Funny, He Didn't Look Jewish
by Wil Haygood
In 1954, as a nightclub star on the brink of Hollywood stardom, Sammy Davis, Jr. became a Jew. The announcement—the ricocheting word of mouth—startled his friends. He had never mentioned Judaism before. His own background had been one without religion. His mother was a lapsed Catholic, his father a lapsed Baptist. His adoption of Judaism could not really be called a conversion, because he had nothing to convert from. If pressed, he might well have answered "entertainment" as his religion. The decision had been made like many other decisions made in the life of Sammy—spur of the moment, a bout of light introspection, the mind working with a vaudevillian’s quickness and agility, no turning back from an arrived-at decision.
Where did this sudden onset of Judaism come from? Sammy had always been a fervent searcher. And where his mind was not intellectual, his heart was always vulnerable. The conundrum left him forever open to new gadgets, new ideas, new kinds of love. And whatever winds blew those new ideas into the soft recesses of his heart proved, more often than not, to be strong enough to push the ideas even further into his mind, where they fastened, and where he mistakenly thought they had originated with the weight of intelligence. So he came to Judaism quickly and romantically—as if electrical currents were guiding him. …
" He came to me," recalls Jerry Lewis—born Jerry Levitch, and himself Jewish—"and said, 'I’m going to turn Jewish.’ I said, 'You don’t have enough problems already?’"
If we are to believe Sammy’s autobiography, "Yes I Can," the act of conversion had whipped itself around in his mind for all of two weeks. It involved the happenstance of coming across a book, "A History of the Jews," and having a few conversations with rabbis. (During a hospital stay, Eddie Cantor had slipped him a Star of David, which he was now wearing around his neck.) There was no hunger, however, greater than Sammy’s hunger for fame, for Hollywood. He watched movies, trailed the famous, snapped their pictures, hugged them, and hugged them some more. Fame was meat. He was its tiger. If, as the film historian Neal Gabler has proclaimed, the Jews invented Hollywood, then, in 1954, Sammy proclaimed himself—with the acquisition of an almost overnight spirituality—an appendage to that invention. Once seized by a notion, he could be relentless.
He found Max Nussbaum, a rabbi in Los Angeles and a refugee from Europe. In Germany, Rabbi Nussbaum’s reputation kept growing. He had a gift. He was told he should be in that place known as Hollywood. His wife sensed his powers. "When he was young in Berlin, he was like a meteor coming on under Hitler," Nussbaum’s wife would come to recall. "Everybody heard about Max Nussbaum in Berlin because he was such a novelty." The Jews of Berlin came to revere Nussbaum. He told wonderful Hasidic tales, spinning them out. He was, according to his wife—and others—"beautiful"; his mind was energetic. "When I met him," his wife recalled, "I didn’t particularly like him, because he was much too glamorous for my taste. I made fun of him. I said, 'You belong in Hollywood.’ That was 1937."
Nussbaum reached Hollywood in 1942, an escapee from the waves of persecution sweeping the continent. He headed Temple Israel. Five of the seven founders of the Hollywood-based temple were power brokers in the movie business. Nussbaum corralled actors and actresses for fund-raising benefits. Following one—where Bill "Bojangles" Robinson had been the featured guest—he squired everyone to the famous Brown Derby restaurant. The group was told that Robinson, a Negro, would not be served. Nussbaum and company turned and left.
When Sammy found Nussbaum, he was full of childlike questions. He grilled the rabbi as if he were a director moving huge camera equipment across impossible terrain and he needed Nussbaum to help navigate it all—this very minute. The rabbi was suspicious and saw fit to warn Sammy: "Let me caution you not to expect to find Judaism in books."
Sammy opened his one eye wider. The comment perplexed him. He would find Judaism, then, in the clutter of his emotional heart.
There were, however, depths and undertows and crosscurrents that Sammy could not imagine that would intercut with his decision to convert.
The Jew and the Negro had a sometimes complex and always emotional history in America. Both groups, indeed, stood upon common ground: that of an oppressed minority. Bondage and suffering had shoved them together. Pain was understood by both. Several years before Sammy’s conversion, a young writer and essayist by the name of James Baldwin, writing in Commentary magazine, said, "Though the notion of the suffering is based on the image of the wandering, exiled Jew, the context changes imperceptibly, to become a fairly obvious reminder of the trials of the Negro, while the sins recounted are the sins of the American republic. At this point, the Negro identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew. The more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for a Moses to lead him out of Egypt." Baldwin goes on: "It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting."
Judaism was cultural, a long thread in a family dynamic. Many who underwent conversions did it for reasons of marriage. But not Sammy. Sammy the actor—the impersonator!—would take the lore of Jewishness because he was Sammy. It was like a wonderful role. He needed the approval of no casting director. He could just do it—open his heart a little, read, entertain other Jews, sit at Rabbi Nussbaum’s knee. Sammy, in the presence of intellectual vigor, sometimes simply wilted. Nussbaum, in the presence of Hollywood, sometimes became vulnerable. (The walls of Nussbaum’s office were lined with photographs of Hollywood stars.) Nussbaum’s warnings to Sammy aside, it was not his mission to try to dissuade him. They were two entertainers, and they were both in the business of pleasing, of soothing when necessary. Their eyes could easily tolerate the klieg lights.
Sammy did not care how Negroes would react to his conversion. He tried his best to operate above the emotional guitar strings of the Negro. Negroes were finicky—just like the Negro press. And Negroes were hardest on Negroes. He would merely endure their bemusement. …
He became a Jew. He was a Jew. A Negro in Jew’s clothing. It was tender, and it was strange. To Tony Curtis the conversion was also "a bit gratuitous."
Actually, it was just Sammy being Sammy—shrewd, opportunistic, heart-touched, and childlike. There had been no religion in his life, and there had been no foundation, and so there was plenty of room for invention. And where there was the possibility of invention, surprise could occur.
But he hardly escaped the guffaws. "When Sammy embraced Judaism I was doing the Milton Berle show," says Peggy King, a singer who would go on to have an important relationship with Sammy. "Milton said, 'What are we going to do—Sammy became a Jew?’" King and others who were gathered around wondered what Berle expected them to say. The comic, recalls King, answered his own question. "Then he said, 'I know, we’ll give them [the Negroes] George Jessel.’"
Jessel, a forgotten figure now, was a longtime comedian considered too Jewish his own good and a bit of an embarrassment to his people. "You never heard such waves of laughter," King says. "We were rolling on the floor."
Wil Haygood is a writer in the Style section of The Washington Post. This essay is excerpted from his award-winning biography, In Black And White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.