Silver & Black & Jewish: An attempt to recap Al Davis’ life as a Jew

Al Davis was born on the Fourth of July and he died on Yom Kippur. Somehow, having those two epochal days bookend his life seems perfect: Davis was an American success story, a kid from Brooklyn who soared to great heights in the world of pro football, but also someone who went “to temple four times a year to pray for his [deceased] father,” according to a People magazine article before the 1981 Super Bowl.

The Oakland Raiders’ owner, who died Oct. 8 at 82, was a longtime member of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, where one of the pews has two small plaques on it that read simply “A. Davis.” A couple of years ago, I did a double take when I saw “Al Davis” listed in the birthday section of the temple’s newsletter. On one hand, it was nice to see someone as reclusive and famous as Davis listed casually among the others; on the other, Davis was such a private man, I’m guessing he would have eschewed being listed.

Privacy was Davis’ middle name. When I contacted the rabbi at Beth Jacob to shine a light on Davis, he noted that “Mr. Davis was a very private person about his personal life and his religious life” and declined a brief interview. I got a similar reaction from a Jewish friend of mine who works for the Raiders’ front office.

Beth Jacob did send out an email with the subject heading “Sad news.” It offered condolences to Carol (wife) and Mark (son) Davis on Al’s passing, and added, “May HaShem grant them peace and comfort among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Al Davis was born in Brockton, Mass., in 1929 to Louis and Rose Davis; he had an older brother. The family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when Davis was 5, and there he had friends named Louis Pinsky, Larry Krevins and Al Roth. He grew up playing a lot of basketball, like many Jewish kids of the day, and was a fixture at Union Temple, if only for its gym and swimming pool.

According to “Slick,” a 1991 biography of Davis, his dad ran a company called Little Duchess Ladies Undergarments, which later changed its name. However, rumors that dogged Davis later in life — that his father owned Fruit of the Loom and that Al had inherited a fortune — were false.

When he went to Syracuse University in the late 1940s, Davis was assigned to a dorm tabbed the “Pastrami Prefab” because so many Jews from New York City lived there. Davis tried out for the college basketball team, but when he didn’t make the squad, he outspokenly blamed an anti-Semitic coach, according to friends quoted in “Slick.”

A few years later, Davis felt stung by anti-Semitism again. When he got a job — only in his mid-20s — as the head coach of an Army football team at Fort Belvoir, Va., skeptics said Davis “had some connections” (code words for Jewish connections). Later in life, some accused him of being part of the Jewish mafia, and one of the Oakland Raiders’ early co-owners he battled with, and eventually wrested control of the team from, often told anti-Semitic jokes in Davis’ presence, according to “Slick.”

Davis bristled at the anti-Semitism, but being the enigma that he was, he also admired Hitler. “I didn’t hate Hitler. He captivated me,” Davis said in Inside Sports magazine. A woman quoted in “Slick” said Davis “worshipped Hitler” and called him “one of the greatest men who ever lived by getting all this power.” However, she was the bitter wife of the late co-owner with whom Davis battled.

Those kinds of quotes had legs, more so than another part of the same Inside Sports article, in which a source said Davis rediscovered his religion when his father died in 1961. That was 50 years ago, when Davis was 32. “In God, Al was able to find a kind of solace in the Mourner’s Kaddish. He would hang plaques in Louis’ memory in whatever temple he prayed in.”

According to the Gemarah, dying on Yom Kippur, as Davis did, is a good sign, because it implies dying without sin. Many Davis detractors might think he died with much sin, yet Davis was never a rebel without a cause. “That’s the misconception of Mr. Davis,” former Raiders defensive back George Atkinson said. “[In actuality] he was a man of conviction.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.