What It Was Like Singing Dylan in Hebrew

Danny Maseng, who recorded translations of the Nobel laureate’s songs over 40 years ago, reminisces.

Bob Dylan in a file photo taken on July 4, 1978 in Paris.
Pierre Guillaudm AFP

Israeli singer Danny Maseng recorded just one album in Hebrew. Referred to as “the first album,” it was released in 1975. In addition to some original songs, including “Anu Nipagesh” (“We Will Meet”) and “Anachnu” (“Us”), in which he set lyrics by Ehud Manor to music, the album mostly featured Hebrew versions of Bob Dylan’s songs. This was a year after another album “Zeh Hakol Beintayim” (“That’s All For the Time Being”) released by Dani Litani, which also contained Hebrew versions of Dylan songs.

The differences between Maseng and Litani were not only in who translated the lyrics into Hebrew. (In Litani’s case, it was writer Yehonatan Geffen, while Maseng had several translators.) Litani delivered a wonderful performance of Dylan’s protest songs including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Maseng deliberately steered clear of them. In an email interview this week, he explained: “I always felt that Dylan’s protest songs in those years weren’t relevant to Israel.”

Born in 1950, Maseng has lived for many years now in Los Angeles, where among other work he serves as a cantor in a Reform congregation. This most recent contact with Maseng, this time about his cover versions of Bob Dylan’s music, was prompted by Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Maseng said he recorded the songs at the request of Ofra Samuel, an editor at Israel Radio. Dylan’s protest songs didn’t suit Maseng’s voice or personality at the time, he said. Instead he chose Dylan’s love songs, which he said were more diverse in style, from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to “Lay Lady Lay.”

'I loved the subversiveness of "Mr. Tambourine Man"'

“Dylan is a complex person with a lot of layers. I wanted it to be heard in my renditions,” he said. “I loved every one of these songs. I loved the subversiveness of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ the broken heart in ‘Mama You’ve Been on My Mind,’ the sensuousness of ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ the joy of ‘I Want You,’ the cynical and tired perspective of ‘Just Like a Woman,’ and finally, the classic Woody Guthrie-style folk song ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ I felt that these songs represent the scope of Dylan’s genius and also allow me to show a variety of my abilities as a singer.”

The album was arranged by Martin Moskovitch and features translations by Dafna Eilat, Ofra Samuel, Tirtza Atar and Dan Almagor. “I loved the translations,” Maseng said. “I liked the fact that most of them were translated by women. For me, the Hebrew words carried major weight and showed the power of the Hebrew language in a more contemporary way.”

In an interview with this writer in 2011, Maseng remarked: “Since I left Israel, I have composed many songs, written plays, poetry and a novel. In 1995, I began specializing in liturgical music, traditional synagogue music. I didn’t become newly observant. I decided to do it because I felt the need to create music that was relevant and contemporary with Israeli and traditional influences. It was all because North American synagogue music sounded almost devoid of Jewish sounds and content to me.”

Maseng’s performances of these songs and his beautiful, pure voice are well worth listening to. He sounded so different in his early years from many other Israeli singers and sounds even more different now – anti-macho, soft and sensitive, carried on waves of freedom and innocence of the 1960s, blowin’ in the wind, without answers but with too many questions.