If the internet is to be believed (and, sure, why not?) May 22nd of this year marks the 62nd anniversary of Bob Dylan’s bar mitzvah, just two days shy of little Robby Z’s 13th birthday. The ceremony, which took place at Agudas Achim, Hibbing, Minnesota’s only synagogue, reportedly had a guest list numbering in the 400s.
In the years to come, Dylan would allegedly describe the affair, framing it something of a miraculous bit of divine intervention in the frozen tundra of Minnesota’s iron range.
“The town didn’t have a rabbi, and it was time for me to be bar mitzvahed. Suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter. He showed up just in time for me to learn this stuff. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs above the cafe, which was the local hangout. It was a rock and roll cafe where I used to hang out, too. I use to go up there every day to learn the stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie.”
Of course, this recollection is typical Dylan-esque: equal parts self-aware mythologizing and obfuscating nonsense. But, whomever this fortuitous rabbi, who appeared under “strange circumstances” was, there was yet another, even more mysterious, guest at the Zimmerman simcha.
First, a bit of family history.
My grandparents were members of Duluth, Minnesota’s small, but dedicated Jewish community. What’s more – they were, as they would later tell it, extremely close with the Zimmerman clan. How close? Close enough to have bragged, years later, that they would have been best man and maid of honor at Abram and Beatty’s wedding, had the two not chosen to elope, instead. Close enough, in fact, that they were there with their dear friends as the community celebrated young Robert’s Bar Mitzvah.
And while neither of my grandparents ever mentioned a mysterious rabbi appearing just in the nick of time to help the Zimmermans prepare for their their son’s ascension into Jewish adulthood, they did brag that the not-yet-Dylan’s bar mitzvah party featured a performance by an equally implausible figure:
Henny Youngman, the king of the one-liner, and comedic giant of his day.
“What the hell,” you’re probably asking “was Henny Youngman, a performer with a national profile at the time, doing playing a bar mitzvah reception in northern Minnesota in 1954?”
It’s a question my grandparents couldn’t answer. Nevertheless, their story of having spent an evening with both Dylan and Youngman has since become something of a legend, the sort of foundational piece of family lore that gets told and retold to the point of becoming canon.
But is it bullshit?
Maybe. But consider this anecdote from Roger Ebert, who tells of meeting Youngman, well into the comic’s twilight years.
I once observed Henny Youngman taping a TV show in the old NBC studios at the Merchandise Mart. We got into an elevator together. It stopped at the second floor, a private club. A wedding was under way. Youngman got off the elevator, asked to meet the father of the bride and said, “I’m Henny Youngman. I’ll do 10 minutes for $100.”
Or this, from TV producer Mark Evanier:
He would take his fiddle and go to some hotel that had banquet rooms. He’d consult the daily directory in the lobby and find a party—usually a Bar Mitzvah reception—and he would go up to the room and ask to speak to whoever was paying for the affair. “I’m Henny Youngman,” he would tell that person. “I was playing a date in another banquet room here and one of the waiters suggested you might want to have me do my act for your gathering here.” He would negotiate whatever price he could get—$200, $500, preferably in cash—and he would do his act for them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the king of the one liner necessarily schlepped his ass to Hibbing to crack wise for a roomful of Minnesotan yids.
But it sure sounds possible.