Nell Carter’s Jewish Yearning

Ten years ago Nell Carter thought her time was up. She was in Los Angeles hospital suffering from a double brain aneurysm.

“I was at death’s door,” she subsequently told me “I remember giving in and saying ‘OK, God, whatever you want.’”

The African-American actress, a Tony winner for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” asked for a siddur.

“I tried to read the 23rd Psalm and I felt calm,” she recalled. “I decided to pray to God as I know him. And because I lived through it means God loves you.”

Born Catholic in Birmingham, Ala., Nell was raised Presbyterian. But she said she felt Jewish all her life. Her grandmother would encourage her quest: “Go to God any way you want.”

Nell had two husbands; one was Jewish. She lived with him for eight years in Vienna where she learned Jewish traditions from his parents who were Holocaust survivors.

When she returned to L.A> she joined Temple Sholom for the Arts. While working on her TV series “Gimme a Break,” Nell took the time to go through a formal conversion under the guidance of Rabbi David Baron. Her Hebrew name was Rachel.

Nell would light candles on Friday night, and she taught her two adopted sons Joshua and Daniel to don yarmulkes and say prayer before eating. When she was on the road with her nightclub act she would call home and make sure Joshua kindled the Sabbath lights.

She participated on the High Holy Days with passionate readings and prayers at the Temple Sholom’s artistic services.

“I had a yearning I could not explain,” she said of her trip to Israel with Rabbi Baron.

“I went to the wall at sundown. I felt so warm. I’d see all these people and I felt so warm. I’d see all these people and I felt this must be right. It was the most beautiful thing.”

She wrote a five-page letter and placed it in a crack in the western wall. “When I write God,” she said, “it’s not a note–it’s megillah.”

Last month Rabbi Baron led the dancing at Joshua’s bar mitzvah.

“Nell sang ‘You Take My Breath Away’ to Joshua after he chanted an especially long haftarah in perfect Hebrew,” the rabbi told me.

Four weeks later on Jan. 23, Joshua found his mother dead at their Beverly Hills home. At 54, Nell’s time was up.

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