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Bob Dylan Is at Home in a Hebrew Poem

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'Sleeping Baby,' 1867, by Guillaume Romain Fouace.
'Sleeping Baby,' 1867, by Guillaume Romain Fouace. Credit: Wiki.Cultured
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

How many ears must one man have
Yakir Ben-Moshe

Bob Dylan is in the living room. A 2-year-old
holds a harmonica in his mouth and a guitar in his hands
singing about roads that must be walked down
before you can call him a man. But you are a man,
I want to tell him, remembering that yesterday
in the evening I went into his room,
to smell the doughnut of his cheek.
The bed rose and fell on the waves of his dreams.
I looked at his relaxed lips and his mouth wide open
in the depths of tranquility, and I knew
he was sleeping next to a crevice.
In a second I fell asleep inside the mountain.

From Ah, Lu Haya Lanu Klarinet (“Ah, If Only We Had a Clarinet”), Kvar Series, The Bialik Institute, 2013). Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Allusion traffic between Hebrew and European (and American) poetry has, until recently, been largely one way: Outside writers have been citing Hebrew texts since the dawn of Christianity but for centuries, Hebrew poetry tended not to reciprocate by freely citing non-Hebraic or “outside” texts. Now it does so enthusiastically.

Bob Dylan walks this poem from cuteness to dread. The American singer-songwriter seems perfectly at home in the poem.

Dylan can elicit tantrums in Israel: This spring, a recitation of his “Masters of War” caused a fracas at a teachers’ college Memorial Day ceremony.

Yakir Ben-Moshe.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The poet assumes that, like the toddler, his native Hebrew-speaking readers are familiar with the performer and his work. The child imitates Dylan’s actions and the 1962 song that became a protest anthem for the generation growing up then in the United States, Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”

“But you are a man,” the father wants to tell his son. He recalls stepping into the child’s room to luxuriate in the boy’s sweet plumpness – “the doughnut of his cheek.” Envisioning the boy as sleeping on both water and a mountain, he appears to recall the lines: “How many years can a mountain exist / Before it’s washed to the sea?”

He takes fright. The child is a man. He will eventually disappear. Existential dread, a parent’s protective instinct and the sheer exhaustion of life with small children send the father tumbling into sleep in the crevice beside his son.

Of course, Dylan is not entirely an “outsider.” He was born Robert Zimmerman into a Hibbing, Minnesota Jewish family in 1941, and had a bar mitzvah in 1954. He adopted the cooler-sounding name for his folk-rock identity when he was about 18. He visited Israel a number of times, most recently for a sellout performance in 2011.

Ben-Moshe was born in Tel Aviv in 1973 into a family that changed its name from the Iraqi-Jewish Abdel Ezer when they immigrated to Israel in 1951. He has published three books of poetry. He says he discovered Dylan in his late teens.

*Musing: American-born Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston has spoken of Dylan as having “influenced Israel for the better more than any other American Jew”, while Ra’anana-born media personality Doron Nesher claimed that Dylan songs never became Israeli songs. What do you think?  

*Bonus: Yehonatan Geffen’s 1974 Hebrew version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” performed by Dani Litani.

Blowing in the Wind, Hebrew version