Harry Belafonte, Who Made “Hava Nagila” Popular In The US, Died At Age 96!

harry belafonte who popularized hava nagila in the us dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, a singer, actor, and civil rights activist who broke down barriers, died on Tuesday at his longtime home on the Upper West Side. He once said that he was “the most popular Jew in America” because of his version of a Hebrew classic. He was 96.

The man from New York City was one of the first Black artists to have a lot of commercial success in the United States. He was raised as a Catholic, but his life often intersected with Jewish causes, people, and beliefs.

Belafonte had many Jewish ties, including helping to set up a meeting between Nelson Mandela and Jewish leaders in 1989. He also married a Jewish dancer, Julie Robinson, who was his second wife.

From 1958 to 2004, they were married. During that time, they had two children, Gina and David. In 2011, Belafonte wrote a book called “My Song: A Memoir” in which he said that his father’s father was Jewish.


His mother, Melvine, was born in Jamaica to a white mother from Scotland and a black father. His father, Harold George Bellanfanti, who later changed the family name, was born in Jamaica to a black mother and a white Dutch-Jewish father.

In his book, Belafonte talks about his paternal grandpa, whom he never met, as “A White Dutch Jew who drifted over to the islands after trying and failing to find gold and diamonds.”

Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born in Harlem, New York, on March 1, 1927. During most of his childhood, his father was not around. His mother, who had trouble getting work, became friends with a Jewish tailor, who taught her how to fix clothes.

In his autobiography, Belfonte wrote, “That tailor gave me my first sense of kinship with Jews, which would grow stronger over time.” He lived with his grandma in Jamaica for part of his childhood.

When he moved back to New York, he went to George Washington High School in Washington Heights, where Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger also went to school, but he dropped out.

After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Belafonte was working as a janitor’s helper when he was given a pair of tickets to the American Negro Theater as a gift. This got him interested in playing.


“It was there that the universe opened up for me,” he told NPR in 2011. “I decided that I wanted to stay in this place by any means I could think of. What I found at the theater was power: the ability to have an effect on others and to know about them and other things.

In the late 1940s, Belafonte took acting lessons, where he met Sidney Poitier, who became his best friend for life. The two poor people would often go to the theater together and switch seats during the break.

He was also friends with the Jewish actor Tony Curtis, about whom he wrote in his autobiography, “He lived in the Bronx with his family. He would say, “Why live downtown when he could live upstairs for free?”

Who cared if they still called him Bernie Schwartz up there?” He wrote that he and Curtis went to parties together often, sometimes with the actress Elaine Stritch, “who swore more colorfully than any sailor I’d known,” and “the blunt Jewish comic” Bea Arthur, “who’d start matching wits with Elaine until the two of them had everyone in uncontrollable laughter.”

Belafonte started singing in bars to make money for acting classes, and it was there that a real superstar was born. One of Belafonte’s first big hits was when he sang the Hebrew dance hit “Hava Nagila” at the Village Vanguard, a famous folk club in downtown New York City.


Belafonte told The New York Times in 2017 that his performance had made him “the most popular Jew in America.”

In the same interview, Belafonte talked about growing up in a rough part of New York City and how he was drawn to the fast money his uncle made running numbers.

“Everyone in that world was an example of how to survive, how to be tough, how to get around the city, how to con, and how to deal with everyday situations,” he said.

“But my mother made sure that I wouldn’t follow her brother Lenny unless I wanted to live without testicles. Somewhere in there is a Sholem Aleichem, a rich story about that time that needs to be told.”

The New York Times wrote in his obituary that Belafonte “almost single-handedly started a craze for Caribbean music” with his breakthrough record “Calypso,” which came out in 1953 and had his most famous song, “The Banana Boat Song.”

“Calypso” went to the top of the Billboard album chart soon after it came out and stayed there for 31 weeks. It is said to be the first record by a solo artist to sell more than a million copies. The Times says that by 1959, he was the best-paid Black artist in history.

Belafonte, who was known around the world as the “King of Calypso,” recorded and played a wide range of global and folk classics, including Jewish standards, over the course of his long musical career.

In England in 1959, he sang “Hine Ma Tov” with what seems to be an Israeli military choir. His 1963 album, “Streets I Have Walked,” has a version of the famous Jewish wedding song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”).

But civil rights activism was Belafonte’s biggest love, not acting or singing. As part of the historic Black-Jewish civil rights alliance of the 1950s and 1960s, he also worked closely with many Jewish advocates there.

But, as he wrote in his autobiography, it was the racism of a Jewish TV executive that first made him want to fight against racial segregation in the U.S. The executive, a Jew from Montreal named Charles Revson, told Belafonte that Southern fans didn’t like it when he had white dancers on his show.

Belafonte said he didn’t follow the order, so Revson could stop the show. He wrote that he understood TV could only show how people felt, not change them. “To change the culture, you had to change the country,” he said.

Bellafonte became friends with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 because of his work for civil rights. They stayed close until King was killed in 1968. “My apartment was a retreat for him,” Belafonte told NPR in 2008 about King and his 21-room apartment.

“He had his own kitchen and front door. For him, the home became a place where he could think and stay, kick off his shoes, leave his shirt open, and just be himself.

Belafonte helped start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by giving them the money they needed to get started. He was also one of the main people who raised money for that group and for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


He was “deeply involved” in the March on Washington in 1963 and helped pay for the Freedom Rides. All through his long life and work, Belafonte never stopped caring about social justice.

In the 1980s, he helped plan the Live Aid concert and took over the job of UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador, which had been started by the Jewish entertainer Danny Kaye. He was also one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, along with Gloria Steinem, but he was too sick to go.

Even though he was best known for singing, Belafonte kept making movies throughout his career. In 1970, he produced and appeared in “The Angel Levine” with Zero Mostel, who was the original “Fiddler on the Roof” star.


Belafonte played the Jewish angel in the movie, which was based on a story by Bernard Malamud. The Times wrote that the project “had a sociopolitical edge” because 15 Black and Hispanic apprentices were chosen by the entertainer’s company to work on the film’s crew.

Belafonte died of heart failure which made his heart swell up. He is survived by his two children with Robinson, Adrienne Biesemeyer, and Shari Belafonte, as well as his two children with his first wife, Marguerite Byrd, and two grandkids.

After getting a divorce from Robinson in 2004, he married photographer Pamela Frank in 2008. Frank, his stepdaughters Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank, and his three stepgrandchildren all live on.

Before his 90th birthday in 2017, Belafonte told The New York Times, “There’s just so much left in my basket of possibilities.” “I’m not as young as I think I am or as young as I feel I am. The number 90 is hard to see.

But I do know that if I still have things to do, I should do them quickly because time is not on my side.”