As The Beatles: Get Back streams on Disney+, Nathan Abrams considers the Beatles’ Jewishness.
As we know, beetles are not kosher but maybe the Beatles are. Let’s put this in context. Liverpool, where the Beatles hail from, has been a magnet for Jews since the eighteenth century. According to JCR-UK, there have been over 20 synagogues in the city and district at one time or another. It also has a Jewish High School and other facilities. At the end of the Second World War, the community numbered 7,500 Jews.
It was in this context that the band was formed, taking advantage of their many Jewish connections. John Lennon’s pre-Beatles band, The Quarrymen, got a gig at Lee Park, a Jewish golf club.
Alan Swerdlow, who was a friend of John Lennon, photographed the Beatles in their early days. He also ran the Greenbank Drive Synagogue’s youth dances and so it’s possible the Beatles may have played at one of them. They did play the annual boat ride on the River Mersey organized by the Jewish community of Liverpool.
Lennon is alleged to have often addressed Epstein to his face as a “rich fag Jew.” Epstein died in 1967, aged 32. The Beatles learned of his death while they were staying at the university in Bangor, on stage in the building in which I work (another Jewish connection).
There were other Jews who also claimed to be the “Fifth Beatle.” They included three radio hosts from New York City. Murray “The K” Kaufman carried out the Beatles’ first in-person American interview. This began a long and symbiotic relationship between radio personality and band.
And Bruce Morrow introduced the Beatles at their landmark Shea Stadium concert in front of 55,000 fans. This gig, the first concert in an outdoor sports arena, was organized by Jewish impresario Sid Bernstein.
The second major Jewish influence behind the Beatles was Dick James. He got them, among other things, their first national television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars.
In addition to Brian Epstein, other Jews helped to craft their iconic “look.” Beno Dorn, the first tailor to provide them with their first suits out of his Birkenhead shop, was Jewish. From 1966, until they broke up, Leslie Cavendish was their hairdresser. Cavendish apprenticed with Vidal Sassoon. They were snapped by a Jewish photographer, Dezo Hoffman, who first met them in 1962 and became their official photographer until 1967.
Paul McCartney has had a “love affair with all things Jewish for the past half-century — including collaborators, business associates, girlfriends and wives.”
His first Jewish girlfriend was Jane Asher (whose paternal grandmother was Jewish). It was his most serious relationship and Asher and her family really gave Paul a cultural education and sophistication. He then met 23-year-old screenwriter Francie Schwartz (while he was engaged to Asher). After McCartney and Schwartz broke up, McCartney went out with Linda Eastman. They married in 1969 and remained so until her death in 1998. Linda was a photographer and entrepreneur, both very Jewish professions. Their daughter, Stella, became involved in the rag trade. McCartney married another Jewish woman, Nancy Shevell, in 2011.
When the Beatles’ long-term manager, Brian Epstein died, McCartney favoured his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, an entertainment lawyer, to replace him. But John Lennon wasn’t in agreement: he wanted the former Rolling Stones manager, Jewish accountant Allen Klein. This dispute over management was a major factor in their break-up. Eventually, Linda Eastman’s brother, John Eastman, later took over from Lee Eastman and remained McCartney’s manager for many years.
Ringo Starr has been mistaken for Jewish, owing to his large proboscis. Ringo received death threats for “being Jewish.” A hotel in Montreal where the Beatles were once staying received a phone call threatening to “kill the Jew Ringo.” Ringo was not Jewish, and the reasoning behind the threat maker’s claim that he was Jewish was because Ringo had a big nose. He, like many Jews in showbusiness, also changed his name (from Richard Starkey). He married the Jewish Bond girl and Playboy model Barbara Bach (nee Barbara Goldbach).
Jewish director, Richard Lester, directed two Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). They were both produced by Jews, Walter Shenson and Bud Orenstein. The group then wanted to star in an adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, to be directed by Jewish auteur, Stanley Kubrick, but he declined.
John Lennon’s inspiration for much of his career was Bob Dylan to whom there are countless references in their songs. Lennon also believes that Let it Be was inspired by Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The trickier task is to find the secret Jewishness in their songs…