Welcome back to Black History Month 5776, where I present you with seven Black Jewish figures for each week of February. We’re looking at the racial axis here, not the denominational one so matrilineal/patrilineal, Orthodox conversion/non-Orthodox conversion, it’s all game, so let the games begin:
Adah Isaacs Menken
Arguably the first American Jewish “superstar,” Adah Isaacs Menken was a painter, a poet, and the highest earning actress of her time. Despite Menken’s own insistence that she was born in 1835 in a Jewish family, some scholars contend that the Louisiana-born Creole with mixed European and African ancestry was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism in 1856 when she married musician Alexander Isaac Menken. No matter how she came by her Jewishnesss, Menken published poems and articles on Judaism in The American Israelite—a weekly paper founded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise—as well as being published in New York’s Jewish Messenger.
As an actress, Menken was an early master of self-promotion, making certain that a picture of her face appeared in shop windows everywhere she performed. Even in the context of the 1860’s (when the general conception of actors was as loose and disreputable characters) Menken was notorious for violating norms with provocative stage roles and more. She cropped her dark hair close to her head—highly unusual for women of the day—often adopted an androgynous appearance, and frequently smoked cigarettes in public.
Menken gave her last stage performance, in London, on May 30, 1868. She fell ill shortly thereafter, and died in Paris on August 10, 1868. She was just 33, and is buried in the Jewish section of the Montparnasse cemetery.
Born in 1947, Elliott Maddox, a former Major Leaguer, played outfield and third base for the Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, and New York Mets in a career that lasted from 1970 to 1980. As a student at the University of Michigan, where he took introductory courses in Judaic Studies, Maddox won the Big Ten batting title with a formidable .467 average when he was a junior. In 1975, after intensive study with a Conservative rabbi, Maddox converted to Judaism at age 28. Maddox now considers himself Reform and only occasionally attends services, although he proudly speaks of having been married under a chuppah, and of his son’s bris. In 2007, Maddox was inducted into the Union County Baseball Hall of Fame.
An Orthodox lawyer and former IDF combat soldier, Marcus Hardie has the distinction of being the first African American to serve in the Israeli army. Getting there took a rather unlikely route. Born in Los Angeles in 1971, Hardie was a gang member with the street name “American Thug.” His parents divorced when he was 6 months old, and his most prominent guiding figure was his grandmother. After her death, when Hardie was 16, school friends and teachers became the young man’s role models and counselors. They encouraged him to graduate from Wilson High School, which he did with honors. From there he went to the University of California at Riverside, where he majored in political science.
In college Hardie began a spiritual journey that led to his first conversion, a Reform one, in 1995. Hardie would go through the process twice more—including a Conservative conversion—undergoing his final conversion in 1997 through the Orthodox movement. Asking for special dispensation to enroll in the IDF at the late age of 28, Hardie professes a strong connection to Israel and continues to live there today. He wants to become the first African-American member of Knesset. In the meantime, he’s looking for producers to turn his 2010 autobiography “Black and Bulletproof: An African-American Warrior in the Israeli Army,” into a movie.
A second-round pick in the 1982 NFL Draft, Andre Bernard Tippett, born in 1959, was a linebacker in the National Football League for 12 seasons during the 1980s and 1990s. He was a Patriot for his entire career, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, and now works as the Patriot’s Executive Director of Community Affairs. In 1997, Tippett converted to Judaism, a move for which he credits his wife, a Jew: “As we decided to share a life together, I started to research everything surrounding Judaism because I wanted our household to be of one religion.” For Tippet, much of Judaism is about family and dedication, stating that conversion necessitates one to embody the religion “wholeheartedly.” He attends synagogue, observes holidays, fasts on Yom Kippur, and has seen all his children have their bar and bat-mitzvahs.
A choreographer most well-known for his work in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Beat It” videos, Peters was born in Brooklyn to an African American father and Jewish mother in 1948. A pioneer in video choreography, Peters was instrumental in raising the production values of music videos and elevating them into ground-breaking elements of pop culture. His first breakthrough was choreographing Donna Summer’s 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby.” After that, he staged Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” and Lionel Richie’s “Hello” among other memorable works. Widely credited with transforming actress Angela Bassett into Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), Peters’ film credits include choreography for The Five Heartbeats (1991), Sarafina! (1992), The Mambo Kings (1992), and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). Peters died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications.
The first Muslim-born person to be ordained as a rabbi, Dario David Hunter was born in 1983, to an Iranian Muslim father and African American mother in New Jersey. He first converted through the Reform movement, and then later underwent an Orthodox conversion before heading to Israel with the intent to study for rabbinical ordination there. In 2012, he returned to the United States and was ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in New York City. Hunter, who is openly gay, was a Democratic Party candidate for Youngstown City Council in the 2015 primary election.
The winner of a Tony Award for her performance in the 1978 Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, an Emmy Award in 1982 for her reprisal of her Ain’t Misbehavin’ role on television, and a two-time Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for her work on the 1981-87 NBC sitcom Gimme a Break!, Carter was born in 1948. With extensive stage credits including Soon (1971), Dude (1972), Black Broadway (1980), and Annie (1997), and television credits including Amen (1986), Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper (1993–1995), Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1995–1997), and Ally McBeal (2002), Carter’s short 54 years were plagued with lows including teenage rape, diabetes, brain aneurysms, money woes, failed marriages, drug addictions, but her humor, sass, and heart helped her shine through that morass. She married mathematician George Krynicki in 1982, converting to her husband’s religion–Judaism—that same year. Their marriage lasted a decade and they divorced in 1992. She married Roger Larocque that same year before splitting from him in the next one. Carter’s final onscreen appearance was in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back by Midnight. It was released in 2005, a year after Dangerfield’s death, and two years after Carter’s.
This Black History Month, having the distinction of being in a leap year, gives us an extra day of February. In that vein, I present two African Americans who also may or may not be Jews:
Toni Braxton & Jada Pinkett-Smith
Yeah. I know. Hold on to your seats.
Toni Braxton (born 1967) is an R&B icon known for such hits as “Breathe Again” (1993), “Let It Flow” (1995), “Unbreak My Heart” (1995), “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (2000) and “Where Did We Go Wrong” (2013).
Jada Koren Pinkett Smith (born 1971) is an actress and businesswoman known for her roles in Menace II Society (1993), The Nutty Professor (1996), Set It Off (1996), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and the Madagascar movies (2005-2013), as well as her marriage to superstar Will Smith.
Apparently, both women have Jewish grandmothers.
Braxton’s Jewish grandmother is Ashkenazi, while Pinkett Smith’s is Sephardic via Portuguese extraction. What’s less clear is on which side said grandmother falls. If these grandmothers are on the maternal side, by rights, we not only get Toni Braxton, but all of her sisters too, and not only Jada Pinkett Smith, but Jaden and Willow too, as Jews.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.