Life & Culture

How the Beatles got by with some help from their little-known Jewish friends

With the Fab Four recently topping the charts (again), Mordechai Beck reminds us of an important, often overlooked, factor in their success


A day in the life: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon at Heathrow in 1964 (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It will have come as no surprise that the Beatles’ recent song Now and Then reached the top of the UK hit parade at the end of last year.

Resurrected, using the marvels of AI, from a home demo tape recorded by Lennon in 1977, the song has a haunting, flowing melody definitely in keeping with the style of the group. Thanks to the wonders of technology, all the Beatles are present, even the dead ones, and it offers yet another reason why the band is still considered the best in the evanescent world of pop. In an epoch of doom and gloom on the international stage, the Beatles represent a cheerful alternative. Coming out of a profound fourfold friendship, their songs seem to inspire an optimism. Now and Then, though somewhat doleful by their standards, is still full of the vitality and vibrancy for which the group is rightly known.

Despite all the accolades the Fab Four received, both as a group and as individuals, one aspect of their careers is often been overlooked.

This is the Jewish influence on their lives. From the very outset they seemed to be surrounded by people of Jewish extraction.

Their first and most influential manager, Brian Epstein, was a local Liverpudlian Jew and never disguised the fact.

It was he who insisted that the boys dress in uniform (like bar mitzvah boys in their first suits), and wear unifrom haircuts, courtesy of legendary Sixties barber Leslie Cavendish, in a style that became almost synonymous with their early performances and LPs.

Epstein died accidentally in 1967 at the height of the band’s success, overdosing on sleeping pills, but all the group turned up to his funeral at the New West London Synagogue under the aegis of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. I heard details of this event from Rabbi Jacobs’ son Ivor, a fervent Beatles enthusiast.

Besides Epstein, the band’s professional careers were assisted by a host of Jewish professionals, such as the lawyer David Jacobs, concert promoter Sidney Bernstein, film-maker Richard Lester (nee Liebman) – who directed both A Hard Day’s Night and Help. Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) engaged the services of David Fishof, an observant Jew whom the drummer would telephone every Friday afternoon to wish him a “Good Sabbath”. Other significant Jewish individuals involved in their careers include a battery of accountants such as Harry Pinsker, Stephen Maltz, Allen Klein, Lee Eastman and later his son John.

What is more surprising is that three of the quartet married Jewish women. Paul was engaged to Jane Asher until she found him in bed with Jewish scriptwriter Francie Schwartz, who had flown in from New York to try and interest him in something she had written. Breaking up after a short affair with Ms Schwartz, he soon found himself enchanted by the Jewish fashion photographer Linda Eastman, daughter of aforementioned lawyer Lee. The marriage lasted 29 years until Linda’s untimely death from cancer.

Their three children are halachically Jewish, a point emphasised proudly by his daughter Stella, perhaps the best known of the trio. After a subsequent marriage to Heather Mills, Paul married Nancy Shevell, the Jewish vice-president of a large trucking company, in 2011. There were even unfounded rumours that Paul considered converting to Judaism for her sake. However, he did once attend the local Reform Synagogue on Abbey Road, St John’s Wood on Yom Kippur, and participated in the family seder service in New York.

George Harrison was first married to Pattie Boyd (who later wed Eric Clapton), before marrying Olivia Arias, a South African Jew with whom he had his only son, Dhani, who is therefore also halachically Jewish.

Ringo’s stepfather was Jewish, and sometimes people took the young Richard Starkey for Jewish (maybe because of his shnoze). After divorcing his first wife, he married Barbara Bach (formerly Goldbach) in 1981, an American actress and model of Jewish and Irish descent.

Now comes a strange development. The three Jewish women who married Beatles were fairly assimilated. Arias, for example, was brought up as a Roman Catholic. John  married the Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, but it he who did the Jewish thing. When he sought spiritual guidance, he turned to an Orthodox Rabbi – Shlomo Riskin – with whom he had visited weekly in the weeks before his murder. Rabbi Riskin told me that Lennon was serious in his meetings, asking him about Judaism’s take on the soul, the world to come and other spiritual questions. Well before these encounters, the worldly-wise Lennon is on record as saying: “Showbusiness is an extension of the Jewish religion.”

Perhaps that’s how the Beatles made it to the top, with a little help from their Jewish friends.

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