What was your reaction when Bob Dylan was named recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature?
Some people were appalled because a singer — especially of the American folk/pop type — won the honor always before bestowed on writers. Others applauded because his lyrics were recognized in the writing category, the first time that such musical output had been honored as poetry.
Most everyone knows that Dylan — born Robert Zimmerman, who adopted the name of his own favorite poet, the famous Dylan Thomas — is a Jew. Not a particularly observant one; he’s had a fling with Orthodoxy, but he’s had flings with other religions as well. Still, the fact that “Zimmy” is a member of our tribe sent me looking at the whole list, and I found a few surprises!
The name we should all know is American novelist Saul Bellow, who won in 1976; the one we all certainly know is Isaac Bashevis Singer, similarly honored just two years later. The pair that I already knew because of my long interest in Holocaust poetry, Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Nelly Sachs, shared the prize in 1966. (If you’ve never read the title poem in her book called O The Chimneys, do so. You’ll never forget her.)
Boris Pasternak was chosen for the Nobel in 1958, but the USSR would not let him accept it. However, the Russians had no say in 1989, when Leningrad-born Joseph Brodsky won the honor; exiled by his homeland, he had come to the United States and been a U.S. citizen for a dozen years by the time of his award.
The very first Jewish Nobelist was Paul Heyse, who was born and died a German long before World War I, let alone World War II and the Holocaust. He was a Berliner his entire life — 1830 to 1914 — and won the prize in 1910. The last Jew before Bob Dylan was playwright Harold Pinter, awardee in 2005.
One name on this distinguished list was doubly foreign to me. I’d never even heard of Elias Canetti, a Ladino-speaking Sephardi, born in 1905 in Bulgaria, who did most of his writing in German because his mother insisted he had to learn and use it. He escaped the Holocaust, became a British citizen in 1952, and won his Nobel in 1981.
The South African writer Nadine Gordimer took the prize in 1991 — at a time when, because of her vocal opposition to Apartheid, her books were banned in her own country. For a while she was in America, teaching and lecturing at several colleges, but remained a resident of her native Transvaal all her life, which ended just two years ago.
Besides Gordimer and Sachs, the only other woman on this Jewish Nobelist in Literature list has an asterisk next to her name: the father of Elfrede Jelinek, who took the prize in 2004, was Jewish, but her mother was not. And Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor honored in 2001, was something of a reluctant co-religionist: “I am Jewish,” he said; “I accept that, but it is also true that it was imposed on me.” His novel, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, is based on the premise that no child should ever come into a world that would allow an Auschwitz.
But I will always think the most interesting of all is the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who said his studies led him to believe that Catholicism “completed” Judaism, but never converted himself. When the Paris police who collaborated with the Nazis in the horrific roundup of all Jews offered to take his name off the list because of his 1927 Nobel Prize, he refused. But the line was long, the day was cold, and Bergson, already in his 80s, caught bronchitis and died before he could be taken away.
So you see, Bob Dylan is the latest, but not the only, controversial Jew in this elite group of Nobel Prize winners.