Frank Sinatra, who died nineteen years ago this week, was unquestionably one of the most popular and iconic singers of all time, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide with such mega-hits as “Strangers in the Night,” “My Way,” and “New York, New York.”
He was also a celebrated actor who won an Oscar (best supporting actor) for “From Here to Eternity” (1953). His many other successful films include several musicals, such as “On the Town” (1949), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), and “High Society” (1956). He played a Jewish pilot in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” the 1966 movie filmed in Israel that starred Kirk Douglas as David “Mickey” Marcus, the Jewish-American colonel who fought and died in Israel’s war for independence.
And this brawling, earthy, often abrasive Italian-American from a poor neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, was a man who never faltered in his dedication to fighting anti-Semitism and championing the state of Israel.
His deep affection for the Jewish people may have had its origins in the kindness of an elderly Jewish neighbor, a Mrs. Golden, who occasionally cared for him during his lonely boyhood. She spoke to him only in Yiddish (Sinatra often joked “I know more Yiddish than Italian”) and she gave him the gift of a small mezuzah, which he wore around his neck for most his life. (Years later, he honored her by purchasing a quarter-million dollars’ worth of Israel Bonds.)
Moreover, he empathized with Jews because they and Sinatra’s fellow Italians were victims of bigotry and mistreatment in the mean streets of his youth.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “and someone called me a ‘dirty little Guinea’, there was only one thing to do: break his head. Let anyone yell ‘wop’ or ‘Jew’ or ‘nigger’ around us, we taught him not to do it again.”
As an adult, Sinatra protected his Jewish friends, at one point responding to an anti-Semitic remark at a party by punching out the offender.
On another occasion, irate at the claim of a Palm Springs cemetery official that he could not arrange the burial of a deceased Jewish friend over the Thanksgiving holiday, Sinatra offered to pay whatever it cost to have his friend buried by sunset in accordance with Jewish law and threatened to punch the recalcitrant official in the nose.
When he heard that the Lakeside Country Club restricted Jews from membership, Sinatra made a point of immediately joining the Hillcrest Country Club, which had a majority Jewish membership.
As reports of Nazi brutality against Jews began reaching the United States, Sinatra ordered hundreds of medallions with an image of the Star of David on one side and delivered them to American soldiers stationed in Europe and to friends and associates as a way of publicizing the plight of Jews under Nazi rule.
He volunteered for various Jewish causes in the early 1940s at a time when big names were needed to help galvanize America into saving the remnant of European Jewry, and he participated in various Hollywood protests and productions supporting Jews during the Shoah, including, in 1943, “We Will Never Die,” a dramatic pageant and national tour staged by the writer Ben Hecht to focus public attention on the Holocaust.
He also starred in “The House I Live In” (1945), a film short made in opposition to anti-Semitism at the end of World War II, which received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award (1946).
According to Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs, who accompanied him on his first trip to Israel, in 1962:
Most moving for both Mr. S and me and was the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on the Hill of Memory, where all the trees had been planted in memory of the victims. This was a stunning and solemn place.
The external beauty of the land of milk and honey contrasted with the horrors shown within, particularly the underground Children’s Museum, where each of the more than one million tiny lights represented the life of a child that had been snuffed out.
Afterward Mr. S said the visit had made him feel rotten about not fighting in World War II and that Israel was “a wonderful country worth dying for.”
Years later, when Sinatra learned that the Simon Wiesenthal Center was undertaking the production of the documentary film Genocide, he donated $100,000 to the project.
“Although I’m not Jewish,” he said, “the Holocaust is important to me.”
He also became a member of the Documentation Center’s Board of Trustees and raised $400,000 for the film, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. He declared, “I love Simon Wiesenthal with all my heart…. I would gladly give up every song I ever met to rest my head on the pillow of his accomplishments.”
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Sinatra’s early and avid support for Israel manifested itself in many ways, including his joining the American League for a Free Palestine and performing at an “Action for Palestine” rally held at the Hollywood Bowl that drew 20,000 supporters in September 1947.
In one truly incredible incident, he helped Teddy Kollek, later the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem but then a member of the Haganah, by serving as a money-runner to help Israel circumvent an arms boycott imposed by President Truman on the Jewish fighters in Eretz Yisrael.
Sinatra was performing at the Copacabana Club, which was essentially run by mafia figures with whom he’d become involved. The club, under almost continuous surveillance by Federal agents, happened to be next door to the hotel out of which Haganah members were operating. Here is how Kollek tells the story in his autobiography:
I had an Irish ship captain sitting in the port of New York with a ship full of munitions destined for Israel. He had phony bills of lading and was to take the shipment outside the three-mile limit and transfer it on to another ship. But a large sum of money had to be handed over, and I didn’t know how to get it to him. If I walked out the door carrying the cash, the Feds would intercept me and wind up confiscating the munitions.
I went downstairs to the bar and Sinatra came over, and we were talking. I don’t know what came over me, but I told him what I was doing in the United States and what my dilemma was.
And in the early hours of the following morning I walked out the front door of the building with a satchel, and the Feds followed me. Out the back door went Frank Sinatra, carrying a paper bag filled with cash [estimated at $1 million]. He went down to the pier, handed it over, and watched the ship sail.
Sinatra later told his daughter Nancy: “It was the beginning of a young nation. I wanted to help, I was afraid they might fall down.”
As noted above, Sinatra made his first visit to Israel in 1962. It was part of his World Tour for Children, which raised money for children’s charities around the world. His stay in Israel, during which he gave seven concerts in six cities, coincided with Israeli Independence Day, and he sang at the official Yom Ha’Atzmaut event in Tel Aviv, where he sat next to David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan on the reviewing stand during the annual IDF parade. (Sinatra had a close friendship with Ben-Gurion, who gave him a beautiful Bible that he kept as a prized possession.)
He also visited the Kotel and delivered a speech in Jerusalem in which he urged “people all over the world to support Israel.” A 30-minute short film, Sinatra in Israel, was later released with highlights of the visit, which included footage of his concert at Tel Nof air force base.
Valet George Jacobs wrote:
Mr. S adored Israel, and Israel adored him right back. Here was a whole country of underdogs and survivors, the people Sinatra respected most, people like himself who had beaten the odds…. Israel was the only place on the whole tour where Mr. S took a real interest in the country as anything other than a concert stop. He wanted to see everything, and Israel rolled out the red carpet. When he wanted to cross the Sea of Galilee and see the Golan Heights, the Israelis contacted the Syrians to tell them that our long convoy was not a troop movement and to hold fire….
We often returned to Israel, which Mr. S decided was his favorite country. Mr. S often boasted he was “King of the Jews.” He donated big money to Zionist causes, and would plug the place every time he had a chance.
During his 1962 concert tour, Sinatra purchased property in Nazareth for the founding of the Art & Culture Program for Jewish and Arab School Children in Jerusalem, an intercultural youth center. Shown on this page is a ticket to “An Evening with Frank Sinatra” held on November 27, 1975 at the Binyanei Hauma international convention center in Jerusalem to benefit the project. The event was recorded as an album titled “Sinatra: The Jerusalem Concert.”
The 1962 and 1975 concerts were hardly anomalies; Sinatra, in addition to donating and raising staggering sums for Israel Bonds, frequently held concerts in Israel to benefit various Jewish and Israeli causes.
For example, exhibited here is a vintage program, signed by Sinatra, for The Adventures of Nasr Ed-Din, presented in honor of the Frank Sinatra Home Dedication on June 26, 1965 (over which he presided). According to the insert program narrative:
The wisdom and oriental philosophy of the peoples of the East were attractively pictured in two volumes by Russian author Leonid Solobiev. The adventures of Nasr Ed-Din were thus adopted by playwrite [sic] Victor Viktovich, who collected lively tales on the people of Buchara and the differences between its poor classes and the Princely Aristocratic class.
Nasr Ed-Din is the wise hero who is always available to aid the helpless and judge for the poor. To achieve his aim, he uses not only his brains but also smart tricks that made him the talk of his countrymen.
In 1976, a Hollywood banquet honoring Sinatra hosted by the American Friends of Hebrew University raised $1 million toward the construction of a student center on the university’s Mount Scopus campus, later named the Frank Sinatra International Student Center. The center made heartbreaking headlines when Hamas terrorists bombed the center’s cafeteria on July 31, 2002, killing nine and injuring nearly 100.
It should come as no surprise that not everyone in the Middle East appreciated Sinatra’s Zionism. The “Boycott Bureau” of the Arab League in Cairo issued a ban on Sinatra’s recordings and films, noting his “participation in the distribution of Israel Bonds and that he exerts efforts for the collection of funds to be sent to Israel.” And he was officially barred from entering Lebanon because of his “moral and material support of Israel.”
As recently as 2014, a collection of Sinatra recordings was on display in the Beirut office of the NGO March Lebanon with a note declaring that they were forbidden because of Sinatra’s “Zionist tendencies.”
Ironically – and perhaps fittingly – Sinatra died at age 82 on May 14, 1998, the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the birth of Israel, the country he loved so much. To avoid the ghastly paparazzi besieging Los Angeles funeral homes looking to take a photograph of the deceased, the family hid the body for several days in a Jewish funeral home.