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Happy 80th birthday, Bob Dylan!

The Dylan song we need. Right now.

Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate

(RNS) — “How does it feel?” we might collectively sing to him, echoing the chorus of his most famous song.

“How does it feel?” — for Bob Dylan to turn 80, as he does Monday (May 24).

In 1963, as he was preparing to play a concert at Carnegie Hall, he told an interviewer: “My past is so complicated you wouldn’t believe it, man.”

No, it actually wasn’t complicated at all.

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born on this day in 1941. He grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota. The Zimmermans attended the local synagogue. His father, Abe Zimmerman, was the president of the local B’nai Brith lodge. His mother, Beatty, was the president of the local Hadassah chapter. Young Bobby went to Camp Herzl. At the University of Minnesota, he was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity.

Despite his various guises and versions of self-invention — even and especially, his period as an evangelical Christian — that rather uncomplicated past just kept on coming back.

Whether it was “With God on Our Side,” with its evocation of the Nazis, who “in the ovens, six million they fried;” or his prayerful “Father of Night” or “Forever Young,” with its shout-out to Jacob’s “ladder to the stars” — Dylan was always far more Jewish than he let on. Dos pintele yid — that spark of Jewishness — kept bursting into flame.

Consider one of the most affirmatively Jewish songs ever recorded in the history of rock music. 

It is “Neighborhood Bully,” from Dylan’s 1983 album, “Infidels.”

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully.

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.

Well, the chances are against it, and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
‘Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Well, he got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully.

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.

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract that he signed was worth that what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully.

What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothing, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits for feed
He’s the neighborhood bully.

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Neighborhood bully.

When did Dylan write this song?

It was probably during Israel’s war in Lebanon in 1982. During that summer, Israel fought back against PLO attacks from Lebanon.

The Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon. In its defensive war against PLO attacks, the IDF got as far as Beirut and entered the city.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon also led to the Christian Phalangist attack on the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla — a brutal attack that was at least passively aided by Israeli forces.

For many Jews, the war in Lebanon was a turning point. It was to be Israel’s first military adventure that would provoke mixtures of pride, begrudging acceptance of its necessity and deep moral anguish.

For almost the first time, Jews would need to struggle with the moral implications of Israeli military power. That Israel would go all the way into Beirut; that there would be so many deaths of innocent Palestinians …

The truth was: Israel was under attack from rockets. PLO fighters were hiding amidst civilian populations — in schools, hospitals and mosques. That was what what was increasing the death toll. It was a war wherein some soldiers would not be wearing uniforms, a war in which one could no longer discern the difference between combatants and non-combatants. No wonder some called it Israel’s Vietnam.

It would become the template for all such future excursions. It would happen again, with rockets from Lebanon, and certainly, several times, with rockets from Gaza. The same script: Israel military power; Palestinian fighters deliberately putting civilians in harm’s way; worldwide critique of Israel.

The Lebanon War was most likely the impetus for “Neighborhood Bully.” It is a full-throated affirmation that Israel does what it must do to survive in a hostile neighborhood. Note the reference to Israel’s 1981 bombing of Osirak, the Iraqi bomb factory that was set up to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Dylan knew: “the bombs were meant for him (the ‘neighborhood bully,’ Israel).”

And yet, Israel’s enemies expect pacifism, a kind of sacred victimhood.

It has been a stressful week for the Jewish people. The pandemic of antisemitism has returned — and there are no masks and no tests.

I found myself returning to “Neighborhood Bully” — on my iPhone — several times.

I also found myself listening to one of his most recent songs, “I Contain Multitudes.”

I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones
I go right to the edge, I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost are made good again

Is it presumptuous for Dylan to say that he is “just like Anne Frank?” After all, just as Bobby Zimmerman was being feted at his first birthday, the Frank family was going into hiding in Amsterdam.

Perhaps he is saying that he is a metaphorical Anne Frank, living in hiding in the secret annex inside himself.

Perhaps he is saying that, like Indiana Jones, he is the archaeologist of his own soul.

May you live to be 120, Mr. Dylan — and yes, may you stay “forever young.”