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Louis (“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.