Holocaust forced Harry to Tap out of his faith, says singer wife Judith

Jewish Telegraph, February 2015

JUDITH OWEN would have considered converting to Judaism to marry This is Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer.
But the Welsh-born singer said it wasn’t an issue because the Holocaust had caused her husband to lose his faith.
“If Harry was observant, we would have talked about converting,” said Judith, who is currently on tour to promote new album Ebb & Flow.
“Virtually his entire family were put into concentration camps and killed. His mother, Dora, who passed away about four years ago, believed in traditions, but was non-observant.
“Her reaction to the Holocaust was that she found it hard to believe in anything.”
Dora was the only member of Harry’s family to escape Poland, while his father, Max, had a couple of relatives who escaped Austria.
“They were seen as the enemy in America, so they ran away to Havana, where they met,” Judith added. “I think about Dora how brave and amazing she was.
“She was absolutely proud of her faith, proud of being Jewish, and yet she had such a hard and awful time — at 19 on a boat on her own going to Ellis Island, New York.
“She had one relation in America, her father’s sister. Her job was to get the rest of her family out as she knew bad things were afoot.
“Every day she went to the embassy to try to secure their escape, but they were killed.
“Dora was a remarkable woman, while Max died when Harry was 14.
“Max was trying to be opera singer in Vienna and Dora fell in love with his voice. Harry fell for me when he heard me singing.”
In another coincidence, Judith’s father, Handel Owen, was an well-known opera singer in Covent Garden — nicknamed Cohen in his early days.
Judith explained: “My dad used to sing at a synagogue as part of his training. They would call him Cohen as a joke.”
Ebb & Flow is bookended with two heartbreaking songs about her parents. You’re Not Here Any More is about her mother who committed suicide when Judith was 15, and I Would Give Anything shares her feelings on the recent death of her father.
“Growing up in Britain, there were so many programmes on TV about the Second World War,” she said. “My parents were very determined I should know all about it. they wanted us to know what had happened, the Holocaust etc.
“They were working in Queensway, North Wales, for a family of Czechoslovakian Jews, who had escaped the Holocaust,” Judith said. “I’m sure most of family hadn’t got out.
“My parents were very close to the family and saw what they went through and heard stories. They were keen we should know all about it.”
Surprisingly Judith enjoys the Jewish festivals more than Harry.
In 2009, Harry told the Jewish Telegraph he was the “least observant Jew you could ever wish to meet”, yet he attended a seder for Pesach each year.
Judith confirmed: “We always go to a friends for seder. We have missed it for a few years because of work commitments.
“As a non-Jew, I enjoy it the most. I love the food at the seder. I really like the tradition; that feeling of people coming together and observing. We really love tradition and family gatherings.”
The celebrity couple also stage a charity Christmas show each year — which includes many Chanucah references.
“It’s very rude and tongue-in-cheek. There are as many Jewish artists on stage as Christian.
“The best Christmas songs in the world were written by Jews, so we’ve mixed it up and made it into a great music and comedy event. It’s the highlight of my year. We have a menorah out there as well as a Christmas tree.
Judith will be accompanied on her tour, which includes a date at the Bury Met on March 12, by her big name band Russ Kunkel (drums), Lee Sklar (bass) and Waddy Wachtel (guitar).
“When my father passed away, I had to do a celebration of him and my life with him,” Judith added.
“I always turn to music when bad things happen. That’s who I am. I have memories of being in the car with him and singing along to James Taylor as a kid.
“I was so influenced by that Laurel Canyon type of thing.”
“I met Lee and we connected working together. I reached out to Waddy too. Ebb & Flow is my love letter to Laurel Canyon.
“I was writing all the time my father was dying. There are lots of songs about loss and other which are life-affirming.”
Judith and her band recently appeared at JW3, the Jewish cultural centre in London. They went down so well that the booking agent has invited them to return. Music legend Jackson Browne even turned up to watch the show.
“It’s a thrill watching these guys play and they are my band for these shows,” she added.
Judith, who has struggled for many years with clinical depression, met Harry in 1993 when she was 25.
He turned up dressed as Derek Smalls — his Spinal Tap character — to watch her perform a “joyless marathon gig because I was so broke”.
When she finished playing, she heard “enthusiastic applause” which turned out to be Harry and Spinal Tap co-star Christopher Guest, who were about to perform at the Albert Hall.
Coincidentally, Christopher’s great-grandfather was Colonel Albert Goldsmid, a British officer who founded the Jewish Lads Brigade.
“I cannot survive without music and laughter,” Judith added. “Harry and I have a deep, deep understanding. He is very funny, brilliant man and a great musician.”
Judith even got involved with Spinal Tap, being a “dreadful backing singer” for the comedy rock band at their Glastonbury Festival and Wembley Arena appearances.
“Spinal Tap is the reason for everything in my life,” she added.
Within two months of meeting Harry, Judith had packed up, moved to Los Angeles — “happy and depressed” — and asked Harry to marry her.
“It’s still incredible I did this,” she said. “I was so clear and sure about this, yet was really struggling with mental health. Harry meant the world to me. I still had that clarity.
“I really struggled when I first went to LA. It sounds romantic and exciting, but you know no one, to be with someone you hardly know. Poor Harry didn’t know what had landed on his doorstep.”
Judith also worked with Jewish comedian Ruby Wax on the stage show Losing It about their struggles with depression.
“It was interesting how she had come all way to Britain to have a fresh start and a different life,” Judith said. “While I had gone in the opposite direction.”
“Sometimes you have to go far away to get distance. Especially when so much stigma and shame is attached.”

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Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email Mcohen@jewishtelegraph.com with your Jewish arts stories