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The real story behind Sammy Davis Jr.’s conversion to Judaism

Sammy Davis Jr. (1972 photo - source: Wikipedia)

Jewish comedians made racist jokes about him. Some Black audiences booed him. But his faith was genuine

By Beth Harpaz February 23, 2023

(This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.)

Sammy Davis Jr. was a short and skinny Black man with one eye. His wife was white, his mother was Puerto Rican and he was a convert to Judaism. In the crass and racist world of mid-20th century comedy, he was a walking punchline, even in his own routines.

“When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out,” was his standard self-deprecating gag. The line received knowing laughs in the 1950s and ’60s when many towns forbade property sales to Blacks and Jews, and whites often fled when Black families moved into their neighborhoods.

Jokes by his fellow entertainers were crude. In a live skit at the Sands in Las Vegas in 1963, Dean Martin physically lifted Davis up (he weighed a mere 120 pounds) and said, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.” At a Friars Club roast, comedian Pat Buttram said that if Davis showed up in Buttram’s home state of Alabama, folks “wouldn’t know what to burn on the lawn.” 

Jewish comedians got their licks in, too. Milton Berle cross-dressed as Davis’ white wife, May Britt, and sang, to the tune of “My Yiddishe Mama,” “My Yiddish Mau-Mau,” a reference to an anti-British rebellion in Kenya. 

At another roast, Joey Bishop said he’d “never been so embarrassed” in his life as when he met Davis in synagogue. When the rabbi came in, Bishop said, “Sammy jumped up and hollered, ‘Here come the judge!’”

This cringeworthy line was delivered by Davis himself in a show at the Copa: “I don’t know whether to be shiftless and lazy, or smart and stingy.”

Some of these jokes implied that it was preposterous for a Black man to convert to Judaism. But for Sammy Davis Jr., being Jewish “was the most logical thing in the world,” historian Rebecca L. Davis told me. “Over and over again, he made this analogy between being Jewish and African American. He was very admiring of the Jewish millennia-long struggle against oppressors and overcoming all kinds of obstacles.” He saw himself as “an outsider and very marginalized, and he could see in the Jewish experience a similarity that really drew him in emotionally.” 

Davis, a history professor at the University of Delaware (and no relation to Sammy), has done extensive research on the entertainer’s conversion, his career and how he was perceived. Her article, “‘These Are a Swinging Bunch of People’: Sammy Davis, Jr., Religious Conversion, and the Color of Jewish Ethnicity,” appeared in the American Jewish History journal in 2016, and she included a chapter about him in her 2021 book, Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics. Her take is that Davis was not only one of the most successful entertainers of the 20th century despite the many racist barriers in his way, but that his Jewish faith was utterly genuine.

The fateful accident

Davis lost his eye when he crashed his car driving home to California from Las Vegas in November 1954. One of several stories about what sparked Davis’ path to conversion originates with the aftermath of the accident. He wrote in his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, that his friends Tony Curtis, who was Jewish, and Janet Leigh, who was not, arrived at the hospital and Leigh gave him a religious medal with St. Christopher on one side and a Star of David on the other. “Hold tight and pray and everything will be all right,” Leigh told him.

Davis later told Alex Haley in a Playboy interview that he gripped the object so tightly that the Star of David left a scar on his hand, “like a stigmata.” He took it as a sign that he should convert. 

Davis also felt that he owed his career to a Jewish man, Eddie Cantor, who ironically had been one of vaudeville’s best-known blackface performers; Cantor’s act earned him a spot with the Ziegfeld Follies. Decades later, Cantor gave Davis his first big break, a solo televised appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, and became a father figure to him. “He saw Cantor’s Jewishness as part of what made Cantor a good person,” said Rebecca Davis. 

In another version of how his car accident led to his conversion, Sammy Davis said that a mezuzah Cantor gave him had mistakenly been left behind in a hotel room the day of the crash. That story transformed the mezuzah “into a talisman,” Rebecca Davis observed, another signpost on the road to his conversion. 

Identifying as a Jew

In his memoir, Sammy Davis recalled Rabbi Max Nussbaum, of Temple Israel in Hollywood, telling him, “We cherish converts, but we neither seek nor rush them.” But he began to publicly identify as Jewish before formally converting. In 1959 he refused to film scenes for the movie Porgy and Bess on Yom Kippur, while Ebony ran a photo of him holding Everyman’s Talmud.

He also repeatedly compared the oppression of Jews to that of African Americans. In his 1989 book, Why Me?, he wrote that he was “attracted by the affinity between the Jew and the Negro. The Jews had been oppressed for three thousand years instead of three hundred but the rest was very much the same.” When he visited the Wailing Wall in 1969, he said Israel was his “religious home.”

The reception from Black audiences

American Jews by and large loved him, and his reception in the Jewish press, including the Forward, was also positive, Rebecca Davis said. But it was more complicated for Black media. On the one hand, she said, he was “this exemplar of Black success, very wealthy, very famous, very successful” in an era of rampant racism.

On the other hand, there was “confusion and anger” about why — as a prominent Black activist who joined marches, raised money and was the United Negro College Fund’s largest donor — Sammy Davis so often connected the civil rights cause to Judaism. While there were a “disproportionate number of Jews who were passionate about civil rights and were willing to put their personal safety on the line to stand up for civil rights,” at the same time, Jews were part of a “broader American culture that saw African Americans as inferiors. That was the prevailing cultural norm among white people in the 1950s,” Rebecca Davis said. Other critics felt that he had converted to ingratiate himself with whites as a way to get ahead.

And when he “let himself be the joke” as part of the Rat Pack — a loose ensemble of performers that included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford — that “really angered a lot of African Americans who saw him more as performing for white audiences than for Black audiences.”

He formally converted with Britt shortly before their wedding in 1960. She was as serious about it as he was, making sure, even after they were divorced, that their children went to Hebrew school and that their son was bar mitzvahed.

Disinvited from JFK’s inauguration

But their marriage also resulted in one of the most painful episodes of his life, when he was disinvited from John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. The Democratic coalition that elected JFK included Southern white Democrats, and they did not want a Black man married to a white woman performing at the celebration. “They forced Davis out,” Rebecca Davis said. “He was so stung by that. Here he was on stage and on film with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and the biggest stars of the day, and they all got to go to the inauguration, but he didn’t.”

That rejection helps explain Davis’ subsequent embrace of Richard Nixon. “Nixon, who was politically very devious, figured he could use Sammy Davis as a token African American supporter by overdoing it and inviting him to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom,” Rebecca Davis said. That made him the first Black man to spend the night as a guest in the White House.

Some African Americans saw Davis’ alignment with Nixon and the Republicans as a betrayal. Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier stopped returning his phone calls, Rebecca Davis wrote, and a year or two after he performed at the 1972 Republican National Convention, he was booed at an event organized by Jesse Jackson.

He responded to the boos by saying, “I get it. I understand. But I need you to know, I always did it my way. It’s the only way I’ve got,” Rebecca Davis said. “Then he sang ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me,’ and they gave him a standing ovation.”

A steadfast Jew until the end

His third wife, Altovise, was a churchgoer, but Sammy Davis remained a steadfast Jew until the day he died. Everything he said about Judaism “was said with the utmost sincerity,” Rebecca Davis said. “He never once looked back and said, ‘Oh, that was just a phase I was going through.’ And he never talked about it in terms of his career. He only talked about it as something that spoke to him on a deep level.”

Davis died of throat cancer in 1990 at age 64. Sinatra, Berle, Liza Minnelli, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and many other celebrities were among thousands of mourners who backed up traffic for 8 miles en route to the funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in LA. Rabbi Allen Freehling presided at the service, but the eulogy was given by Jesse Jackson. 

“To love Sammy was to love Black and white, Black and Jew,” he said, “and to embrace the human family.”

The service also included one last standing ovation for Davis, when they played a recording of – what else? – “I’ve Gotta Be Me.”

Beth Harpaz is a reporter for the Forward. She previously worked for The Associated Press, first covering breaking news and politics, then as AP Travel editor. Email: harpaz@forward.com.

This article was originally published on the Forward

Features

Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Features

Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.
In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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Features

A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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