“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it” (Visions of Johanna, 1966)
I guess that Zimmerman must have been a heavy overcoat of a name to bear for a teenage boy in Minnesota in the 1950s, and particularly a teenager with a guitar in hand who was in thrall to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. But in the ‘land of the free’ millions discarded the names of their ancestors and chose to re-invent themselves – or at least don a different, lighter name to wear in that brave new melting-pot world. Not only an American phenomenon of course: many of us here in the UK may have parallel stories of Jewish assimilation – or attempted assimilation.
All of which is to say ‘Happy 80th Birthday’ this week to Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, Shabbtai Zissel ben Avraham, the grandson of refugees who fled the infamous pogrom in Odessa in 1905. “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/ I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard” (A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, 1962) – you can change your name to that of a dead Welsh poet, but your Jewish sensibility will keep coming though whatever coat you wear.
“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”
Dylan’s lyrics, his poetry, his songs, have become part of the backdrop to countless lives around the globe. I’ve never been a so-called ‘fan’ of his – from the Latin fanaticus, ‘inspired by a deity’ - but I have learnt over the years to recognise a literary craftsman when I come across one. As presumably did the committee awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago in recognition of a unique polyphonic oracular voice speaking over the decades of love and loss, hope and despair, and the wrestling of meaning from the chaos of life: all the normal stuff of a Jewish sensibility seeking a home amidst the dislocations and contradictions and vicissitudes of life; like an ancient bard weaving a web of tangled and knotted narratives out of, and in protest against, the fracturedness and indifference of the world he finds himself in.
Yes, that’s us too right now, stranded in our Zoom boxes but making the best of it, doing our best to deny what our hearts and bodies truly yearn for. As we sit and appreciate what we have, and what we receive through the screen, and genuinely value the connectedness and sense of belonging that is possible even through the screen - even while all that is going on and we feel our gratitude that it is going on, we are simultaneously in a state of suspended animation, in part-denial of – holding at arm’s length, as it were - what we really want: which is to see each other in the flesh again, hug each other, feel the living presence of each other and experience our own aliveness through that. But we are getting there. Slowly.
Meanwhile, “We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”
As I reflect on that line, “turn it over and over”, as the rabbis said of the texts of Torah, “for everything is within it”, I find it resonating with so much of what is happening around us. Have we not all felt a bit stranded in recent weeks as the latest chapter of violence and pain has unfolded in Israel and Palestine, and the now predictable upsurge in antisemitic rhetoric and activity is disgorged into the airways and streets around us? Yes, we sit here stranded, doing our best to deny the painful knowledge that our own wellbeing as diaspora Jews seems to be at the mercy of, and in a perverse symbiotic enmeshment with, Israeli politics. And we probably would prefer to deny that this is the dark mirror image of how it was supposed to be: Israel not an admired “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) but the opposite - making it less safe to be Jewish around the world than it’s been for seventy years and more.
“We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it”
And with Covid too, although of course we can be active in terms of vaccinations and the precautionary measures we take personally, we are still to a greater degree than we can sometimes bear to think about at the mercy of forces beyond our control (new variants, government confusion, the irresponsibility of others hellbent on returning to pleasure-seeking of various kinds, whether its nightclubs or sun-soaked holidays). And what we might be most in denial of is that none of us will ever be safe again until the vaccination process - with its concomitant need for probably annual renewal - has become a truly global reality. And although there is a real acknowledgment of this in the scientific community, and the World Health Organization, and some more enlightened governments around the world, that line of Dylan’s about feeling stranded still resonates.
And it may feel similar too with the climate crisis: although activism and campaigning and pressuring for change can all counter that sense of being stranded, there may still be a part of us – large or small – that’s doing our best to deny how threatened we are, and/or how threatened we feel. I’m not going to open this theme out now, because it’s quite easy to switch off one’s attention around this – that’s how denial works – but for those who are interested I’ll put a link a bit later in the chat to a piece about a powerful new report from Imperial College, London, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/26/climate-crisis-inflicting-huge-hidden-costs-mental-health about the worldwide mental health cost of the climate emergency: suicide, stress, depression, the debilitating effects of inequality, famines, floods, droughts, dislocation, we are talking about psychological trauma on a massive scale, and particularly in younger people when they see lack of action.
Yes, “We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it” . And yet this isn’t set in stone, this isn’t inevitable: actions by individuals, governments, communities, have proven benefits to our mental wellbeing through an increased sense of agency and hope - as well of course as being vital in themselves to safeguard our futures, and our planet’s survival.
“I've stepped in the middle of seven
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans…
And I'll tell it and speak it and
think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it…” (A Hard Rain…)
Well, he’s done good, the Jewish youngster who wrote those words when he was just 21 – ridiculous! - the boy from Hibbing, Minnesota has spent a lifetime doing it. A hundred shows a year, from 1990 to 2019, around the world – just think about that, how a visionary and poet kept on ‘telling it and speaking it and thinking it and breathing it’, indifferent to public opinion or approval, like the prophets of old, finding his religiosity in the music, in the verses, in the words that came out of him, and the spaces between the words.
Happy 80th, Shabbtai Zissel ben Avraham. Ad meah v’esrim, as the traditional Jewish blessing says, “May you live to 120”: ‘telling it and speaking it and thinking it and breathing it…so all souls can see it’.
[based on a sermon given on Zoom at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 29th, 2021]