'These are a swinging bunch of people': Sammy Davis, Jr., religious conversion, and the color of Jewish ethnicity.

Author:Davis, Rebecca L.
 
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In November 1954, the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. awoke in a Los Angeles hospital bed uncertain of the events that had landed him there. Nurses explained that he had been in a car accident on his way back from a performance in Las Vegas. During the collision, a raised emblem on the steering wheel had punctured his left eye. Still groggy from anesthesia, Davis noticed that one of his hands was bandaged and asked a nurse why that was, when the surgery had been for his eye. She opened his side table drawer and took out "a gold medal the size of a silver dollar. It had St. Christopher on one side and the Star of David on the other." (1) Days later, after surgeons had removed the damaged eye and treated his other injuries, Davis would have memories of his friends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh walking alongside his gurney as orderlies wheeled him through hospital corridors, "and of Janet pressing something into my hand and telling me, 'Hold tight and pray and everything will be all right.'" (2) Gripped so tightly that the Star of David left a scar on the palm of his hand, this religious object became one of several in Davis's spiritual autobiography that he interpreted as a sign that he was destined to become a Jew. (3)

Over the next several years, as Davis recovered from his ordeal and his career took flight, he became one of the twentieth century's most famous religious converts. He was one of several Hollywood celebrities to convert to Judaism during the 1950s, but his conversion was especially controversial, both because of his racial background and because of the shifting dynamics of Jewish ethnicity. Marilyn Monroe converted in 1956, prior to her marriage to Arthur Miller, and Elizabeth Taylor converted in 1959 as she prepared to marry Eddie Fisher (having already been married to another Jewish man, film producer Mike Todd). Yet, unlike those of Monroe and Taylor, Davis's conversion was not related to a decision to marry a Jew, and, unlike them, he was "colored." And while Monroe was relatively reticent about her Judaism for the brief remainder of her life, Davis adapted to the attention that his choice drew by insisting that his highly unusual combination of racial, ethnic, and religious identities was inherently harmonious. (4) Blacks and Jews had similar histories of oppression and marginalization, he explained, and he admired the Jewish people's history of overcoming adversity. As he would tell his composer Morty Stevens in the mid-1950s, the Jews were "a swinging bunch of people." (5) Where others saw impossibility, Davis claimed logical compatibility. This logic included the Jewish masculinity that Davis admired among the Reform rabbis he met and the male role models he found among Jewish comedians and entertainers. Jewish masculinity offered a heterosexual style that worked for a short, lithe man who could out-dance, outtalk, and out-sing anyone with whom he shared the stage. He quite literally "performed" the uncanny dynamics of his self-presentation as an African American Jewish man.

Yet observers then and since have misunderstood Davis's attempts to navigate these religious, ethnic, and racial claims as efforts to distance himself from his blackness or to ingratiate himself with influential entertainers. Biographer Wil Haygood reduces Davis's conversion to yet another example of what Haygood considers the entertainer's pathetic aspiration to become white; scholar/essayist Gerald Early more sympathetically suggests that the conversion emerged from Davis's drive for acceptance. If Davis converted in order to win friends and influence people in entertainment, however, it was a failed tactic. Conversion to Judaism subjected him to mockery from Jewish and non-Jewish friends in the entertainment industry and to derision from some African Americans who interpreted it as an abandonment of his racial heritage.

Davis claimed that he became the truest version of himself when he became a Jew, but trends among American Jews and African Americans were moving the politics of ethnicity in countervailing directions. His conversion juxtaposed religious, ethnic, and racial identities at a time when all were in flux. The prevailing Judeo-Christian ethos celebrated the idea that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews shared a common set of values and that these religions equally sustained American democracy. (6) Post-Holocaust American Jews, however, began to invest in ethnicity and political Zionism as ways to define themselves as non-racial yet unassimilated. (7) Many American Jewish leaders adopted "sociological" language to describe Jewishness as an ethnic heritage as much as a set of religious beliefs. (8) These trends spoke to a desire to reassert historically based group distinctiveness and to claim ethnic difference as core to Jewish peoplehood. Conversion to Judaism thus tapped into American Jewish ambivalence about the basis for Jewish identity and community: how could anyone, let alone a nonwhite person, "convert" to ethnic Judaism? African Americans, meanwhile, were deepening their investment in racial identity and politics through the Civil Rights Movement, the nascent Black Power movement, and such related alliances as the Black Arts Movement. And while conversion to Islam would signal a more authentically black religious heritage for some African Americans, the complicated history between American Jews and African Americans bred suspicion of African American conversion to Judaism. The parallels between Jewish and African American history that Davis so often invoked, meanwhile, became a point of conflict during the ethnic revival of the 1970s. The resurgence of "white" ethnic pride denigrated the contemporary status of African Americans: If all ethnic peoples had experienced oppression, the new narrative asserted, then why had Jews, the Irish, and other whites achieved socioeconomic and political power, while blacks remained largely disenfranchised? (9) These narratives seemingly left no place for a black Jew like Sammy Davis, Jr.

Audacious and independent-minded, Davis transformed that narrative of ethnic impossibility into a hybrid identity that became, in a word, his shtick. During one performance from the mid-1960s, he shared a well-practiced joke about his status as a racial, ethnic, and religious outsider:

It is true that I am an American Negro, and I have adopted Judaism as my faith. Everybody knows that, and all the comics make jokes about it. And I do it in self-defense. But I would also like you to know something that you're probably not aware of: My mother is a Puerto Rican. My mother's maiden name was Elvera Sanchez. This is true--emes. So that means I'm colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out! (10) Elegantly easing the discomfort any members of his audience might have had with his constellation of racial, ethnic, and religious affiliations, Davis framed his multiple identity markers in the context of white flight and ongoing battles over residential integration. He used a Yiddish word--emes, which means "truth" or "really"--to signify his connection to Jews (and to Jewish members of the audience) while noting that others mocked him for becoming a Jew. Yet the joke also points to something at the core of Davis's conversion to Judaism: a need not so much for acceptance (let alone "whiteness") but for a shared understanding of being on the outside. Claiming his right to self-invention, Davis constructed a narrative of selfhood that defied the politics of ethnic inheritance. The response he received reveals how invested American Jews and African Americans were in their respective claims to ethnic-racial solidarity and their discomfort with suggestions that these identities were anything other than natural.

Sammy Davis, Jr. has a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest American entertainers of the twentieth century. He was a virtuoso tap dancer (a "hoofer"), a capable singer (especially talented at doing impressions), an actor, a musician, and a comedian. Born in 1925 in Harlem to impoverished vaudeville performers, he entered "the business" as a young child. His (Catholic) mother relinquished custody of him when he was an infant. For the rest of his childhood, he was either at home in Harlem with his (Baptist) maternal grandmother or on the road with his father and "uncle" Will Mastin (his father's vaudeville partner). When Davis was 3 years old, he did an Al Jolson impersonation that so impressed his elders that they put him in the act. He had his first film role, in Rufus Jones for President, when he was 6 or 7. Davis writes in his autobiography that his father and Mastin sheltered him from racism, explaining the Jim Crow discrimination they encountered at hotels and restaurants as prejudice against entertainers. When Davis was drafted into the army in 1943, however, his racial innocence ended. Assigned to one of the army's first integrated units, he sustained several broken noses in fights with racist soldiers who taunted him. He also began to break away from the management of his father and Mastin by defying their objections to performing impressions of white men, which was then taboo for African American entertainers. In the army, performing impressions of white superiors, singers, and actors, Davis seized upon the genius of his childhood impersonation of Jolson--who, of course, performed in blackface--and began to experiment with a love of racial and ethnic mimicry. Davis wowed audiences with his seeming ability to do everything; during a single performance he would sing; dance; impersonate such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Humphrey Bogart; and play drums, bass guitar, and trumpet. (11)

He struggled financially until he had his big break performing at the nightclub Ciro's Restaurant in Los Angeles in 1951. Davis's star rose higher when the Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor invited him onto his popular television show...

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