Fabulously Observant: How Jewish were the Beatles?

Some of the intersections between the Mop Tops and Judaism.

September 24, 2008 21:59
2 minute read.
Fabulously Observant: How Jewish were the Beatles?

Beatles 1 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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With Sir Paul McCartney performing in Tel Aviv tonight, it's a good time to consider just how Jewish the Beatles were - or weren't:

  • McCartney's most famous wife, and all but one of his children, were Jewish. Linda Eastman McCartney was the daughter of American Jews. Her father changed his name from Leopold Vail Epstein to Lee Eastman. Linda grew up in Scarsdale, New York, an area with many wealthy Jews. Despite rumors to the contrary, the family was not related to the owners of Eastman Kodak.
  • Perhaps the most Jewish thing about the Beatles is their longtime manager, Brian Epstein. Often called "the fifth Beatle," he played a role in the band's discovery as well as nurturing them to the greatness they achieved musically and professionally. The openly gay Epstein was especially close with John Lennon, and rumors of a single instance of a physical hookup between the two on a trip to Barcelona may be more Epstein's fantasy than actual reality. Epstein died of a drug overdose in 1967 at the height of the Beatles' success.
  • The months after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 were fraught with Israeli self-doubt, which was explored by the country's first lady of song, Naomi Shemer. Her most well-regarded songs of that period were adaptations of two Beatles hits: "Hey Jude," and most famously "Let It Be." Shemer's version of that latter song, "Lu Yehi," had a little in common with the original's music and lyrics, and was mostly an original composition. For a composer who confessed on her deathbed that she took the melody for her most famous work, "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," from a Basque lullaby, it is admirable that with "Lu Yehi" she was upfront about borrowing musically from the biggest rock band in history. NOT EVERYTHING was Jewish about the Fab Four, however. For example, at least the first dozen of the Beatles' hit songs were about romantic love (until "Help!" - or "Nowhere Man," depending on how one interprets "Help!"). But the Torah doesn't emphasize romantic love, at least not Western-style romantic love. True, Jacob's love for Rachel was intense, but the example of his father Isaac is more dominant in Judaism - we aren't told that Isaac loved Rebecca until after they were married. Hebrew has one word for loving - and it's the same word for liking: ahava. We are commanded to love God, and to love our neighbor, and implicitly ourselves - but never specifically our spouses, much less our "dates." Now, arguably "All You Need Is Love" is about loving thy neighbor. But I don't interpret any Beatles song to be about loving God (could the guy who wrote "imagine there's no heaven" even do that?). But there are lots of lyrics about men loving women, sometimes ("Something") quite erotically. There's even a Beatles song about same-sex love, probably with reference to Epstein - "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." The obsession with romance in early Beatles lyrics is just not consistent with Jewish priorities. Still, there are many intersections between the Mop Tops and Judaism, especially on a playful level. Best of luck to Sir Paul on his visit to Israel and on his concert this evening.

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