This Day in Jewish History

1990: Sammy Davis Jr., Famous Convert to Judaism, Dies

Sammy Davis - a great mainstream star in an era when, as a black man, he couldn't stay in some of the hotels he performed in.

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On May 16, 1990, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. died, at the age of 64. Davis was a versatile singer, dancer and actor who achieved great stardom in mainstream American show business in an era when, as a black man, he was not permitted to stay in some of the hotels he performed in. He may also have been the most famous convert to Judaism of his era.

Samuel George Davis, Jr. was born December 8, 1925, in New York, and grew up in Harlem. His father, Sammy Davis, Sr., was a vaudeville performer, and his mother, Elvera Sanchez, was a Cuban-American dancer, who, among other things, performed in the chorus line at the Apollo Theater.

Sammy, Jr. never attended school, and by the age of 3, was already touring and tap-dancing with his father and dancer Will Mastin in a trio named for the latter. The threesome, which renamed itself “Will Mastin’s Gang, Featuring Little Sammy,” performed on-and-off together up to the 1960s. One of the off times came in 1943, when Davis was inducted into the U.S. Army. He served until the end of World War II, performing for troops in an entertainment troupe.

It was during the 1950s that his career really began to take off, with appearances at nightclubs and on screen and television, as well as recording. By 1956, he was starring on Broadway in the musical “Mr. Wonderful,” in which he played the title role. The play also featured both his father and Mastin.

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 was soon back to performing, but wore an eye-patch for some months, 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, Calif., hospital, Davis was visited by the performer Eddie Cantor. Cantor spoke with him about the similarities between Jewish and black culture, and this evidently sparked Davis’ imagination. He began reading about Jews and Judaism, and sometime after he began the process of converting. According to Rabbi William M. Kramer, who officiated at the 1961 wedding of Davis and Swedish actress May Britt, although Davis was known publicly and famously as a Jew since the mid-50s, it was only in 1961 that he underwent a formal conversion – quietly, under the tutelage of Rabbi Harry Sherer in Las Vegas. Davis had been referred to Sherer by Rabbi Max Nussbaum, of Reform Temple Israel in Hollywood, who had been asked to officiate at the couple’s wedding and to oversee May Britt’s conversion.

Kramer writes that news of the couple’s plan to marry at Temple Israel elicited numerous threats against the synagogue – Britt is a white woman – whose trustees asked Nussbaum not to allow the ceremony to take place there. This put Nussbaum into an uncomfortable situation, not wanting to offend either his employer or Sammy Davis. Kramer was then Nussbaum’s deputy at Temple Israel, and he writes, in somewhat deadpan style, “All I know was that my senior colleague was suddenly called out of town and that I would be asked to cover for him at the ceremony, which was transferred out of the Temple into Sammy Davis’ home in the Hollywood hills.

“If marrying the two of them was dangerous,” Kramer continues, “I was evidently regarded as expendable. For my part, I was delighted.” He also notes that he did indeed receive “hundreds of life-threatening phone calls and letters. Thank God, nothing happened.”

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Davis liked to describe the time he was playing golf with Jack Benny and 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."
In terms of career, Sammy Davis, Jr. reached about as high as an entertainer could go 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, among others, who together were dubbed the “Rat Pack” by journalists. He had best-selling records and was a headliner in Vegas. He also participated in the Civil Rights Movement and was a generous donor to Jewish causes. But all of his biographers have noted that Davis, who published four memoirs while he was alive, was involved in a lifelong battle for acceptance. As the writer Lev Grossman noted in Time in 2003, when reviewing a new biography of the entertainer, “Davis was a howling void of insecurity that drowned out all other emotion. He craved affection, especially from white people, preferably famous, preferably Frank [Sinatra].”

By the time he died, of throat cancer, on this date in 1990, Davis, though still young, was long past his prime. His illness had taken his voice, and he owed $5 million to the Internal Revenue Service. After his death, dozens of his personal possessions were sold at auction – a white satin jumpsuit with matching boots went for $825, $55 less than a Snoopy calendar owned by Davis fetched. One item that didn’t get picked up was a Hanukkah menorah that Davis had received in 1965 after a benefit performance in Las Vegas for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. It was put up for auction again four years ago, but when it didn’t receive an offer equal to the recommended bottom price of $15,000, it remained unsold.