God, what a life. Born in Harlem to a vaudeville performer, Davis faced physical and verbal abuse in an integrated army unit, returned to the states to become first a popular cabaret singer, and eventually, one of the most famous entertainers in the world and for many, many years a lightning rod in America’s discussions around race. Along the way, he converted to Judaism.
As the story goes, Davis was friends with the Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, who gave Davis a mezuzah as a present. Instead of affixing it to his door, as Jewish law dictates, he wore it around his neck like a necklace. One night, Davis forgot to wear the necklace, and was involved in a horrific car accident in which he lost an eye and was hospitalized. While recuperating in the hospital, he read Sachar’s History of the Jews and spoke with Cantor about the similarities between the plight of the Jewish people and African Americans. Moved by the endurance of the Jews, and perhaps for other private reasons, he converted in 1961.
I haven’t found much about Davis’s conversion – I don’t know if it was reform, conservative or orthodox. When Davis talked about his faith it was often in a joking manner (“You think you’re discriminated against? I’m a short, one-eyed black jew.” Or “I tried to sit in the front of the bus but the driver said ‘you’re black, get in the back’. I told him I was Jewish and he said ‘get off’”). Serious reflections on faith were few.
Later, Davis would flirt with Anton LaVey’s the Church of Satan. How seriously, I don’t know. Nor do I know, frankly, how serious he took his Judaism. But he is, without a doubt, an interesting ger.
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