By Rabbi Will Kramer
(December 24, 1971)
Not long ago, we reviewed Sam J. Lee’s Moses of the New World the story of the life and work of Baron de Hirsch. It made us de Hirsch-conscious.
In 1896, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of San Francisco admired Hirsch’s success in South America and hoped that Baja California might become a new Israel with Hirsch-like help. Voorsanger wrote:
“It is encouraging to learn that the De Hirsch colonies in Argentina are
no failures. In California, we have not been successful with colonization.
Our means were too limited, our lands too rich and expensive. Isolated as we are, locked in between the sea and the mountains, we could not command the attention of the world.
“And yet, there are opportunities here, which, in their extent and character,
are larger than those offered in the sub-equatorial republic.
“Right across from San Diego, in Lower California, an empire is still awaiting fostering hands. The time will come when the inevitable migration of large numbers of colonists must be directed to these sunny slopes, which are Mexican in name only and which have a welcome for all honest men.
“These slopes, coasting a princely area of uncultivated, rich lands, need the exploring power of modern commerce and enterprise, and the impetus of population.
“It is still a comfort to know that whilst governments are restricting the right of admission, and nations cry out against the wanderers from abroad, there is still room elsewhere to make a new cradle forgrowing nations.
“The earth is still large enough to hold the children made of its dust.
Where to send them is often the question.
“But, like the mariners of old, when we go far enough, we are sure to
find land. We are always hopeful for lsrael, particularly now when
its hopes are enlarging.”
Can you imagine Ti-Aviv and not Tijuana?
Preceding was reprinted from the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Western States Jewish History. Rabbi Kramer wrote his column for the Jewish Heritage newspapers of California.
POETIC SAN DIEGO
By Dr. Will Kramer, z”l
(From his column ‘My Shtetele California,” November 12, 1971 in the Jewish Heritage newspapers)
The San Francisco correspondent of The Jewish Voice of St. Louis wrote this San Diego item in his paper’s March 31, 1893 edition:
The other day a gentleman, who has made a fortune in San Diego, came to see me. “How is everything in San Diego?” I asked.
“Well,” said he, “The Rabbi is gone, the school is empty and the people offer silent prayers at home.”
“Silent prayers at home!” I cried. “What are those?”
Seating himself at my desk, he wrote the following, which he entitled:
THE JEW’S PRAYER AT SAN DIEGO
Father in heaven, to Thee we pray.
Give us a good dinner every day.
Goose and turkey, sauce and cake,
That is all we crave to take.
As to drink, champagne and wine,
Remember us, our God divine.
Bless our children, with all your grace,
With ribbons, fringes and Brussel lace.
Our wives and daughters thou dost behold,
Give them diamonds and all the gold.
Give peace and plenty all over the land,
Give each a carriage with four in hand.
Oh, Thou, who causest the flowers to bloom,
Give us, Oh give us another boom,
We pray to Thee from early till late,
Give us a raise in real estate.
Many blessings, wealth galore,
That’s all we ask nothing more.
The following May 12, 1893,The Jewish Voice heard from San Diego
San Diego, Cal.
April 11—The Union of this morning contained the following (reaction to the poem):
The poetical effusion, four verses in length, was highly amusing, and depicted the condition of a flock, greatly demoralized because of the absence of the shepherd.
Dr. Danziger’s informant, pleasantly exaggerated the case, to express as well as possible the high regard in which the Rabbi was held and the feelings which his departure occasioned.
While not actually giving up to the sordid longings so fluently expressed in the poem, the Jewish people of San Diego greatly miss their Rabbi and, with the Gentiles, will be pleased to welcome him back, should he ever decide to return to San Diego.
Preceding reprinted from the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Western States Jewish History, which is devoted to the columns of the late Rabbi Will Kramer
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.