Imagine John Lennon as a Jewish sage for the modern world

In late 1980, I hit the road for a trip up the coast. While checking into a Carmel motel, I happened to notice John Lennon’s face splashed across the front page of the newspaper on sale in the lobby. I picked one up and read the news that day.

It’s been nearly 26 years since a crazed fan gunned down John Lennon, and I still haven’t gotten over it.

John was my working-class hero. There was something about the anguish in songs like “I’m a Loser” and “Help,” or the reckless intimacy of “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life,” that addressed my soul. For me, John’s death was a catastrophe, his life an inspiration.

But I’m not the only one.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of San Francisco’s Congregation Adath Israel was a toddler when Lennon died, but he grew up with the Beatles’ music. While studying for the rabbinate in Israel, Strulowitz kept albums such as “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” in heavy rotation on his CD player. “I would study Torah and listen to the Beatles,” he told me.

Unlike most fans, Strulowitz views Lennon’s music through a Jewish lens. His conclusion: John was a latter-day sage, though Lennon probably never suspected his songs carried any Jewish undertones.

“Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” says Strulowitz, is “about beautiful people. Society takes for granted that being good-looking is an inherent value, but Lennon challenges that. The Talmud says someone who is good-looking is at a disadvantage in terms of spiritual growth.”

Strulowitz cites “All You Need is Love” as another example of Rav Lennon’s wisdom. “Why did God create a world where human beings are so vulnerable the first few years of their lives?” he asks. “The relationship between parent and child is more than about safety and security. The connection has to be on a much stronger level.”

Talking to Strulowitz got me curious about other Jewish touches in Lennon’s music. The best example I found was in “Across the Universe,” which includes the line: “Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes/That call me on and on across the universe.”

If that isn’t Kabbalah 101, then I don’t know what is.

Lennon’s biography — growing up middle-class in postwar Liverpool — doesn’t explain how he came by his spiritual insights. The one time I actually met him certainly doesn’t either.

I was 19, living in L.A. in the early 1970s when the Sunset Strip was the coolest place in town. I had heard a rumor that John might show up at the Whisky-A-Go-Go for a concert that night, so I arrived early, Instamatic in hand, hoping to say hello.

Sure enough, just as the lights dimmed for the show, a bustling entourage turned up, with John in the middle of it. I pointed my camera and took a picture as he hurried for a corner table cordoned off by bouncers.

A few minutes later, I sheepishly approached his table. “Hi,” I said to John. “Mind if I take your picture?” He shrugged his consent, but as I aimed my camera, someone at his table started screaming at me to beat it.

I slunk away, dejected.

But the snapshot I took earlier caught John’s profile in the margin of the frame. It’s one of my treasures: that faded image of John Lennon rushing headlong into the dark.

Poet Billy Collins once noted, “We don’t say in times of crisis, ‘Let’s all read a short story together.’ We bring on the poet.” John Lennon was a rock poet for the ages. I have no doubt his work will stand the test of time.

Was he an honorary member of the Jewish tribe? Not really. But like any great artist, he tapped into universal truths about life, love and spirit. The same is true for the Jewish sages. No surprise there would be some overlap.

“Life is about opportunities,” Strulowitz told me. “We’re given a chance to maximize them. Did John maximize the potential he was given? Yes. Did he leave the world a better place when he left? Again, yes.”

In my life, John Lennon has inspired me to attempt to do the same. When my race is run, will I look back and say I succeeded as he did? Tomorrow never knows.

Dan Pine</b can be reached at [email protected].