“I wanted to be a part of this people.” The words made headlines in Hollywood and in celebrity news stories throughout America in the early 1960s. The great mainstream star uttered them during an era when, as a black man, he couldn’t stay in some of the hotels he performed in.
It was the spring of 1973 when the gala 30th Anniversary Dinner of United Israel World Union was held at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan on May 12th. General Lucius D. Clay, whose very first act after being appointed Governor of West Berlin after World War II was to prevail upon the Bavarian regime to rebuild the Munich Synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, was one of the outstanding personalities heading the 30th Anniversary Committee. The event honored the life of noted humanitarian Harry Leventhal.
There was another invitee however, that while unable to attend, made his presence felt.
It was none other than the famous entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. In terms of career, Davis reached the pinnacle as an entertainer during the 1960s. He had his own TV variety show. He performed on Broadway and in several films, sometimes with his best pals Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford, who together were dubbed the “Rat Pack” by journalists. He had best-selling records and was a headliner in Vegas.
In 1961, Davis underwent a formal conversion to Judaism in a Las Vegas ceremony after studying with Rabbi Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Rabbi Nussbaum, known as “the Rabbi to the stars,” presided over another celebrity conversion- that of Elizabeth Taylor two years earlier. Davis’s path to Judaism, however, began much earlier with a car crash…
In November 1954, while driving from Las Vegas to a recording session in Los Angeles, Davis was in a serious car accident. He survived, but lost his left eye. He soon returned to performing, but with an eye-patch until he was fitted for a glass eye, which together with his jutting jaw and broken nose lent him a distinctive appearance.
While he was recuperating in a San Bernardino, California hospital performer Eddie Cantor visited Davis. Their conversation led to a discussion about the similarities between Jewish and black culture, and this evidently sparked Davis’ interest. He began to study the history of the Jews and Judaism. He later decided to convert after reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews.
In 1969 Sammy Davis Jr. and UN journalist David Horowitz had a chance meeting while both were on an El Al flight to Jerusalem. Arranging a seat assignment change, there was much to discuss between the two who shared a kinship of faith. Davis was on his way to Israel to perform for Israeli soldiers in Army camps and military hospitals. He refused any payment for his performances stating: “When I come to my homeland I don’t want to make money there.” The two continued their new friendship.
In a letter dated May 8, 1973, Davis replied to the Horowitz invitation to attend UIWU’s 30th Anniversary affair with the following message.
“Many thanks for your kind invitation to be with you on the 30th anniversary of United Israel World Union. I am familiar with your good work emphasizing the universality of the Hebraic Heritage, and I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could be with you in person. Unfortunately, I will be out of the country on that May weekend. I extend my heartiest felicitations on this auspicious occasion and my best wishes for a successful continuation of your program in the decades that lie ahead.”
He included a message he hoped would be shared with the attendees, a one-page explanation of his motivation for conversion to the Jewish faith:
“I have for many years, seen an affinity between the Jew and the Negro. The Jews have been oppressed for 3,000 years and the Negros for 300 but the rest was very much the same. I have read the history of the Jews rather thoroughly and what I found was quite familiar to me: oppressed and enslaved for centuries, despised and rejected, searching for a home, for equality, human dignity, and suffering the loneliness of being unwanted-but surviving even the destruction of their homes and the burning of their Temples. All this while clinging to their faith and enduring the scorn, the intolerance, and the abuses against them because they were “different.” Time and again they lost everything but never their belief in themselves and in their right to have rights, asking for nothing but to be treated equally and to be left alone. I found myself saying to the author Abram Leon Sachar as I read his version of A History of the Jews, “I know exactly how you feel.”
He concluded his moving message by stating: “The prophetic heritage of the Jewish people, with its majestic teachings of universal idealism has apparently created in the Jew a will to live which no disaster could crush. I wanted to be a part of this people. I wanted to be on the inside, feel my Judaism, and participate in it.”
President Horowitz read the full content of the letter to all in attendance at the gala affair.
During his storied career, Davis often joked about his life. Once while playing golf with Jack Benny he was asked what his handicap was. As he described it later in an article in Ebony magazine, he responded: “Handicap? Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.” A 2018 documentary about his life opens with Davis misleadingly kidding an audience, “I’m colored, I’m Jewish and I’m Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”
Often billed as one of the greatest living entertainers in the world, the iconic performer also released a steady stream of albums on Decca and Reprise records. He was the first artist to be signed on the latter label, which was launched by Frank Sinatra.
His only No. 1 hit came in 1972 from the song “The Candy Man,” written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Davis hated the song, calling it a timmy-two shoes horrible recording and predicted it “would go straight into the toilet and may just pull my whole career down with it.” His manager finally convinced him to do the song.
For many of us from that era, Sammy Davis Jr. will always be “Mr. Bojangles,” from another of his famous songs. In a little known fact, Jerry Jeff Walker originally penned the song as a country song in 1968. Davis made it his own when he first recorded it in 1972.
Davis passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990 at the age of 64. He may have been the most famous convert to Judaism of his era. For 37 years he had worn a small mezuzah around his neck after receiving it in 1953 from famous entertainer Eddie Cantor, the man who first introduced him to Judaism.
“I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you…”