Pop-soul belter Nell Carter, 54, devoted convert to Judaism, dies

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-foot-11-inch performer as "a larger-than-life stage personality" in the same "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 Haftarah; 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, Ala., sang on the gospel circuit but began exploring Judaism at 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.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal