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Why Harry Belafonte once joked that he was ‘the most popular Jew in America’

There was more to the singer and activist’s engagement with Jewish culture than a hit version of ‘Hava Nagila’

Harry Belafonte, who died April 25 at age 96, looked to Jewishness at first to express his hope for America, and eventually to convey his bitter disappointment in the nation’s destiny.

Born in Harlem, Belafonte joined the U.S. Navy as a teenager where he learned about antisemitism and “Jews being crucified in gas chambers,” as he told a gathering at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Jersey, in 2016.

Postwar drama studies at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research acquainted him with a group of talented Jewish contemporaries, including Beatrice Arthur (born Bernice Frankel) and Walter Matthau. His first Broadway role was in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, a 1953 revue co-starring the English Jewish comedienne Hermione Gingold, with songs by the American Jewish duo Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. After some further acting experience, Belafonte found that singing calypso songs, starting at Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains, made him into a star.

He soon interpolated Hebrew tunes into his act, including the inescapable “Hava Nagila,” about which he later boasted: “Most Jews in America learned that song from me.” He also jested to The New York Times in 2017 that his renditions of “Hava Nagila” made him “the most popular Jew in America.”

His pride may be linked to the fact that as he revealed belatedly in a 2011 memoir, he had a Dutch Jewish paternal grandfather. But mishpacha apart, even before Belafonte’s televised versions, “Hava Nagila” had already been performed by The Weavers, a U.S. vocal quartet which included two Jewish performers, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In Being Jewish in 21st-Century Germany, Karsten Troyke, a German singer of Yiddish songs, stressed the European impact of Belafonte’s 1955 “Hava Nagila” recording, marking the “first time the German public noticed that there was such a thing as Jewish music.”

Belafonte sang in an exotic Arabic-inflected pronunciation of Hebrew, garbed in his trademark open collared shirt, with his finely cut facial features dazzling and charming TV viewers in Eisenhower’s America.

Belafonte’s late 1950s renditions of songs like “Hine Ma Tov” a setting of part of Psalm 133, were plainly idealistic pleas for peaceful fellowship: “Behold how good and how pleasing/ that people sit together in unity.” Or his 1963 rendition of “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”), a romantic tune favored by belly dancers in the Middle East.

He persisted in engaging with Hebrew and Israeli culture, despite occasional disappointments with Jewish professional colleagues. One episode in the late 1950s, documented in Belafonte’s papers, housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, occurred when Jack Rollins (born Jacob Rabinowitz), an agent who promoted Woody Allen and Billy Crystal, ceded control of Belafonte’s career to Jay Richard Kennedy (born Samuel Solomonick).

In 1956, after Belafonte gave uncooperative testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, his erstwhile manager Kennedy/Solomonick turned CIA informant and warned after Belafonte dispensed with his services that should he die mysteriously, the “assassins would be Peking communist agents in the United States working directly with Harry Belafonte, Stanley D. Levison, and Martin Luther King.”

Levison was an attorney who served as treasurer of the American Jewish Congress and defended accused Jewish atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Even more bizarrely, Belafonte apparently claimed that for some years, he was unaware that the Jewish psychotherapist to whom he poured out his heart in regular visits was married to his Jewish ex-manager Kennedy/Solomonick.

Rising above such tsuris, Belafonte maintained his ties with Yiddishkeit, even when the American Jewish comedian Allen Sherman parodied Belafonte’s songs and his audience participation style on bestselling records. Shortly afterwards, Sherman would be sued by the original copyright holder for songs championed by Belafonte such as “Matilda.” Sherman’s “My Zelda,” contained the memorable couplet: “Oh, why did she go and fall in love?/ I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”

Another Belafonte specialty number, “Waterboy,” was likewise mocked by Sherman as “Seltzer Boy,” and once again the parodist was sued for not obtaining preliminary permission.

Despite the laughter, tragedy loomed. In 1968, Belafonte invited King and Robert F. Kennedy to speak on air during a week when he guest-hosted TV’s Tonight Show, mere months before their assassinations.

Possibly in an effort for spiritual survival in trying times, in 1970 Belafonte produced and co-starred in the title role of The Angel Levine, (1970) based on a story by Bernard Malamud. Helmed by the Slovak Jewish director Ján Kadár and co-starring Zero Mostel and the majestic Yiddish theater actress Ida Kamińska, the film was aptly preoccupied with suffering and death, at a particularly devastating era of American history.

As his career continued through the decades, around the turn of the century Belafonte began to refer more often to Judaism to excoriate his political opponents, especially African American Republicans. Irate about the war in Iraq, in 2002 Belafonte likened the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to a “Jew” who was “doing things that were antisemitic and against the best interests of her people.”

During an August 2005 interview, Belafonte called President George W. Bush a racist; his interlocutor pointed out that African Americans were highly placed in the Bush administration. Belafonte retorted: “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich. Color does not necessarily denote quality, content or value.”

Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, promptly clarified that no Jews ever held any posts in “Hitler’s hierarchy.” Paradoxically, the following year, Belafonte would twice lead delegations to pay homage to the antisemitic Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez. Also in 2006, in a speech at the Arts Presenters Members Conference, Belafonte referred to the “new Gestapo of Homeland Security.”

Despite these rhetorical outbursts, Jewish organizations remained admiring, and Belafonte was invited to lecture in 2012 at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University. Also that year, as if trying to recover his youthful amusement of performance Yiddishkeit, Belafonte attended the Off-Broadway premiere of the Borscht Belt-style show, Old Jews Telling Jokes.

And in 2016, in another gesture expressing an enduring link between Jewishness and hope for civil society, Belafonte endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic primaries, saying: “I think [Sanders] represents a moral imperative, I think he represents a certain kind of truth that’s not often evidenced in the course of politics.”

In October 2017, at his last public appearance at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Belafonte was candid with the audience about the outcome of the recent presidential election: “The country made a mistake and I think the next mistake might very well be the gas chamber and what happened to Jews [under] Hitler is not too far from our door.”

For the sake of American Jewish life, we may hope that Harry Belafonte’s early optimism and advocacy linked to Judaism turns out to be more accurate than his latter-day jeremiads. Yet it may be too soon to know for sure whether, in the words of the psalmist, people can indeed learn to sit together in unity.

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