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July 6: Louis Armstrong’s Jewish Star

Lawrence Bush
July 6, 2010

louis armstrong 12Louis (“Satchmo”) Armstrong, the pioneering genius of jazz, died on this date in 1971. He wore a Star of David throughout his adult life in tribute to the Karnofskys, a family of Jewish peddlers from Lithuania who had given him work and warm family friendship during his hard-scrabble childhood in New Orleans. Armstrong wrote a memoir about the Karnofsky family in 1969, in which he said that they taught him “how to live — real life and determination,” and also described their mistreatment by whites “who felt that they were better than the Jewish race.... I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.... They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me — just a kid who could use a little word of kindness.” The Karnofskys also lent him money with which to buy his first cornet. Armstrong began writing the memoir in 1969 while recovering from a life-threatening illness at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, where he heard his doctor singing a Yiddish lullaby that Mrs. Karnofsky had used to put her children to sleep.
“I will love the Jewish people, all of my life.” —Louis Armstrong

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.