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Obituary of Nell Carter, a Jew-by-Choice

February 2003

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 27--Nell Carter, the African-American Jew best known for bawdy turns in the Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the 1980s sitcom "Gimme A Break!" died Jan. 23 of uncertain causes. She was 54.

The stout, sassy singer-actress--who won a 1978 Tony Award for "Misbehavin'" spent the last day of her life rehearsing a Long Beach revival of the musical, "Raisin," which she hoped would return her to Broadway. She collapsed at her Beverly Hills home early the next morning and was found by her 13-year-old son, Joshua, who had celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in December, according to Carter's manager, Susan Joseph. The New York Times described the 4'11" performer as "a larger than life stage personality" in the "select circle of theatrical pop-soul belters" as Patti La Belle. She brought a similar zeal to Judaism, Rabbi David Baron told some 350 mourners Monday at her funeral at Hillside Memorial Park. He described how she impressed the rabbinical court during her 1982 conversion; how she serenaded Joshua with "You Take My Breath Away" after he perfectly chanted his Haftorah; and how she once placed a nine-page letter in Jerusalem's Western Wall. "She said,'When I write God, it's not a note, it's a megillah!" Baron recalled.

Carter, one of nine children born into a Catholic family in Birmingham, AL, sang on the gospel circuit but began exploring Judaism around age 13 after discovering one grandfather might have had Jewish blood. While making her Broadway debut in the short-lived "Soon" at 22, she was already intensively studying Bible texts. She converted while married to her first husband, a Conservative Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, despite his attempts to dissuade her. "Jews don't seek out converts," she once said.

Carter's adopted religion helped sustain her through her struggles with cocaine addiction, two divorces, obesity, diabetes and a near-fatal 1992 brain aneurysm, according to Baron. She regularly attended services, sustained memberships at Temple Shalom and Temple Emanuel, and was raising her two adopted African-American sons Jewish. "She [said] lighting Shabbat candles brought her peace and helped her deal with a lot of her addictions," Baron said.

While Carter was saddened by black-Jewish tensions, she did not feel such a conflict herself. "She felt the two groups were very much connected because of their shared histories of oppression," Joseph said.

Carter is survived by an adult daughter, Tracy Hardy, two 13-year-old sons, Joshua and Daniel, and her partner, Ann Kaser.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. Hebrew for "scroll," usually refers to the Scroll of Esther ("Megillat Esther"), the biblical book read on the holiday of Purim. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Naomi Pfefferman is Arts and Entertainment editor for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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