This Day in Jewish History

1954: Shabtai Zissel Is Bar Mitzvahed, and Turns Out to Be Bob Dylan

Taught by an Orthodox rabbi who appeared mysteriously, the young Bob Dylan studied Torah upstairs and fell in love with the rock scene in the bar downstairs. The rest is history.

Rowland Scherman/National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 22, 1954, Robert Allen Zimmerman celebrated his bar mitzvah in Hibbing, Minnesota. Hibbing was and still is a small town of about 16,000 residents. Zimmerman’s parents were prominent in its Jewish community, and the party they held in their son’s honor that evening was a major social event — even without any of the guests being able to know that the bar mitzvah boy, whose Hebrew name was Shabtai Zissel, would grow up to be Bob Dylan.

Dylan, who changed his name when he began performing in Minneapolis, in about 1959, was born almost exactly 13 years earlier, on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. His father was Abram Zimmerman, his mother the former Beatrice “Beatty” Stone. Both were the American-born children of Jews who had immigrated soon after the turn of the century, Abram’s parents from Odessa, Ukraine and Beatty’s from Lithuania. (In his 2001 memoir, Dylan said his father’s mother’s family had come to Odessa from Turkey.)

The family moved to Hibbing in 1947, after Abram contracted polio and lost his job in Duluth.

Located in the northeast corner of the state, east of Lake Superior, Hibbing is in Minnesota’s so-called Iron Range, home to what was once the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. In Hibbing, Abram joined his brothers Maurice and Paul at Micka Electric, the appliance and furniture store they owned.

Minnesota’s modest Jewish community

In the 1950s, Hibbing had a stable Jewish community of around 300 and a synagogue, Congregation Agudath Achim. A modest but attractive building with wood siding that had been the Swedish Evangelical Emanuel Lutheran Church, it was bought by the congregation in 1922 and moved from North Hibbing to Second Avenue West.

Sulven Angela Skeie / Wikimedia Commons

Agudath Achim did not, however, have a regular rabbi. And so, when the Zimmermans began planning their eldest son’s bar mitzvah (“Bobby”’s brother, David, was born in 1946), a tutor had to be found.

In a 1985 interview with Scott Cohen in Spin magazine, Dylan related the mysterious tale of the traveling rabbi who showed up in Hibbing “under strange circumstances. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter ... just in time for me to learn this stuff.”

Dylan didn’t identify the rabbi, “an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes,” but his name was Reuben Maier.

Torah upstairs, boogie downstairs

The Maiers lived in an apartment above the L&B Café, on E. Howard Street, and that’s where Dylan learned his bar mitzvah readings. Since, according to Dylan, the L&B was a “rock and roll café,” after his lesson the 12-year-old would “come down and boogie.” (He didn’t elaborate.)

Bobby Zimmerman’s bar mitzvah party was held in the evening at Hibbing’s leading hotel, the Androy.

Dubbed “the Grand Old Lady of Howard Street,” in its day, when the iron mine was in its prime, the Androy “hosted some of the wealthiest people in America,” according to one website devoted to the town. Abram Zimmerman was president of Hibbing’s B’nai B’rith lodge, and Beatty was president of its Hadassah branch, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they invited an estimated 400 guests to celebrate with them that evening.

In an interview some years later with Dylan biographer Robert Shelton, Abram Zimmerman recalled his son’s great proficiency in Hebrew, which he said was a source of pride to the rabbi who taught him. According to Abram, Maier would call him up to the bimah on Friday nights, say a sentence in English and have Bobby render it directly into Hebrew. “He knew 400 Hebrew words — literally ... He was the only one who could speak Hebrew like they do in Israel today.”

After May 22, in circumstances no less mysterious than his arrival, Maier “just disappeared,” according to Dylan. “The people didn’t want him ... It’s like he came and went like a ghost.”

As for Bobby, he stayed around a few more years. After graduating from Hibbing High School, in 1959, he was off to college at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. A year later, he quit school and hit the road. He was bound for glory.