Sammy Davis Jr., who died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 64, had his first contact with Jews during his boyhood in New York, when he fell in love with the Yiddish theater of the 1930s.
“They didn’t bother me down there,” the legendary black entertainer remembered later. “Although I couldn’t understand a word, I would just laugh and cry along with the rest of the audience.”
He returned more seriously to Judaism in the late 1950s, when he studied with Rabbi Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood, and then underwent a conversion ceremony in Las Vegas.
It was no snap decision. As he explained in an interview 20 years later, after much reading and soul-searching following an auto crash that cost him an eye, “I concluded that Judaism was essential to my survival.”
In Jewish literature, he said, “I found strength and dignity. I wanted to know how a people could survive for so many years, being constantly persecuted. I wanted to know what gave them that inner strength, and when I found out, I found peace in it.”
The conversion of the short, one-eyed black entertainer led to a string of jokes and anecdotes, which redoubled when Davis married the Swedish film beauty May Britt.
Rabbi William Kramer, who officiated at the ceremony at Davis’ home, has retained a photo of the wedding party, which included Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford.
There were some cruel remarks about the Jewish “nigger,” but most of the jokes were more affectionate, such as the one attributed to Britt. When it became public that she would marry the entertainer, she was asked if her parents back home had expressed any objection to the match.
“Why should they?” she supposedly responded. “There is no anti-Semitism in Sweden.”
Britt was converted at Temple Israel and, if anything, took her new faith even more seriously than did her husband.
In later years, Davis visited Dachau and admitted that he became as prejudiced against Germans as some whites are against blacks. In a visit to Israel, he expressed his delight at encountering so many dark-skinned Jews.
When “Fiddler on the Roof” became a musical hit, there was talk of mounting an allblack version and Davis was asked whether he would accept the role of Tevye. He declined, saying, “There has to be respect for certain things, and a black Tevye would be stretching it too far.”
After a while, the jokes about Davis’ Jewishness stopped as his friends realized how committed the entertainer was to his faith.
An example is seen in Davis’ face-off with the imperious movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. When Goldwyn insisted on filming through the High Holy Days, Davis asked for 24 hours off. Goldwyn scoffed at the request but relented when Davis assured him that he would spend the entire time in a synagogue.
“All right,” Goldwyn finally agreed. “But I’ll check up on you. I hope I’ll be able to recognize you in shul.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.