Western States Jewish History: Rabbi tells story behind his officiating the marriage of Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt
Editor’s Note: The Winter/ Spring edition of Western States Jewish History is devoted to the columns of the late Rabbi William Kramer, who wrote “My Shtetele California” for the Jewish Heritage newspapers. One of the columns dealt with how he happened to officiate at the controversial marriage between African-American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and Swedish actress May Britt. We reprint it with the kind permission of WSJH Co-Publisher David Epstein.
By Rabbi William M. Kramer
I was on my way to Sammy Davis’ funeral at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles and I clicked on my car radio. When I heard that Jesse Jackson was going to speak I turned my car around and went home.
I did not want to add to a Jackson crowd.
I was going, not to officiate, but as a mourner. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a day in Sammy Davis’ life and he was a day in mine.
In 1961 Sammy Davis and May Britt decided to marry. Their courtship was intense and controversial. Sammy was very black and May was very white. She was Swedish and he American. She was known as a Christian and he was known as a Jew.
They went to the famous scholar and Zionist leader Dr. Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood in order to arrange for their wedding. May presented herself for conversion and Sammy was already Jewishly identified.
When Rabbi Nussbaum asked Mr. Davis when and where he had been converted, the answer was vague. This is the story as I have it:
Toward the end of 1954 Davis had been in an auto crash and he was treated in a hospital in San Bernardino. His injury was serious and he lost his left eye.
His physical sight impaired, he had an inner vision. In that vision he saw a rabbi, and depending on the account he either then became a Jew or determined to do so.
When I talked to him I was convinced that he had a real religious experience, a mystical one, one so profound that it changed his life. Visions do not give conversion certificates.
Dr. Nussbaum knew that Sammy had become knowledgeable in Judaism, and had conversations in 1955 with Rabbi Alvin Fine, then of Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco, on the Jewish religion.
However, there was no real life conversion.
By 1959 Sammy was publicly known as a Jew and as one who refrained from working on Yom Kippur.
As Rabbi Nussbaum’s Associate Rabbi, I learned that he had arranged with a colleague in Las Vegas, Rabbi Harry Sherer, to do a formal conversion of Davis after instruction. This was in 1961, five or six years after Sammy was regarded by the press and the public as a Jew. The ceremony was kept under wraps.
When the news came out that Rabbi Nussbaum was going to do the Davis-Britt ceremony on November 13, 1961, according to David Max Eichhorn in his book, Joys of Jewish Folklore, at the Hollywood synagogue, “All hell broke loose.”
“The temple office was bombarded with obscene and threatening phone calls. The Temple trustees became frightened. They were afraid that, if the wedding took place in the synagogue, it would cause a race riot. They asked Rabbi Nussbaum not to have the wedding in the Temple and not to officiate. The Rabbi was on the
horns of a dilemma. He did not want to offend Sammy or May and he did not want to go against the wishes of his trustees.”
I was aware of the controversy, and controversy was no stranger to Temple Israel, where Dr. Nussbausm spoke out courageously and independently on many issues.
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, I was evidently regarded as expendable. For my part, I was delighted. I was a member of Sammy Davis fandom, as was my late wife, Joan.
I did the wedding and I have my picture from the November 13, 1961, day with Sammy, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford to prove it.
What is more, my service and talk are recorded in Sammy’s autobiography, Yes I Can.
I recieved hundreds of life-threatening phone calls and letters. Thank God, nothing happened. After the wedding I spoke on the phone two or three times with Davis and saw May a couple of times.
After their divorce, following about eight years of marriage, May told me that Sammy had remained a good father to their children, concerned with their Jewish education and invoved in the bar mitzvah training of their son, Mark.
I thought of May a lot as I watched Sammy’s funeral on television. I would like to see her again. I heard Rabbi Alan Freehling give his opening presentation; it was poetic. I listened to it all, I even listened to Jesse Jeckson. I saw Rabbi Freehling and Jesse Jackson embrace.
I have not liked the Rev. Mr. Jess Jackson, and I have found his Rainbow Coalition colorless. But I too prayed in front of my televion set that somehow the death of the great Sammy Davis would make for reconciliation wherever there was difference between Black and Jew.
I did not copy down Jackson’s words, but as I recall them he said that, “in Davis, Black and White and Christian and Jew uniquely met.” Sammy was like that. He was a transcender.
I would have felt better if Sammy Davis, the Jew, had had only a Jewish sevice. Still, he was an ecumenical man, a man of cultural blending. Maybe, his was the exception. He was certainly exceptional.
I am not about to join the Rainbow Coalition, but I have hope that at the Davis funeral Jesse Jackson thought more deeply about matters Jewish and Christian and Black and White and that he changed profoundly.
If that is so, I hope that that change and thinking will find its reflex in the Jewish community, and that the old alliance will be back in place.
Perhaps I dream too much, but it is not wrong to have a dream. Yes, I had a dream, and it is all because once in a San Bernardino hospital Sammy Davis had a vision—one that made him a Jew.
The column originally appeared in the Heritage (a Los Angeles Anglo-Jewish weekly) on May 25, 1990.