(New York Jewish Week) — Barrier-smashing singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who once boasted of being “the most popular Jew in America” because of his rendition of a Hebrew classic, died Tuesday at his longtime Upper West Side home. He was 96.
The New York City native was the one of the first Black artists to achieve widespread commercial success in the United States, and while he was raised Catholic, his life frequently dovetailed with Jewish causes, values and people. Among Belafonte’s many Jewish connections — which included brokering a meeting between Nelson Mandela and Jewish leaders in 1989 — was his marriage to his Jewish second wife, dancer Julie Robinson. The couple, who were married from 1958 to 2004, raised two children, Gina and David.
In 2011, Belafonte revealed in his autobiography, “My Song: A Memoir” that his paternal grandfather was Jewish. Belafonte’s parents were both Jamaican immigrants: his mother, Melvine, was the child of a white mother from Scotland and a Black father, and his father, Harold George Bellanfanti, who later changed the family name, was the son of a Black mother and white Dutch-Jewish father. In his book, Belafonte describes his paternal grandfather, whom he never met, as “a white Dutch Jew who drifted over to the islands after chasing gold and diamonds, with no luck at all.”
Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr., in Harlem on March 1, 1927. His father was largely absent during his childhood; his mother, who struggled with finding work, forged a relationship with a Jewish tailor who taught her how to mend garments. “That tailor gave me my first sense of kinship with Jews, which would deepen over time,” Belfonte wrote in his memoir. He spent a portion of his childhood with his grandmother in Jamaica, but he returned to New York to attend George Washington High School in Washington Heights — where Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger were also educated — before dropping out.
Following a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Belafonte was bitten by the acting bug when, working as a janitor’s assistant, he was given a pair of tickets to the American Negro Theater as a gift. “It was there that the universe opened for me,” he told NPR in 2011. “I decided with any device I could possibly find, I wanted to stay in this place. What I had discovered in the theater was power: power to influence, power to know of others and know of other things.”
In the late 1940s, Belafonte enrolled in acting classes, where he met his lifelong friend Sidney Poitier. The impoverished pair would often share a single theater ticket, trading places at intermission. He also befriended Jewish actor Tony Curtis, writing in his memoir: “He lived in the Bronx with his family; why live downtown, he’d say, when he could live uptown for free? And who cared if they still greeted him up there as Bernie Schwartz?”
He and Curtis frequently went to parties together, he wrote, sometimes with the actress Elaine Stritch, “who swore more colorfully than any sailor I’d known,” and “the blunt Jewish comic” Bea Arthur, “who’d start matching wits with Elaine until the two of them had everyone in uncontrollable laughter.”
To pay for acting classes, Belafonte began dabbling in singing at nightclubs, and it was there that a true superstar was born. One of Belafonte’s early successes were his performances of the Hebrew dance hit “Hava Nagila” at the classic downtown folk club the Village Vanguard. His rendition, Belafonte joked to The New York Times in 2017, made him “the most popular Jew in America.”
In that same interview, Belafonte recalled the tough uptown streets of his childhood, and how he was drawn to the fast money his uncle’s number-running business earned. “Everybody in that world were role models in how to survive, how to be tough, how to get through the city, how to con, the daily encounters,” he said. “But my mother saw to it that unless I wanted to live life absent of testicles, she wasn’t going to have me follow her brother Lenny. Somewhere in there is a Sholem Aleichem — a rich story to be told of the lore of that time.”
With his 1953 breakthrough album, “Calypso” — which included his most iconic work, “The Banana Boat Song” — Belafonte “almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music,” according to The New York Times’ obituary. “Calypso” climbed to the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release and stayed there for 31 weeks; it is reported to be the first album by a solo artist to sell more than a million copies. By 1959 he was the most highly-paid Black performer in history, according to the Times.
Known around the world as the “King of Calypso,” Belafonte recorded and performed a wide range of global and folk classics throughout his wide-ranging musical career — Jewish standards among them. In 1959, he performed “Hine Ma Tov” in England, with what appears to be an Israeli military choir; his 1963 album, “Streets I Have Walked,” includes a rendition of “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”), a popular Jewish wedding song.
Belafonte’s greatest passion, however, was neither acting nor singing — it was civil rights activism. There, too, he worked closely with many Jewish activists, as part of the historic Black-Jewish civil rights alliance of the 1950s and 1960s. But, as he recalled in his memoir, it was racism delivered by a Jewish TV executive that first inspired him to take on racial segregation in the United States.
The executive, a Jew from Montreal named Charles Revson, asked Belafonte to stop hosting white dancers on his performance show, citing the preferences of Southern viewers. Belafonte said he rejected the instruction and let Revson cancel the show. He realized, he wrote, that TV could only reflect societal attitudes, not change them. “To change the culture you had to change the country,” he concluded.
Through his civil rights activism, Bellafonte befriended Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956; the pair remained close until King’s assassination in 1968. “My apartment was a retreat for him,” Belafonte told NPR of King and his 21-room apartment in 2008. “He had his own entrance, his own kitchen. The home became, for him, a place where he could think and reside, take his shoes off, have his collar open and be him.”
Belafonte helped provide the seed money to launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was one of the lead fundraisers for that organization and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was “deeply involved” in the 1963 March on Washington and helped fund the Freedom Rides.
Belafonte’s commitment to social justice endured throughout his long life and career. In the 1980s, he helped organize the Live Aid concert, and he served as UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador after Jewish entertainer Danny Kaye pioneered the role. He was also a co-chairman of the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, along with Gloria Steinem, though ill health kept him from attending.
Though primarily famous for his singing, Belafonte continued to make movies throughout his career; in 1970 he produced and co-starred in “The Angel Levine” alongside the original “Fiddler on the Roof” star Zero Mostel. Based on a story by Bernard Malamud, Belafonte starred as the titular Jewish angel. (The “project had a sociopolitical edge,” the Times noted, as the entertainer’s Harry Belafonte Enterprises hired 15 Black and Hispanic apprentices to work on the film’s crew.)
The cause of Belafonte’s death was congestive heart failure. He is survived by his two children with Robinson; the two children he had with his first wife Marguerite Byrd, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte; and eight grandchildren. After divorcing Robinson in 2004, he married photographer Pamela Frank in 2008; Frank also survives him, along with stepchildren Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank and three step-grandchildren.
“There’s just so much left that’s in my basket of possibilities,” Belafonte told The New York Times ahead of his 90th birthday in 2017. “I’m not as young as I feel, or as young as I would consider myself to be. The 90 figure is a blur. But I do know that if there’s anything left for me to do, I had best hurry up and do it, because time is not an ally.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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