The story behind Frank Sinatra’s $10,000 yarmulke
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The story behind Frank Sinatra’s $10,000 yarmulke

Sonny Schwartz, one of the organizers of a 1981 fundraiser for the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County, N.J., presents Frank Sinatra with a personalized yarmulke at the event, held in a kosher hotel in Atlantic City. (Courtesy of Pauline Schwartz)
Sonny Schwartz, one of the organizers of a 1981 fundraiser for the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County, N.J., presents Frank Sinatra with a personalized yarmulke at the event, held in a kosher hotel in Atlantic City. (Courtesy of Pauline Schwartz)

Last month, when Sotheby’s held a huge auction of items belonging to Frank Sinatra and his widow, Barbara, the item that made the most headlines was one of the smallest: a hand-knit yarmulke.

Frank had owned it, and someone — we don’t know who — bought it for nearly $10,000.

But why did Sinatra have a kippah? Where did he get it? And when?

The story starts on a memorable night nearly 40 years ago, when many members of the Rat Pack were among the unlikely guests of honor at a fundraising dinner for a Jewish day school on the Jersey Shore.

The kippah was presented to Sinatra on an evening in May or June of 1981, at the old Teplitzky’s Hotel in Atlantic City. The occasion was the annual awards dinner held by the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County, then in Margate. And the man presenting the kippah to a tuxedo-clad Ol’ Blue Eyes was Samuel “Sonny” Schwartz, a longtime journalist, columnist, radio host, and man-about-town in the Atlantic City area.

The late Mr. Schwartz’s daughter, Pauline, showed us the photo; she said that a framed copy hangs in her mother’s home to this day.

Each year at its gala, the Hebrew Academy would honor a Man of the Year. The academy “would choose one person in the community who had made an impact on the community, and through this person’s connections we would be able to raise funds for the school,” remembers Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, the academy’s longtime principal. Sonny Schwartz was the honoree in 1980, which his daughter said was “a super-big deal for our family.” She remembers saying the Hamotzi blessing at that dinner along with the evening’s emcee, the Jewish comedian and Rat Pack fixture Joey Bishop.

Mr. Schwartz was a main dinner organizer the next year, and the honoree was his close friend Paul “Skinny” D’Amato, the famed owner of the resort town’s 500 Club. D’Amato, among other accomplishments, is known for hosting Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s first performance, in 1946. He also booked Sinatra at lean times in the singer’s career.

D’Amato was one of only a few non-Jews to receive the honor. Another non-Jew who was honored in another year, according to Rabbi Weiss, was Ivana Trump, the then-wife of the future president. (During his Atlantic City days, Donald J. Trump would appear on Sonny Schwartz’s radio show.)

D’Amato brought several of his showbiz friends to the dinner in 1981.

“I remember the dinner very well,” Rabbi Weiss said. “At the dinner honoring Skinny, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. appeared and Danny Thomas sent in a video which was played for all the patrons at the dinner. The entire ballroom was converted to a nightclub with a huge stage stretching almost the complete length of the ballroom. The children of the Hebrew Academy choir also performed that evening.

“I still remember the first joke that Jerry Lewis said at the dinner,” Rabbi Weiss added. “He looked at Skinny straight into his eyes and said ‘Skinny! Teplitzky’s!’”

It’s long been known that the Italian-American, Roman Catholic Sinatra was a lifelong admirer of the Jews and a supporter of Jewish causes. His relationship with Jews went back to his childhood in Hoboken. He frequently visited Israel and he raised money for several buildings there that still bear his name.

When Frank appeared at the Hebrew Academy dinner, he was presented with a kippah that was emblazoned with his name and musical notes. The kippah in the photo is, by all indications, the one that was sold in the Sotheby’s auction.

“When I saw the picture, the one that was auctioned, I immediately knew that it was from that time, because my father got one at the same time,” Pauline Schwartz said.

Mr. Schwartz’s widow, Connie, also presented me with a picture of a kippah, which — because he was a journalist — features typewriters instead of musical notes. Both kippot spell out the names using only lower-case letters. Rabbi Weiss said he also received a similar kippah.

Who actually made the kippah? That’s a matter of some debate. Rabbi Weiss believes that presenting it was the idea of the late Rubin Wishkin, a past president of the day school, and that possibly it was crocheted by Mr. Wishkin’s wife, Miriam.

Pauline Schwartz thinks it was made by one of Rabbi Weiss’ daughters, or possibly his wife.

A group of South Jersey Jews have been discussing their memories of that night on a Facebook thread ever since the news about the auction. Their opinions on the kippah’s origins differ. Several credited one of the rabbi’s daughters, but she said that she doesn’t remember doing so and probably would have been too young to have known how to crochet in 1981.

Skinny D’Amato died in 1984. Frank Sinatra and Sonny Schwartz died within a few months of each other in 1998. Teplitzky’s closed in 1987, but the name was revived briefly a few years ago for a coffee shop in the also-since-shuttered Chelsea Hotel, which was built on Teplitzky’s site. The Hebrew Academy still is operating, although now it’s called Trocki Hebrew Academy School of Atlantic County and has moved to Egg Harbor Township.

The kippah’s reappearance is exciting for the people who remembered it from the first time around.

“I thought, really — they kept it for all these years?” Pauline Schwartz said. “That’s really something. When you find out the story, it’s one object that tells so much if you find out the story behind it.

“It’s a snapshot of a time period and a place and it sort of symbolizes almost a magical type of thing that took place, when all these celebrities came there, and it was all to honor this Jewish day school in Margate.”

JTA

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