" 'These Are a Swinging Bunch of People': Sammy Davis Jr., Religious Conversion, and the Color of Jewish Ethnicity"
American Jewish History 100, no. 1 (January 2016)
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." 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.'" 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.
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. 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. 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." 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.
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. Audacious and independent-minded, Davis transformed that narrative of ethnic impossibility into a hybrid identity that became, in a word, his shtick.