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Special Interview Reagan’s Closest Jewish Friend Began Career in the Yiddish Theater

August 12, 1980
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The American Jew who is probably closest to Republican Presidential nominee as a friend and as an advisor is a silver-haired Los Angeles financier who started life in America in New York’s Yiddish theater and made his fortune in southern California as a food retailer.

Theodore Cummings, whose home is in Beverly Hills, does not seek for celebrities. They come to him, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Sen. Jacob Javits (R.NY) did when they arrived at the suite in the Detroit Plaza Hotel where the National Coalition for Reagan was founded on the first afternoon of the Republican Party’s convention last month. Cummings and Detroit’s Max Fisher are the coalition’s honorary chairmen — which indicates the level of importance of both in the Republican Party’s compaign this year.

“I prefer a law profile,” Cummings told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency when he was asked to talk about his services and contributions to institutions in California and Jewish causes. While he responded briefly, in quiet tones, to questions about himself, much of the information about him came from others at the founding meeting attended by prominent Jewish Americans across the country.

Now a California civic leader, philanthropist and an investor, having sold his retail food chain in 1959, Cummings came to New York in 1920 as an Austrian immigrant with his widowed mother. Cummings’ father, an engineer, was drafted into the Austrian Army in World War I as an officer — as unusual tribute to a Jew in those years. Captured by the Russians, he was sent to Siberia where he died. The family later moved to Holland and Hungary before emigrating to America.


In New York, Cumming’s first occupation was in the famous Yiddish theater of the time, working with such performers as the Adlers, Lee Strasberg and Paul Muni. Eleven years later, he moved to Los Angeles to join an uncle in the retail food business which he developed into a chair of makers in a corporate empire listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Cummings’ standing with Republican leaders was indicated last February when the Cedars Sinai Medical Center conducted a silver tribute to his 25 years of dedication to it. The guests included Reagan, Kissinger, former President. Gerald Ford, former California Governor Edmund Brown and Democratic U.S. Senator Alan Cranston.

The Center is only one of Cummings’ special interests. He is a founder of the Theodore Cummings Collection of Hebraica and Judaica at the University of California in Los Angeles and is the first Jewish trustee of the University of Southern California where he fought the conditions connected with a huge Saudi Arabian grant. The American College of Cardiology presents the Theodore Cummings Humanitarian Award annually for overseas teaching. He is the head of the Los Angeles Music Center. Presidents and Governors have named him to various commissions.

It is in Cummings’ devotion to the defense of Israel that his close relationship with Reagan for about a quarter of a century appears most pronounced. “During the Six-Day War,” Cummings recalled, “I called Reagan to speak at a rally in the Hollywood Bowl in support of Israel. It was a standing -room-only crowd. Reagan’s speech for Israel was fantastically brilliant.”


In 1975, as chairman of the Regional Leadership Conference for the State of Israel Bonds, Cummings asked Reagan’s help. “Reagan did two things, ” Cummings said. “He told us to use his name for an Israel Bond dinner and introduced an amendment in the California legislature that enabled banks and savings and loan associations to buy Israel Bonds. For the dinner party he urged political leaders to attend. By his personal effort, the non-Jewish community bought ten million dollars worth of Israel Bonds.”

“There’s something else,” Cummings added, “When a jew was refused membership in the Lake side Country Club (near Los Angeles), Reagan resigned from it. He told the club why in a letter. That letter was pinned on a wall at the club and members threw darts at it.”

Cummings attributes much of his deep interest in Israel to his wife Suzanne. About 40 years ago, she had an uncle who was active in the Histadrut. To raise money for it, the Workmen’s Circle solicited garment industry workers to give a dollar at a time. Cummings had a different idea. With the help of film actress Trudi Marshall, Cummings sponsored a dinner and raised more than $80,000. Other Jewish organizations asked for his cooperation and he continued his activities ever since.

A California delegate to the last four GOP conventions for Reagan in 1976 as well as this year, Cummings feels in “this critical time” Reagan can provide “a more sensible foreign policy, a sound economic policy and the strength and wisdom to make decisions. We need good leadership. Reagan can give it to us. I have all the confidence in the world in him.”

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