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Subterranean Homeland Blues

Do you remember the first time you felt Jewish anger? Not the inchoate, pre-adolescent, Patrick-Malone-called-me-a-kike-on-the-playground-rage—which is anger, certainly, but it is anger directed against some dipshit-junior-varsity pogromist with bad teeth who you knew, even then you knew, would grow up to drive a Doritos delivery truck—but real blood-in-the-face anger, when someone you assumed to be intelligent surprised you by saying something just crushingly ignorant about the tribe.

The first time I felt such anger, I remember, was in June, of 1981. The cause of this anger was a New York Times editorial about the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

I was, like most Jews, immoderately happy to learn that Israel had set back Saddam Hussein’s evil ambitions. It was the same sort of happiness and relief people older than I am felt when Israeli commandos flew under cover of night to Uganda in order to rescue Jews from certain death.

The Osirak attack seemed wise, given Saddam Hussein’s unclothed desire to transform himself into a modern-day Saladin. To do so, he was readying himself to take the dire step demanded of Arab leaders by the camp of Muslim rejectionists—obliterating Israel from the map. And the strike itself was elegant, balletic, pinpoint; the target was destroyed, and the Israeli planes returned safely home.

Now, I will admit to contradictory feelings about Jewish power: I was, in my teenage years, already shading left. I was a member of a socialist Zionist youth movement, and to my comrades and me, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, while justifiable in 1967, seemed—to the extent that anyone thought about such things in the innocent days before the first Palestinian Intifada—like a terrible and arrogant and self-damaging idea fourteen years later. On the other hand, Osirak was not about territorial expansion, but territorial protection. F-16s—Jewish F-16s flown by Jewish pilots—destroyed a factory whose raison d’etre was mass Jewish death. If we had had a Jewish Air Force in the time of Auschwitz, we would not have had Auschwitz.

So my feelings about the Osirak attack were mostly uncomplicated ones, of happiness and pride and relief. But then I read the Times—my newspaper. In the liberal Jewish homes of the tri-State area, the New York Times was—and is—not merely a daily source of news, but a kind of religion unto itself, and its catechism could be found in the columns of the editorial page. On June 9, the Times printed an editorial under the headline "Israel’s Illusion."

"Israel's sneak attack on a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression," the editorial read. "Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, it would have been working toward a capacity that Israel itself acquired long ago. Contrary to its official assertion, therefore, Israel was not in `mortal danger’ of being outgunned."

My memories of events twenty-years ago—and ten minutes ago—are usually indistinct, but about this editorial I remember vividly what I felt, which was betrayal. The Times was owned by Jews and run by Jews. The editorial page was run by a man, the masthead said, named Max Frankel, which was most certainly not an Irish name.

How could they? Don’t they have any sense? Who were they trying to impress?

I had moments of doubt—What if Israel was actually in the wrong? After all, the prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, was not my sort of prime minister—he was Herut, a revisionist, a Jabotinskyite, a mortal enemy of my Zionist and socialist youth movement.

I erred on the side of Israel, of course; I could do no other thing. But being on Israel’s side was sometimes a discomfiting place to be.

And then along came Dylan. Specifically, Jokerman, and even more specifically, the best bad song on Jokerman, or on any other Dylan album: "Neighborhood Bully."

Many people, of course, are rescued by Dylan. It just never occurred to me that I would be one of them, especially not in 1983: In 1983, Dylan, as far as I knew, was still a meshumad, who abandoned his people for—what, exactly?—for the chimera of Christian peace? The man had become, in the words of Larry Yudelson, the Dylanologist, "the most famous Jewish apostate in American history." It was a terrible day when that bit of news broke: The sadness I felt when I heard that Dylan had joined the other team was matched only by the relief that flooded me when I learned that Cat Stevens’ real name was not, as I had been led to believe, Stephen Katz—making the emergence of Yusuf Islam on the world scene a nettlesome thing, but not a catastrophe for my too-often-vexed tribe.

So there I was, staring at the cover of "Infidels"—is Dylan really standing at the Western Wall?—and "Neighborhood Bully" began to play on the record player. This, to my shock and surprise, is what I heard:

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized, Old women condemned him, said he should apologize. Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad. The bombs were meant for him, He was supposed to feel bad. He’s the neighborhood bully.

Did Bob Dylan just sing what I thought he sung?

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace, They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease Now they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep. They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep. He’s the neighborhood bully.

He did, didn’t he?

I listened to it twenty times. It took my breath away. Dylan wasn’t apologizing; he wasn’t asking forgiveness for his tribe, or even for his tribal feeling. He certainly wasn’t cringing, and he wasn’t wringing his hands in the American Jewish style. He was singing like a shtarker. Dylan was a shtarker! A two-fisted Jew!

This was a voice of unmediated resentment, and the voice of pride—pride in the outsized achievements of our pitifully small tribe, and pride in our stubborn refusal to agree to our own extinction.

"Neighborhood Bully" was written with acid, and there’s not much wit in acid. But that is the point: "Neighborhood Bully" wasn’t meant to be clever or detached. Dylan was not committing an act of poetry. "It’s just him screaming," Bob Levinson, a leading student of Dylan—he teaches a course on Dylan’s lyrics at the New School University—told me. "But it’s the scream that was in his mind at the time. That’s how Jews were feeling. It was a `fuck you’ song."

The critics, Levinson said, hated it. "Everybody felt it was preachy and had no subtlety, completely black and white. They said it’s a non-Dylan song. But it is a Dylan song. That’s the beauty of it. You have to deal with it as a Dylan song." In other words, you have to deal with Dylan as a Jewand not as an ordinary, temporizing, self-conscious Jew—but a Jew with dangerous feelings.

"Neighborhood Bully" was a gift, a strange gift, from a Jewish prophet, and it was sui generis.

Until 1989, when it happened again. Another unapologetically defiant song issued forth from another stand-up Semitic rock star.

Lou Reed’s "New York" is a frenetic and raw exploration of moral and physical decay in Reed’s beloved city. One track, though, is—superficially, at least—entirely off-theme. It is called "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim." Its targets are different than those of "Neighborhood Bully", but it is about the same phenomenon: Betrayal, and a specific form of betrayal: Betrayal of the Jews by people who should know better.

Good evening, Mr. Waldheim And Pontiff, how are you? You have so much in common In the things you do And here comes Jesse Jackson He talks of common ground Does that common ground include me? Or it is just a sound A sound that shakes Oh, Jesse, you must watch the sounds you make.

Waldheim, it will be remembered, was a secretary-general of the United Nations who passed World War II in a Nazi uniform. The Pope earned Reed’s scorn for shaking Waldheim’s hand. But Reed seemed most offended by Jesse Jackson, whose crimes against the Jews were mainly associational and epithetical—his disconcerting relationship with the Nation of Islam, his characterization of New York as "Hymietown." But his was an act of betrayal, and betrayal stings:

If I ran for President And once was a member of the Klan Wouldn’t you call me on it The way I call you on Farrakhan?

"Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim," like "Neighborhood Bully," is not a great song. But it is brave, and original: Reed finally exposed to the world his tribal heart. In a music culture that celebrates gauzy universality, and scorns ethnic particularism (except when given voice by a Chuck D or a James Brown), "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" was a revolutionary act.

And it was a kind of rebuke to the norms of American Judaism, as well. Be polite, we’re told. Write a letter to the editor. Sign a petition. Give to the UJA, the ADL, Hadassah.

But Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are instructing us differently. We can sneer as well, and threaten, and mock, and call things by their names.

Like most everyone—certainly like most everyone visiting this website—I looked to rock and roll as a form of personal liberation. But I came to see that, thanks to two of rock’s greatest practitioners, it could be a form of Jewish liberation as well.

Originally published on

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