One gets the sense, though, that Dylan wouldn’t want it any other way.

Orthodox DJ Matt Dubb wants to cross over

When Matt Weiss was in his early 20s, he would often sneak out of his Brooklyn yeshiva to perform at various events. As the lead keyboardist for an in-demand cover group called the EvanAl Orchestra, Weiss was playing about four nights a week throughout the tri-state region. “We were a very popular wedding band in the regular Orthodox circles,” he said. 

Eventually, Weiss’s teachers found out what he was up to, and, as he recalls, considered kicking him out. He convinced them otherwise. “I explained to them, ‘would you rather a guy who you don’t know what he’s doing, or would you rather a guy who wants to learn at your yeshiva, but this is a great outlet?’” he recalled saying. “It’s not like I’m going to the clubs.”

It is interesting that Weiss should defend himself in that way, because he has made it abundantly clear since then that his main desire is to go to the clubs. In his mid-20s, Weiss discovered electronic dance music and left EvanAl behind to pursue a career as a DJ. Now 29, Weiss — who performs by the stage name Matt Dubb, as in the letter ‘w’ — has built a reputation for himself as an in-demand electronic music artist.

Matt Weissas DJ

Weiss occupies a unique role in the Orthodox music world, though it is one he initially straddled uneasily. “People were like, what’s this guy doing? He’s bringing club music into the Jewish world,” Weiss said. “You would see these comments on YouTube that were nasty.”

His detractors were right in one sense: Weiss’s music sounds as if it belongs in a nightclub or at a rave, and that is, of course, where he wants it to be heard. But it is also intimately in touch with the ritual of ecstatic song and dance in Jewish culture, creating a kind of tension — a push and pull between innovation and tradition — that has driven much of Jewish-American art. 

For Weiss, who sings and produces as well — he rarely records in English — house music is a kind of alternate religion. “To me, it’s so deep and spiritual,” he told Jewish Insider in an interview from his home in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. “People think it’s just, like, party music. But it’s so deep. A good beat hits me in the soul.”

Weiss first started DJing when he was performing with EvanAl. Then, traveling abroad to music festivals in Ibiza and throughout Europe, he was introduced to a whole new style of entertainment — one he wanted to learn himself. “I would hear the top, top DJs and be, like, ‘I feel like I could do this,’” he recalled. 

He quickly found his footing. His first album, in 2015, was with the renowned Hasidic pop singer Lipa Schmeltzer, who had previously sung with EvanAl. B Positive was a stylistic departure for Schmeltzer, who had released nearly 20 albums and was unused to the accompaniment of pulsing beats and buzzing synth lines that Weiss taught himself to make via YouTube videos and a computer program. “It was a big risk to do that album,” Schmeltzer told JI. Still, he did it anyway. “I trusted Matt,” he said.

Matt Weiss now Matt Dubb
Matt Dubb and Lipa Schmeltzer

Weiss’s affinity for the international house music scene makes sense in light of his parochial background. “He’s a frum kid from Lakewood,” said Ruli Ezrachi, a singer and musician who works as Weiss’s manager. In fact, Weiss grew up on top of a shul in Lakewood, N.J., that his father built. He went on to attend yeshivas in Edison, Staten Island and Brooklyn until the age of 25, when he moved on to DJing.

“I was never rebellious,” Weiss said, adding that his father was supportive of his nontraditional route. Weiss isn’t married and has never studied in Israel, though he has been there several times for gigs. Still, as a testament to his religious devotion, he prays with a minyan three times a day and tries to study the Talmud for about 45 minutes each night.

“Even if he goes to Mexico on vacation,” said Ezrachi, “he’s going to be in the Chabad House every morning at 9 a.m. for the minyan.”

Weiss’s best-known songs include the old-world “Baruch Hashem,” with Zusha and Pumpidisa; the bright and earnest “Adama V’shamayim,” which came out in 2019; and his most recent release, from late May, “Ana,” featuring the Israeli singer Itzik Dadya. 

Ezrachi described Weiss as a perfectionist who works on just one song at a time. Normally, he said, Weiss will come up with a beat that functions as a kind of rough sketch for the song to come. Then he will write a melody around it or he’ll find someone who can do it alone or with whom he can partner. The final step: Ezrachi helps Weiss look for a lyricist as well as a singer. “Or sometimes Matt says, ‘I don’t care, I’m just gonna sing it myself.’”

Weiss has played a number of high-profile events since he started in electronic music, such as the Jewish Music Carnival in upstate New York and a Camp HASC fundraiser at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall. But he has yet to break into the secular club scene, a goal he hopes to accomplish soon — not exactly an uncommon wish among Orthodox performers. 

“I have yet to actually do a gig in a mainstream club,” he told JI. “Right now, I only do religious Jewish events. I’ve never played at a club that’s not a Jewish party. I’ve played a club on Purim.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Weiss had been scheduled to DJ at a popular electronic music festival in Miami. The March 19 show, featuring such marquee names as Desiigner, Mariah and FatBoy SSE, was supposed to be a coming-out of sorts for Weiss. But the show was cancelled when the virus hit.

Lately, though, Weiss has focused his energy on finance. In 2018, he founded a brokerage firm, Dubbs Holdings, and now invests in businesses around the country through a separate business, Supreme Capital. He has found some success, he said, and at the moment, he is working to build on it, though he wants to pursue music exclusively at some point. “That is the dream,” he said. “But I’m realistic right now.”

There are some signs that may happen soon. He is currently working on a song in partnership with a famous performer with an Orthodox background who managed to find fame beyond the Orthodox community. The artist’s name, Weiss said, could not yet be revealed to the public.

Still, despite his desire to move beyond the Orthodox music scene, it is clear that Weiss has no intention of abandoning his identity as an Orthodox Jew. “I’m very spiritual,” he told JI. “I don’t want to switch that. Like, I don’t want my songs to be about girls. I want them to be about God and stuff like that — spiritual — but I’d love for it to be played everywhere.”

He at least takes comfort in the belief that he has earned several converts within his own community since he started on his path in music. “In the beginning, people hated me,” Matt Dubb said. “But the world has changed.”

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