Jim Bradford has lived on the wild side. He is a world-class runner, a skier, a world traveler, a dedicated Navy man who also served in the Marines, a humanitarian, and a seeker of adventures who is fluent in Vietnamese and Cambodian.
Bradford, 83, has never met a challenge too difficult. In fact, his life and the perseverance of his Jewish-African-American family have formed a challenge as long as anyone can remember.
Tall, willowy and handsome with a baritone voice resonating with an inner calm, Bradford is quick to explain his family background, one he relishes.
His paternal ancestors hail from Gondar, Ethiopia, where the Beta Israel have lived since the fourth century. His family tribal name, Elezhar ben Levi, has not been forgotten over the centuries because of the diligence of his slave ancestors.
Brought here in 1714, they were sold to mostly Jewish owners because of their “idiosyncrasies” of circumcising their sons on the eighth day, refusing to eat pork or shellfish, not wanting to work on Saturdays and celebrating certain Jewish holidays. The family’s last name changed several times, to Golden, Feldman, Smith and Brabinowitz, depending on the owner.
Bradford’s maternal ancestors, merchants from India, arrived around 1700 by way of London.
Growing up in the 1940s in the Alaskan territory, which did not become a state until 1959, was not easy for a black Jewish child. There were four or five Jewish families in Delta, Alaska, but only three were practicing: the Bradfords and two Russian families, who celebrated holidays in one another’s homes.
Bradford became a bar mitzvah in 1948 among 15 boys from locales near and far: two African-Americans, six Eskimos, four American Indians and three whites.
Bradford’s father, who served in World War I and World War II, faced widespread discrimination in the military but developed skills in the construction field. After the military, he worked on the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway and other projects throughout the United States.
The Bradfords frequently moved. “My father was my idol, my hero,” Bradford said. “He kept the family together. While many families were greatly taxed by frequent relocations, keeping the family together, keeping the stability, even during our many moves, was my father’s priority.”
When the Bradfords traveled to the lower 48 states, his father carried a special letter from a rabbi that designated the family as Jewish because most people at that time could not conceive of a black family being Jewish.
Bradford graduated high school in Delta at 14. He attempted college at 15 but was too immature. Wanting to travel to faraway places, he joined the Marines and fought in Korea, then later moved to the Navy and served in Vietnam. Visiting exotic countries with the Navy became part of a routine.
“In my travels, I always tried to locate the Jewish community and temple even though, at times, the temple was a mere hut,” Bradford said.
During a stop in Africa, he met distant Ethiopian relatives, identified by markings on their upper torsos. Calling on the port of Haifa in 1958, Bradford received a grand tour from Moshe Dayan. Bradford remembers Haifa as a dusty old town with people of many styles of dress and languages.
On other excursions, Bradford met distant relatives in Kochi (Cochin), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras), India, and Colombo, Sri Lanka.
He served in the military from 1953 to 1988, was educated in languages, and became a position analyst and correctional counselor. He led religious services for his fellow Jewish sailors in the Navy.
Sports also have been an important part of Bradford’s life. As a youth in Alaska, he enjoyed bobsledding, ice skating and skiing. In the Navy, he played basketball and volleyball. And he runs.
He ran with the bulls twice, once in Mexico in 1953 and once in Spain in 1958. Bradford gained consideration for the U.S. Olympic team as a marathoner in 1972, while he was serving in Vietnam. He still runs marathons.
He and wife Emma, who died last year, enjoyed many adventures together and had two children, Gerald and Kim. During their marriage of 60 years, they rode their motorcycles from San Diego up the coast and over the Golden Gate Bridge. They made two cross-country trips, one from Newport, R.I., to San Diego and the other from Kodiak, Alaska, along the Alcan Highway.
Bradford earned two master’s, one in human resources and, with money from the GI Bill, a second in marketing.
After the military, he worked in several educational settings, as a teacher, a counselor and a mentor to people with disabilities. At 83, Bradford still worked full time this past school year at Stockbridge High as a hall monitor. He kept order and directed students back to their classes and back into their lives.
His gentle spirit and respectful demeanor encouraged high-risk kids to rethink their behaviors, and his knowledge of languages enabled him to communicate and bond with Vietnamese and Cambodian students.
Bradford is writing a book about his life and seeking a publisher.
He also has grown close to another Congregation B’nai Israel member, family friend Beatrice Yehudah.
Yehudah has an interesting story of her own. Her parents were sharecroppers in Tennessee, and she recalls her mother telling the family that they were the “original Israelites,” which is another term that the Beta Israel of Ethiopia use for themselves. Bradford and Yehudah wonder whether somewhere in their ancestry their relatives’ paths crossed.
Now divorced, Yehudah often turned for counsel to Bradford during the troubled times in her marriage. She found him easy to talk to and wise.
Jimmie Louis Bradford dressed in his Navy finest, and Beatrice Woodard Yehudah wore an exotic wedding dress as they pledged their devotion for life. They took turns smashing the customary glass as friends and family of the couple shouted the customary mazel tovs.
The two plan to travel to Israel soon. Though Bradford has been there several times, his bride has not, and she also adores traveling.
Bradford loves the way the Jewish state is evolving to express Judaism’s many ethnicities. “When you don’t travel the world,” he said, “you don’t realize that Jews come in all colors, shapes and sizes.”