Culture

The Beatles and Their Jewish Connection

London-born Ivor Davis traveled with the Beatles on their first U.S. tour in l964 which he chronicled in his fascinating book, The Beatles and Me on Tour (www.ivordavisbeatles.com).  

IVOR DAVIS

WITH an avalanche of books written about the Beatles there has been a severe paucity of information about the Beatles’ Jewish connection.

Half a century ago I was the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young West Coast correspondent working for the four-million-a-day newspaper, the London Daily Express, in an era when people actually read a newspaper.

I grew in a Conservative Jewish home in the East End of London at a time when young Jews in Britain’s mostly Anglo-Saxon community, post-World War II, didn’t feel that comfortable.

Fast forward to the summer of l964 and lo and behold, by pure happenstance, I was suddenly thrust into the lives of a new rock group from Liverpool that was about to embark on its first American tour. Part of my job was to ghostwrite a column by George Harrison.

Embedded with the Beatles, I became a fly on the wall, witnessing the shenanigans of a remarkable era in rock ‘n roll.  I got an inside look at an odd juxtaposition:  the Jewish links surrounding the most famous group in rock history.

Yom Kippur in New Orleans

On September 15, 1964, two-thirds of the way through their first American tour, Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ erudite PR man, came to my Sheraton Hotel room in Cleveland and said the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, was anxious to talk to me.

 I thought this was a little unusual. While Brian was ever present on the tour he was fairly aloof (surprisingly shy, I later discovered) and seldom made conversation with the travelling press corps. Frankly, during the entire trip my conversation with Mr. Epstein had been polite but cursory.

In his suite Brian offered me a gin and tonic and got straight to the point.  We were headed for New Orleans the next day and Brian said he knew I was Jewish.  In that somewhat stilted upper crust mouthful of marbles voice of his, that showed absolutely no trace of his Liverpool roots, he asked me if I might do him a favor and get him a ticket for the next day’s Yom Kippur service at a local synagogue.

Brian told me he was born on Yom Kippur (Sept. 17,1934) and although he wasn’t very religious, he knew going to shul on the Day of Atonement would please and honor his parents back in Liverpool. (Yom Kippur actually fell on September 16 that year.)

I said I would be happy to do that—in fact, I would go with him.  I called the local Conservative synagogue, said I was visiting from London, and they agreed to leave two tickets at the door in my name. I didn’t mention the second ticket was for the Beatles’ famous manager.

On Yom Kippur morning I called Brian’s suite as we were going to share a taxi. There was no answer. And no sign of Brian. We never went to synagogue.  Derek later apologized: “Brian had to fly to New York on business.”

Although Brian and I never bonded in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, that brief chat for the first time gave me a fascinating insight into the troubled and oft-tormented life of the man who was the visionary and force majeure of the Beatles—the man who had relentlessly turned them from scruffy, greasy-haired, leather-clad musicians playing 12 hours straight in Hamburg’s seedy red light district into the legend they became.

In our conversation in Cleveland, Brian had opened up a bit and told me he served—as I did—in the British army as part of the country’s mandatory national service.  We both agreed it was a bloody waste of time—and he said he hated it because the military training was grueling and utterly boring.  I later discovered that after a year in the army he had been granted an

early medical/psychiatric release because of his admitted homosexuality. (National Service was for two years.)

Since Epstein’s premature death in August 1967, just a month before his 33d birthday, from what was ruled as a drug overdose, his career and influence have been re-examined. And his achievements finally fully recognized.

In April 2014 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Fifth Beatle, the bestselling graphic novel by Vivek Tiwary, which centered on Brian, is being turned into a feature film by producer Simon Cowell. And a new documentary about Epstein and the Beatles in the sixties has been completed by director Ron Howard.

Liverpool Lads: Not Kosher

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I can tell you with statistically significant certainty that, sadly, none of the Beatles was Jewish.

They sometimes got mistaken for being members of the tribe.

While I was with the Beatles in Montreal in l964, an anonymous caller—purportedly a member of the oft militant separatist movement—telephoned the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (where they were supposed to stay, but didn’t because of the call) and threatened to “kill the Jew Ringo.” Ringo wasn’t Jewish despite the fact that his real last name was Starkey which he changed to Starr.  

Of course, l7 years later he married Barbara Bach, his second wife, who grew up with a Jewish father, Howard Goldbach, from Queens, New York.

The Jewish issue refused to go away.  At a press conference in Toronto on August 17, l965, a reporter asked Ringo, “Are you Jewish?”

John quickly jumped in: “He’s having a bar mitzvah tomorrow,” he declared with a straight face.

I must admit that John—the Beatle closest to Brian—often got his kicks from needling Brian, because he was both gay and Jewish.

Derek Taylor told me about one particular evening when the Beatles were drinking, Brian revealed he had just finished writing his autobiography, which Derek actually ghosted.

 “What’s it called?”  John asked.

 “A Cellarful of Noise,” said Brian.

“How about Cellarful of Boys?” Lennon wickedly countered.

“Cellarful of Goys,” replied Epstein getting into the joshing spirit of things, and not sure whether the “Goy” reference would be understood by the other Beatles.

  “No, no,” said John, “I’ve got the perfect title: Queer Jew.”

John, sometime later, much to the chagrin of music producer George Martin, was recording Baby You’re a Rich Man and insisted on, from time to time, singing “Baby you’re a rich Jew.”

At a New York press conference shortly afterwards, they were asked if they thought Jews played too influential a role in show business. It was a dodgy question. “No comment,” John uncharacteristically responded.

With a Little Help from My Friends 

Epstein made himself an easier target because he was very uncomfortable with his Jewishness and went out of his way to downplay the fact that he—unlike the Beatles—grew up in a well to do home in Liverpool’s most affluent neighborhood where his family was “in business.”

After World War II, many British Jews, offspring of European immigrants like Epstein’s grandparents, still suffered from an inferiority complex as they strove to make a name and a living for themselves in a predominantly Christian society.

The atrocities of the Holocaust were still not commonly discussed. Young Jews in Britain felt that if they wore ‘Jew’ on their sleeve it would be a handicap.  If you were Jewish, you kept it to yourself.  As in other parts of the world, “Don’t let him Jew you down,” was a phrase in common usage in Britain. 

There was an attitude in Britain at the time, as Paul McCartney recalled, “Everyone knew Jewish people were good with money.” And that, admitted Paul, was one main reason why the Beatles chose Epstein as their manager.

Brian’s super sensitivity to his Jewishness was ever present in his personal relationships.

His close pals—and there weren’t many—included his personal London lawyer David Jacobs and other showbiz Jews such as British composer Lionel Bart, nee Lionel Begleiter, who wrote the music for Oliver and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be,” and who was also gay.

And there was effervescent pop singer Alma Cogan, nee Alma Cohen.  Brian was comfortable in their company and often visited Cogan and her mother in London and even fantasized that she might be a marriage partner, according to Brian’s Liverpool friend and business partner Peter Brown. Bart and Cogan were always the first guests invited to the lavish celebrity dinner parties he threw in his London flat in Belgravia for show business heavyweights that once included a very drunk Judy Garland.

Helen Shapiro, another Jewish singer who grew up in the East End of London, was also part of Brian’s showbiz world.

Brian also relaxed in the company of the New York Jewish crowd: Norman Weiss, from General Artists Corporation in New York who planned the l964 tour; Manhattan concert promoter Sid Bernstein; and Nat Weiss, a New York lawyer who had become one of Brian’s closest friends.

And of course, Paul fell under the spell of shayna maidels.

His late first wife Linda Eastman from Scarsdale, New York, was Jewish as is his current (third) wife Nancy Shevell, also from New York.

In fact, shortly after Paul married Nancy in 2011 (a day after Yom Kippur) he bowed to her religious beliefs by showing up at a Friday night service at the Reform synagogue in St. John’s Wood in London where Paul has owned a house for almost half a century. The rabbi called them up to the bimah and blessed their marriage.

Hey Jew

After I had toured with the Beatles in l964 and l965, people asked me whether I thought John was antisemitic. I think not.

I did see him striding around his hotel suite, his finger to his lip mustache style, pretending to be Adolf Hitler. From time to time John would offer a Nazi salute to the crowd.  He did it in front of thousands on the balcony of the Liverpool Town Hall before the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night when the city put on a massive Beatles tribute. It may have been his off-kilter way of relieving the crazy pressure of the tour and poking fun at the public’s endless adoration of the Beatles. Brian, of course, castigated John for his “Heil Hitler” act.

In l964 as we were flying to Seattle, Miami radio reporter Larry Kane, who is Jewish, described a disturbing incident in his memoir Ticket To Ride.  Sitting a couple of seats behind the Beatles on the chartered jet he said he distinctly heard a voice use the term “kike.” It definitely came from the Beatles seats. Upset by this, he confronted Derek Taylor, and told him he was appalled to hear a Beatle use that word.

Derek tried to pacify Kane: “Nobody’s trying to insult you.”

But Kane said Derek pointedly refused to reveal who among the quartet had used the offensive term and in what context. Kane says he was pretty sure it was Lennon, and knowing John’s shoot from the hip and damn the consequences attitude, it most likely was.

Another time on tour, Curt Gunther, a Jewish freelance photographer from Southern California, who traveled extensively with the Beatles, told us of the night Brian rejoined the group in Cleveland after spending some time in New York. The manager was furious, and in the limo driving to the Sheraton hotel in Cleveland, he angrily turned to Derek Taylor: “I hear you have been making antisemitic statements and laughing with John about my homosexuality.”

Derek, who was very close to Brian, and aware of Epstein’s secrets and often incurred the wrath of Epstein, shot back: “Absolute rubbish. I refuse to argue it with you. Some of my best friends are Jewish and homosexual—and some are both. Ask the boys if you don’t believe me.”

Shortly after that incident Derek resigned as Epstein’s personal assistant. It had nothing to do with that last encounter. The two stayed close friends and a few years later Taylor rejoined the Beatles organization.

At the end of their first American tour, the Beatles were interviewed by Playboy. “Is there any celebrity you’d like to meet,” they were asked.

 “I wouldn’t mind meeting Adolf Hitler,” said Paul.

“You could have every room in your house papered,” George cracked.

And while Brian had insisted to me he was never a practicing Jew, I learned much later an intriguing fact.  In a will he had signed in l956, he decreed “that all my clothes be sent directly and immediately to the State of Israel.”

However, he said, upon his death he didn’t want anyone to say kaddish for him and that shiva should not last for more than a week.

He was buried in Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool. The officiating rabbi, who never knew him, stunned the family when he declared that Epstein’s death was symptomatic of the worst aspects of the 60s youth revolution!

None of the Beatles came to that service, although they all finally showed up at shul at his memorial service where kaddish was recited at the New London Synagogue in October l967.

www.IvorDavisBeatles.com