Fred A. Bernstein

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Bob Dylan's Mother

"He's a beautiful poet. But I don't think he was ever the greatest singer."

Published in The Jewish Mothers' Hall of Fame, November 23, 1990

For Beatrice (Beatty) Rutman, perhaps the most poignant reminder of her status as Bob Dylan's mother came during her grandson Jesse's bar mitzvah in Israel. It was Beatty's idea to have the ceremony at the Wailing Wall. "I was taking a vacation with him anyway. Jesse was seventeen. His younger brothers had both been bar mitzvahed. So I said, 'Why don't you do it?' " In Jerusalem, Beatty and Jesse were joined by Bob, who flew over for the occasion. Also there, but not invited, was a photographer who insisted on taking a shot of Jesse praying. "I begged him not to do it," recalls Beatty. "I said, 'Can't you just leave this boy alone? Doesn't he have a right? Do you have to do this, just to make a few dollars?' But he took the picture anyway, and he wired it to New York, and it made all the papers. So then the whole world knew Jesse Dylan had been bar mitzvahed." 

At seventy, Beatty Rutman is used to such intrusions. After all, her son is the most influential singer-songwriter of the rock era (he has sold more than 30 million records) and an enigmatic figure who many fans regarded as a prophet of his generation. No wonder the media's interest in Dylan has been intensive and nonstop. And since Bob himself has carefully avoided interviews for most of his career, frustrated reporters have often turned to Beatty.

Bob's mother has rarely obliged them. "My late husband, Abe Zimmerman [Bob's father], used to say, 'You read the paper, then you put it in the fireplace.' They write what they want to write. What are you going to do, sue them? I knew Elvis Presley personally, and unfortunately, I think he really cared about what they said about him in the papers. The media have made some people crazy-Bobby was smart enough to stay away from that." 

Still, Beatty was willing to speak for publication when reached by phone in St. Paul, Minnesota (where she lived with her husband of fifteen years, Joe Rutman, until his recent death). And she was willing to talk about the period, from 1979 to 1983, when the press was saying that Bob had turned into a Bible-thumping Christian. "He never displayed it for me," she says. But then Beatty adds, "What religion a person is shouldn't make any difference to anybody else. I'm not bigoted in any way. Rabbis would call me up. I'd say, �If you're upset, you try to change him.' "

Now, by all accounts, Bob is more actively Jewish than ever. On his most recent tour, he caused complications by refusing to perform on shabbes. In the past few years, he has spent time with Hasidic rebbes in Brooklyn, given money to Jewish causes, and made several trips to Israel, including the one for Jesse's bar mitzvah. Of that ceremony, Beatty says, "It was magnificent. It was the high point of my life."

Most of her life was spent in Hibbing, Minnesota, where the family moved when Bob was six. Abe Zimmerman had an appliance store, and Beatty was a popular figure in town. "All these years later," she says, "I can't walk down the street there without everybody stopping me to say hello." There was no anti-Semitism in Hibbing, according to Beatty. "I got on with everyone. When a Christian friend died, they wanted to have the wake in my house, instead of in a funeral home. I said, 'Okay, but I don't serve ham.' So I made tuna salad and egg salad, and everyone was happy."

Life got interesting when Bobby reached adolescence. He had been a quiet, introspective boy; Beatty says she expected him to become an English teacher. But at ten he started playing the guitar, and soon Bob Dylan-he renamed himself for Dylan Thomas-was carrying his guitar from college campus to college campus, where he found both an audience and a reason to avoid going to high school. His mother was alternately angry and admiring. "There were lots of times when he was ready to come back to Minnesota," Beatty recalls. "But he stuck with it. No one helped Bobby-they shut doors in his face, but no one helped him."

She watched his progress from afar-"and then, when he was ready for Carnegie Hall, he called us."

Beatty never expected him to become the success he is; she marvels that "he's so big, and he seems to be getting even bigger." Beatty says she gets along "very, very well" with Bob and his younger brother, David. "I did a wonderful job raising both my children," she says, "and I've been able to stay close by never interfering."

Does she like Bob's music? "He's a beautiful poet. I have things he wrote for me when he was five or six, sacred things, that I'll never show anyone. But I don't think he was ever the greatest singer. He was never an opera star."

Then she adds, "Of course, I love everything he does. I'm his mother." And what's more, "He's a remarkable, wonderful man. He's a very ordinary person; he's full of compassion; he has no ego. People don't really know him. But I do, and I'm grateful for it. Every mother should have a son like Bobby."