"Our Jewish Troubadors" celebrates music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen

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By Dr. Steven Heine
Professor of Religious Studies and History; Founding Director of Asian Studies

Our Jewish Troubadours celebrated the achievements in musical and lyrical expressions of two outstanding Jewish singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan, who was the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, and Leonard Cohen, who unfortunately died at age 82 just a few weeks after the prize awarded to his close friend was announced. The recent juxtaposition of triumph and tragedy highlighted that, even though both figures actively explored other religious traditions, including Christianity and Zen Buddhism, they each have acknowledged and cultivated key aspects of Jewish identity.

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As the Tel Aviv University Museum’s current exhibit on Dylan points out, “It is difficult to think of a Jewish musician who has had a greater influence on 20th century culture than Bob Dylan. Dylan was one of the greatest American poets, the voice of an entire generation.” Similarly, a memorial article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, “Leonard Cohen was one of the most explicitly Jewish popular songwriters since the ancient King David, whose Psalms he expertly imitated over a five-decade career.” When studied carefully, it becomes clear that the impact of Judaic theology and ritual eclipses the seemingly secular nature of the compositions of Dylan and Cohen.

The two events, held on April 6 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU and on April 7 at the Green School Gallery, featured introductory remarks by Distinguished Professor and Jewish Museum Academic Director Tudor Parfitt in addition to lectures by Professor Steven Heine, Founding Director of Asian Studies at FIU, and Professor Elliott R. Wolfson, the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition, Aaron Fishbein provided musical accompaniment featuring songs such as Dylan’s “Forever Young” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” plus Cohen’s “Who By Fire” and “Hallelujah.” Both events were well attended by enthusiastic crowds, who learned the deeper meaning of these and other tunes.

Following Parfitt’s comments regarding the historical background of medieval Hebrew poetry and song, Heine’s lecture titled “Bob Dylan’s Jewish Identity (or Maybe Not): A Simple Twist of Faith” examined the way the singer has identified himself with the Biblical Prophets, who spoke out forcefully about the corruption and hypocrisy of society and articulated the need for every person to take responsibility to develop their moral character in order to reach a state of release and redemption. Next, Wolfson in “Crown of Darkness and Light: Leonard Cohen's Erotic Despair and the Jewish Mystical Tradition” discussed how Jewish mystical or Kabbalistic influences led Cohen to a worldview in which the overcoming of apparent futility and hopelessness is continually fueled by an embracing of the interplay of God’s ability to reveal while at the same time concealing divine attributes.

Sponsors for “Our Jewish Troubadours” included the Green School, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, the Global Jewish Studies Program, the Asian Studies Program and the Religious Studies Department.

To view video of the April 6 event at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, click here.

To view more photos, click here.

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