Jewish Journal

Were The Beatles “Good For The Jews”?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

February 4, 2014 | 7:15 am

credit: catwalker/Shutterstock.com

Fifty years ago this week, our lives changed forever.

It does not matter how old you were when the Beatles first came to America. Ever since that moment, your life has been different. If, back then, you were a teenager, you had a new object of musical and cultural devotion that would last your entire life, and would continue even today.

And if you were an adult, the Beatles gave you something to be suspicious of – along with the entire resultant youth culture that emerged. Just the subject of hair. How many fights centered around hair in my household? My passioned refusal to go to the barber would have inspired generations of Soviet Jewish dissidents. Fashion, musical expression, attitudes, politics – it all came out of the Beatles. It was to be the largest cultural revolution of the twentieth century.

So, what was the connection between the Beatles and the Jews?

  1. The Beatles’ first manager, Brian Epstein, was Jewish. (By the way, so was their second manager, Allen Klein). Epstein was the son of a prosperous Jewish family in Liverpool. There was a not-insignificant Jewish community in Liverpool; Isser Yehudah Unterman, who would go on to become the chief rabbi of Israel, had been a rabbi there. As a gay Jew, Epstein was doubly “other” in the Liverpool of those days. His life was tragic and short. 
  2. Paul McCartney is practically a “Jew by velcro.” Sir Paul’s first wife, the late Linda Eastman, was Jewish – which means that his children from that marriage are halachically Jewish. McCartney’s current wife, Nancy Shevell, is also Jewish. She got a premarital blessing at the Liberal Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London, and they also attended services there on Yom Kippur. In December, Paul attended a Chabad fund raiser in New Jersey, honoring his father-in-law. Paul has done concerts in Tel Aviv -- which, given the current BDS craze among certain rock stars, is both significant and praiseworthy. 
  3. Abbey Road is in a Jewish neighborhood. The road, not the album itself. The New London Synagogue, which had been the pulpit of the extraordinary theologian, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, is on Abbey Road. St. John’s Wood Synagogue, the “home synagogue” of the British Chief Rabbinate, is nearby.
  4. Ringo Starr is not Jewish. This rumor, however, has had a long shelf life. At one point, Ringo received death threats because bigots thought that he was Jewish. Neo-Nazi web sites continue to promote this idea. Perhaps Ringo's solo hit "It Don't Come Easy" is really about Jewish history.
  5. John Lennon mentioned “rabbis” in his song “Give Peace A Chance.” Remember John and Yoko’s famous “bed in” for peace in Montreal in 1969? One of their guests was Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, who was the rabbi-emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Hence, Rabbi Feinberg was the “rabbi” in the song. This, despite the conjecture that…
  6. John Lennon might – or might not – have had some anti-Semitic tendencies. This was one of the many controversial theories that Albert Goldman mentioned in his biography of John Lennon, The Lives Of John Lennon (1988). This can be placed into the same pile as rumors that there are references to Brian Epstein’s homosexuality and Jewishness in “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”
  7. On the other hand, an excellent book on Jewish thought “stars” John Lennon. I am referring to Ze’ev Maghen’s Imagine – John Lennon & the Jews – A Philosophical Rampage. The book begins as a critique of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” In particular, Maghen has a lot of trouble with John’s vision of a world without religion and countries, a world where there is “nothing to kill or die for”: “If we, who for so long have unthinkingly admired and warbled Lennon’s words, were to live to see his wish come true, the result would be more staggeringly horrific and more devastatingly ruinous than you could ever possibly—imagine.”

So, that’s about all that I can find. Readers and friends are welcome to find other linkages.

However, I would like to offer a Jewish “midrash” on the song “All You Need is Love.”

The Bible is filled with love. The first object of love in the Bible is Isaac, whom Abraham loves (which God mentions as the lead-in to the journey to Mount Moriah, where Isaac was almost sacrificed). Then, many chapters later in Genesis, we read that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob – and that Isaac loved the venison that Esau provided. And chapters later, Jacob falls in love with Rachel.

Love of parents for children; love of man for woman; love of man for food -- but it goes much further than that.

The love that one person has for another -- a "private," specific love -- emerges straight out of the human heart. It depends on feelings.

But the love that God commands is different.

Notice how the commandment “to love” makes a sweet and subtle journey. It goes from the famous commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19: 18), to loving the stranger as oneself (Lev. 19:34 – the most repeated commandment in the Torah).

And then -- and only then – do we get to our next love object, which is God (Deut. 6:5). Which, of course, God reciprocates a thousand-fold.

All you need is love? Yes, for Jews, that would be right. Love of one's neighbor, love of the stranger, love of God...love of Torah, love of the Land of Israel...

For me, the words of Torah are never old -- no matter now many times I return to them. There's always something there.

And likewise, the Beatles.

Fifty years ago, I heard the opening drum beats of "She Loves You," and my life has never been the same.

It is always fresh, powerful, and buoyant – a shir chadash, a new song, waiting for a new generation to discover it.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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