Congregants at the Greenbank Drive Synagogue in Liverpool, England, always knew when the Epstein family had arrived for Shabbat services.
“They all dressed in sync. The old man, Harry, and his sons Brian and Clive dressed with a nice black jacket and pinstripe trousers and … a bowler [hat], and they looked immaculate,” said Rabbi Lionel Chiswell, a Liverpool native who attended Greenbank Drive. “And everyone used to look in the audience and wink to each other, ‘The Epsteins have arrived.’ It’s almost like royalty.”
That Brian Epstein would later go on to manage arguably the most iconic band in musical history — the Beatles.
While some of the band’s Jewish connections are more widely known — Epstein’s Orthodoxy, Paul McCartney’s marriages to Jewish women, including his current wife Nancy Shevell, and Ringo Starr’s half-Jewish wife, Barbara Bach — the early days of the Beatles saw them performing at a Jewish-owned club, at Jewish community events and even generating a buzz in England’s yeshiva community.
Chiswell, 75, who first came to the United States in 1966 and has lived in Baltimore since 1993, was the same age as Epstein’s younger brother Clive and went to school and synagogue with Alan Swerdlow, a friend of Epstein and John Lennon who photographed the Beatles in the early days. While Chiswell had started rabbinical college in 1956 and left Liverpool to pursue the rabbinate in 1962, his visits home from school and stories from those who knew the Beatles kept him in the loop about Beatlemania. Chiswell now lives in Pikesville and is a member of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion.
Before Epstein became the Beatles’ manager, he was working in his family’s furniture store business. As it expanded, he became a manager at what they named NEMS (North End Music Stores).
“Brian was interested in classical music as was the whole family,” Chiswell said. “They had a furniture store and Brian was put in charge of the record department. People had to get with it because people were buying as much furniture as they were buying records. Lots of furniture stores went into having a corner for records. Basically, people were into the classical.”
But as early as the 1950s, American rock and roll started making its way to England. Chiswell recalls hearing artists like Little Richard and Elvis Presley. But as the English rock scene took hold, customers started to come in asking for rock records, including the Beatles. Those requests, and some buzz in local press, led Epstein to seek out one of the band’s performances at the Cavern Club.
The club, which opened at 10 Matthew Street in 1957 as a jazz club, later became a hub in the Liverpool rock scene, hosting the Beatles almost 300 times.
“You did go down steps. It’s below ground level and they called it Cavern. I once visited it,” Chiswell said. “It was a street tucked off a street which was tucked off. I think the only thing that was allowed to go in that street were the trucks dropping things off. It was an underground little warehouse.”
While Chiswell said Swerdlow, who went to Quarry Bank High School and later the Liverpool College of Art with John Lennon, offered to connect Epstein with the Cavern Club’s manager, the story goes that it was the editor of the local music publication that ultimately took Epstein to the club. The club’s manager, Alan Sytner, was also a member of the Greenbank Drive Synagogue.
Chiswell’s one visit to the Cavern was for coffee and a pastry. Sytner knew a lot of Jewish people kept kosher away from home so he’d allow them to patronize the café without buying full meals, Chiswell said. Since he was a rabbinical student and not going out to clubs and concerts, he never did see the band perform.
After seeing the band on Nov. 9, 1961, Epstein signed them in January 1962.
“It surprised his father,” Chiswell said of Epstein going into managing bands. “We say amongst ourselves, the Liverpool club, that Brian saw a mint when he looked at the four guys.”
The Epstein family was highly regarded at the Greenbank Drive Synagogue. Epstein’s father worked his way up to the equivalent of synagogue president and for a couple of years was one of two people who would stand on either side while the Torah was read. Chiswell said the father had enormous respect for rabbis, and with Chiswell also being a kohain, the elder Epstein would be the one who called Chiswell up for an aliyah.
Swerdlow ran the synagogue’s youth dances, which would be held on Saturday nights in the winter time, Chiswell said. Because of his friendship with John Lennon, Chiswell said the Beatles may have played at the synagogue, although he’s not sure. What he is sure of is that the Beatles played at an annual boat ride on the River Mersey that the Jewish community of Liverpool held in 1962.
Chiswell said that although the Beatles were riding high with hit records, they performed again the next year because of a promise they made.
Although Epstein was not as religious as the Beatles’ fame grew, he joined a synagogue in London when he and the band moved there. Chiswell had previously served as a rabbinical apprentice at the synagogue, St. John’s Wood Synagogue, which was on Abbey Road about a block from the famous recording studio.
“When I see that picture of them crossing, I know every stone,” Chiswell said of the “Abbey Road” album cover. “I crossed many times.”
To read more of Rabbi Lionel Chiswell’s recollections of the Fab Four, read this story.