The secret Jewish history of Olivia Newton-John
Editor’s Note: Olivia Newton-John has died at the age of 73. As a remembrance of her, we are republishing this 2019 article about her Jewish heritage and influences.
In a recent celebrity memoir, the author writes, “In 1933, my Jewish grandfather fled from Germany with his wife, Hedwig, to escape Hitler’s regime. He was not only a brilliant mind but also a humanitarian who helped Jews escape Germany. I’m extremely proud of my peace-loving grandfather.” The grandfather was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and a longtime friend of Albert Einstein. The granddaughter, which might come as a surprise to some, is Olivia Newton-John.
In fact, the English-born Australian singer/actress has plenty of yikhes to spread around. Her maternal great-grandfather was prominent German-Jewish jurist Victor Ehrenberg; her father was a British intelligence officer who took Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess into custody during World War II; and she also traces her ancestry back to Protestant theologian Martin Luther.
Some of these details are covered in Newton-John’s new memoir, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” named after the title track of her 1976 album (not to be confused with the execrable 1981 hit of the same name by the band Journey). The phrase “Don’t Stop Believin’” is also a concise summary of God’s commandments to the Israelites, although this may not be what Newton-John had in mind when she titled her autobiography.
Newton-John apparently did, however, have some serious Jewish mystical concepts in mind when she recorded her 2006 album “Grace and Gratitude.” The new-agey confection is rife with instrumental interludes with titles including “Yesod,” “Hod,” “Nezah,” “Tiferet,” “Hesud-Gevurah,” “Binah,” “Hochmah” and “Keter” – names corresponding with the divine sefirot, or vessels of divine energy, in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Although she doesn’t discuss this in her memoir, she does write about her friendship with fellow pop star/actress Madonna, a self-professed adept of Kabbalah.
One of the best-selling artists of all time – she boasts four Grammy Awards, five number-one hits, and ten other Top 10 hits – Newton-John first hit number-one on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1971 with a version of “If Not for You,” written by Bob Dylan. Her next big hit, “I Honestly Love You,” was written by Jeff Barry (born Joel Adelberg in Brooklyn, N.Y. and best known for his work with Ellie Greenwich) in collaboration with the Australian born singer-songwriter Peter Allen. It was her first number-one pop hit; it garnered her two Grammy Awards; and it also established her as a country music chart-topper.
Newton-John became an international superstar when she appeared in the 1978 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Grease,” sharing top billing John Travolta, fresh from his “Saturday Night Fever” success. The soundtrack to the low-budget movie musical, coproduced by Allan Carr – born Allan Solomon – spawned several huge hits, and her portrayal as a spandex-clad hottie helped loosen her constricting girl-next-door image, paving the way for her follow-up album, “Totally Hot,” adorned with a photo of her bedecked completely in leather.
That was followed soon after by the hit single “Physical” – co-written by American-born Jewish-Australian songwriter Steve Kipner – which spent ten weeks at number one, becoming the biggest-selling song of the 1980s. At the time, the song was considered so sexually provocative (some radio stations even banned it) that when it came time to film the music video, they took it out of the bedroom and into the gym, transforming it from a steamy romance into an exercise anthem.
Newton-John has been something of a spiritual seeker throughout her life. She ascribes her restlessness partly to Max Born. She writes, “My grandfather Max Born had a famous quote where he said, ‘The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it, seems to me the deepest root of all that is evil in the world.’ My whole life I searched for one thing I could believe in, but I couldn’t find just one because I believe in possibilities and respect all people’s different faiths. I have a real problem with people killing each other for what they believe, so my grandfather’s words put it all into perspective for me. I agree with him.”