LOUIE KEMP AND BOBBY ZIMMERMAN met as kids at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin and became lifelong friends. Bobby went on to fame and fortune as Bob Dylan, becoming a music icon of his generation, and Louie as an entrepreneur who made it big producing imitation crab. Along the way Louie managed Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder tour and shared a house with him in Los Angeles. In their late 30s, both men turned to religion, Dylan to Christianity and Kemp to Orthodox Judaism. In a conversation with Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein about his new book, Dylan & Me: Fifty Years of Adventures (written with author and musician Kinky Friedman), Kemp recounts how he helped his friend deepen his understanding of Jewish texts and re-embrace Judaism.
How did you get to know Dylan? Bobby was born in Duluth like me, same hospital as me. But then his family moved north to Hibbing, in the sticks. So, he grew up in a town 75 miles away. But we used to be together every summer at camp, and because my town was bigger and there was more action in my town, he'd come down and stay with me after camp.
What was your Jewish education like? We went for five years to a Jewish camp, Herzl, and they kept kosher there, they kept Shabbos, an Orthodox rabbi ran the camp. But we didn't have what you would call formal Jewish education. We were well prepared for our bar mitzvahs, but back in those days, the whole thing was to get up and read in Hebrew and make a good showing. They didn't teach you the underlying meaning of what you were reading. In fact, I can still read Hebrew but I don't know what the words mean. I think it was the same thing with Bobby. Few of the kids of my generation, unless they grew up Orthodox, which very few did, had a real Jewish education. We knew we were Jewish, we had Jewish pride, but we never studied Torah or Gemara or any of that stuff, so we really didn't know the underlying meaning of Torah and Judaism.
Yet you say Bob was always very Jewish. What do you mean? Growing up in Hibbing, a blue-collar mining town, had an impact on Bob. The people there worked hard and often made a decent wage. But there weren't a lot of possibilities for growth and advancement. Perhaps what had an even greater impact on his worldview was his Jewish upbringing. Every Jewish kid celebrating Passover knew the story of our people's enslavement in Egypt. During Hanukkah we lit our menorahs in commemoration of our ancestors, the Maccabees, and their fight for religious freedom. We were taught about the Spanish Inquisition and the pogroms in Eastern Europe that accounted for many of our grandparents' escape to America. As teenagers, we were struck by the reality of what had occurred not much more than a decade earlier in Europe, the Holocaust.
In 1960 the movie Exodus, starring Paul Newman as a brave member of the Haganah attempting to lead a group of his people to freedom in Palestine, was released. I remember coming out of the Granada Theater on Superior Street in downtown Duluth furious, in a rage. I began pounding on a parking meter as my girlfriend, a Norwegian girl named Lee, tried to calm me down. "Louie," she said, "it's just a movie." It was not just a movie to me. The injustices done to these poor survivors sickened me; it sickened many of us. Supporting the underdog is virtually second nature to Jews, as we have so often been in that position ourselves. We seem to have a sixth sense when it...