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The secret Jewish history of Jethro Tull

The band’s leader Ian Anderson has demonstrated a deep appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish roots

Ian Anderson, the founder and frontman of British rock band Jethro Tull, was born 75 years ago today (Aug. 10, 1947). The talented songwriter and vocalist would grow up to play seemingly any and every instrument, including guitar, keyboards, bouzouki, balalaika, saxophone, harmonica and a variety of whistles. He has also been called “the best one-legged flute player in the world” for his penchant for standing on one leg (he does indeed have two) while playing his favored instrument, which gives the band its unique sound.

While the group’s founding guitarist, Mick Abrahams, was not Jewish, Anderson has dealt widely with religion in and outside song and has demonstrated an appreciation for the Jewish roots of Christianity as well as the realities facing Jews in the 21st century.

  1. Anderson told Classic Rock magazine in April 2020, “I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as a slightly radical, bolshy Jewish prophet. I do not believe in Jesus the Christ. I believe in the wonderful story of the Bible, the ethics in the teachings, but I can’t offer myself as having faith.”
  2. Interviewed by Jonathan Eburne for ASAP/Journal, Anderson said, “I don’t call myself a Christian. I call myself a person who supports the very positive and huge benefits of religious belief, and indeed the structures in which we exercise that belief in the company of other people. So I’m a huge supporter of the church: the fabric of the Church, the buildings, the house of God. And, you know, if they would let me into a mosque or a Jewish temple to play music, I’d be there as well. It’s just that the Church of England is the place that usually has its doors open to people like me trying to help. And once in a while the Catholic Church, too, as I’ve said. But in certain other religions, it’s not possible to bring in music for the soul, let alone for the wallet. They manage or seem to want to manage without that input.” Perhaps if Anderson hired a fiddler and came up with a few Yiddish-sounding klezmer tunes he might get a gig at a shul.
  3. By the late 1970s, the native Scotsman began diversifying his business interests, including setting himself up as a salmon farmer. For all you know, some of the lox on your bagels may have begun life as an Ian Anderson-raised Scottish salmon.
  4. In 2010, Anderson defied pressure by Roger Waters to cancel a concert in Israel, putting in words a point we all wish was made more often: “To those who tell me I should ‘boycott’ Israel (or, for that matter, Turkey or Lebanon), I can only point out that on my travels around the world I am continually reminded of atrocities carried out historically by many nations who are now our friends, and it serves to strengthen my resolve that some degree of peace and better understanding may result from my and other artists’ professional and humble efforts in such places.” Anderson added that proceeds of the Israeli concert would be distributed to charities advancing coexistence among Arabs, Jews and Christians.
  5. The cover image of Jethro Tull’s biggest-selling album, 1971’s “Aqualung,” was painted by Brooklyn-born American-Jewish artist Burton Silverman, whose 1983 drawing of Philip Roth hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. The “destitute, howling figure draped in rags and huddled in a darkened street corner” on the cover of “Aqualung” became an essential piece of the band’s iconography. Silverman was paid a flat fee of $1,500 for his work; the album has sold about 12 million copies. Several attempts over the years to get Silverman some more financial recognition for his efforts have come to naught.
  6. The “Aqualung” album spawned several of the group’s greatest hits, including the title track and a song called “Locomotive Breath.” The album also included the song “My God,” in which Anderson lays out his feelings about organized religion. The original lyrics to the song included the couplet, “The Jewish, Christian, Muslim is waiting to be free / Each claiming just a part of Him and so, a part of me.”

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. His book about George Harrison is due from Oxford University Press in fall 2023.


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