Sunday, September 19, 2004

Dylan Wears Tefillin

From The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

Like Bob Dylan a decade before him, writer Neal Karlen turned up on Rabbi Manis Friedman’s doorstep in St. Paul, Minn., in desperate search of his soul. It was three years ago that Karlen hoped the renowned Chasidic scholar might be able to provide him with some of the existential answers he’d given Dylan, when Friedman brought the pop icon back to Judaism after he’d spent a decade as an evangelical Christian.

Karlen, who had broken the Dylan story as a Rolling Stone writer in New York, had alchemized from a devout, kosher-keeping youth intent on the rabbinate into the title of his new book, a shanda, "a disgrace to Judaism." "Shanda’s" subtitle tells the rest: "The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew" (Simon and Schuster).

"I’d gone to 10 years of Hebrew school four days a week, tutored hundreds of kids in Torah and haftorah reading for their bar or bat mitzvahs, studied with Rabbi Jacob Neusner at Brown [University] and was a whisper away from going to rabbinical school," Karlen said on a recent visit to Los Angeles, where part of the book takes place during the High Holidays. Instead, he was lured by Newsweek magazine to a job in Manhattan, where he discovered the world of glitzy, fast-paced journalism...

As he neared 40, Karlen felt a nagging sense of emptiness and lack of connection — but to what, he didn’t know.

Enter Friedman.

"Besides the depth of his scholarship, his authenticity and humility are remarkable," Karlen said of his mentor.

Centering on Karlen’s weekly meetings with Friedman, "Shanda" reads much like "Tuesdays With Morrie," but has both a wry irreverence and a seething edge.

"I felt I had to be honest," Karlen continued. If I wanted my questioning of faith to resonate with other assimilated Jews as deeply as it did with me, I couldn’t gloss over what a schmuck I’d become."

Through it all, Friedman had only one requirement in order for Karlen to study with him: He had to put on tefillin. When Karlen still balked, saying he didn’t want to cut open his grandfather’s nearly century-old tefillin to see if they were still kosher, Friedman knew just how to convince his pupil.

"Dylan," Friedman said, like a Chasidic rapper, "wears tefillin."


The background image on this page is a Hebrew translation of the verse from Bob Dylan's song  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), from which the title of this blog is taken. Translation courtesy of Yoram Aharon of Hod-HaSharon's page--found via YudelLine-- which has many Dylan lyrics in Hebrew.