Though Barry Manilow’s musical “Harmony” tells a story about Jewish and non-Jewish singers whose lives and careers become upended by the Nazis, barely any trace of the multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter’s Jewish heritage has been evident in his many pop hits. But perhaps we haven’t been looking closely enough. Extensive research combined with some imagination allows us to speculate on how to find the “Manilowdown” on the Jewish back-stories to some of Manilow’s greatest songs.
Was there ever a more “true blue spectacle” of a miracle than one night of menorah oil lasting for eight days? Barry’s upbeat 1975 hit could be interpreted as a coming home for Hanukkah song in disguise; of course, since the record company released it in the spring, most listeners would never have made the connection.
Could Barry’s moody, Chopin-laced hit from 1975 actually have been inspired by the long-alleged relationship between kabbalah and the ancient art of alchemy, and by the pioneering work of Alexandrian alchemist Maria Hebraea, also known as Mary the Jewess? If so, the line “Let me know the wonder of all of you” could have something to do with Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel’s creation of the Golem of Prague.
The deep sense of melancholy that emanates from this 1976 adult contemporary chart-topper might not derive from mere romantic longing: Perhaps Manilow was forced to spend a vacation weekend in New England because his favorite Catskills getaway spots were already all booked up. Cape Cod would have offered little consolation once he’d had his heart set on staying in the Borscht Belt.
We imagine that this No. 1 pop hit from 1977 was inspired by Manilow spending a grueling day in the kitchen, helping his grandmother make hamantaschen for Purim. “And all I could taste was love the way we made it,” he sang — a reference, perchance, to the secret cooking ingredient employed by every bubbe.
This Oscar-nominated song from the soundtrack of the 1978 film “Foul Play” sounds as though it reflects guarded optimism about the singer returning to his synagogue’s “Casino Night” after getting completely cleaned out at the previous one.
This might well be an ode to the Manilow family dentist, who, in our interpretation, scandalized the community by running off with his non-Jewish receptionist, thus leaving dozens of his patients’ dental bridges unfinished and their cavities unfilled.
What if this 1978 pop-disco smash was originally supposed to be about the night in May 1957, when a performance by noted Jewish convert Sammy Davis Jr. at the popular New York City nightclub was interrupted by a drunken brawl between several New York Yankees players and a group of bowlers who’d heckled Davis? Still, it probably works better as a love triangle between Lola the showgirl, Tony the bartender and Rico the diamond-wearing mobster.
This top-10 hit sounds like what Manilow might have felt after he and his band stumbled upon a kosher delicatessen during an all-night bus drive to Kansas City, Mo., from St. Louis during his 1978 tour. It might not sound like such a big deal, but you try finding really good pastrami, kishke or kasha varnishkes in the middle of Missouri.
Dan Epstein is a pop culture historian and the author of “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).
This story "Barry Manilow's 8 (Maybe) Most Jewish Songs" was written by Dan Epstein.