Bob Dylan’s classic album Highway 61 Revisited has been the soundtrack to the Jewish High Holidays at The Contemporary Jewish Museum this year.
This past Sunday, smack in the middle between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (a holiday of reflection and atonement), UnderCover Presents offered extraordinary live cover versions of each song on Bob Dylan’s epic album Highway 61 Revisited, for the closing program for the exhibition Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg and Dylan had a father-son style relationship, and were creative allies and confidants. Many see them both as secular Jewish prophets, with Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl” and Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited evoking the strident and lyrical moral criticism of the prophets. The social critiques inherent in these works of art evoke the spiritual and sensual disorientation of the Jewish High Holidays, when the life and death of both individuals and the community is said to hang in the balance.
For example, the titular song “Highway 61 Revisited” invokes the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, which we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Who can forget his opening line?
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”/Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin' me on.”
Or in “Desolation Row,” Einstein and other celebrities make cameo appearances out in the wasteland, wondering about the moral limits of their actions, and who gets to decide (on the limits of moral actions?). This dynamic echoes the symbolic action of the ancient Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, who sent out a sacrificial goat into the wilderness, representing the delicate hope for divine forgiveness.
The Hebrew word for law, halakhah, is often translated as “the path” or “the way”—a highway of righteous possibility. And during the Jewish High Holidays, the word used for repentance is teshuvah, which means “a return.” There is no final revelation, only a continual process of return and adjustment; perhaps this is why Dylan named his album Highway 61 Revisited, as opposed to just Highway 61.
This album can be interpreted as a spiritual journey for a society searching for a language of intense self-reflection—a central goal of the Jewish High Holidays. Or put another way, Dylan took ancient stories, and made them new again.
> See the full track listing
> Recording for sale in the Museum Store
Daniel Schifrin is Writer-in-Residence at the CJM and host of its podcast series “The Space Between.” He is a columnist for both the J: Jewish News Weekly of Northern California and the New York Jewish Week, and his articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and McSweeney’s. In 2007 he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and he has just finished his first novel, a comedy about chess, opera and orthodontia.