Born James Sullivan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1947, he was the son of the late John W. Sullivan and Mary Sullivan (née Murtaugh).
James attended St. Monica School in Whitefish Bay and was a graduate of Dominican High School, during which time he performed with the Porter Players at the Jewish Community Center and was active in the civil rights movement, including attending the 1963 March on Washington, serving as secretary of the local NAACP Youth Council, and co-founding YForI, Youth for Integration.
After leaving Milwaukee, he studied at St. Louis and McGill Universities, where, as a former altar boy from an Irish Catholic family, he felt called to the traditional Jewish faith and took the name Yaakov upon his conversion. After doing graduate work in New York, he moved to Jerusalem, where for a dozen years he built bridges between the Jewish and Arab communities. He also earned his B.F.A. in 1982 from Tel Aviv University.
Yaakov returned to the United States in the 1980s and enjoyed a thriving career as a stage actor, with numerous credits at Milwaukee’s Clavis Theater as well as memorable roles at the Paradox Studio Theatre, Teatro Maria II, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and a one-man show in which he played the part of Garcia Lorca. Most recently, he was seen as Senator Richard Russell in Alex Harrington’s Off-Broadway play, “The Great Society” (2013).
From 1998 to 2003, Yaakov worked as a researcher in the Office of the President at Columbia University in the City of New York, and his work took him to Reid Hall in Paris, France, where he quickly fell in love with the City of Lights and hoped to retire there one day. To that end, Yaakov left his apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 2008 for Newburgh where he purchased a home hoping that it might afford him the equity eventually to relocate to Paris.
While the Great Recession foiled that plan, Yaakov found something even better: a community that embraced him fully in Newburgh and a home in the Washington Heights section of the city that soon became a beehive of activity, from gardening to cooking for friends to greeting the Sabbath with lively Friday night dinners. Well-read, well-traveled (in addition to Paris, he loved to return to Ireland and visit friends and family across the US and Canada), with a playful, irreverent sense of humor, strong social justice values, and profound religious faith, he lived life to its top and seeded a similar passion in others.
In Newburgh, Yaakov was often seen on his Schwinn bicycle, which he called Margaret, and over the years, he served as vice president of the Newburgh Heights Association, performed readings at local cultural events, donned the robes and beard of St. Nicholas for neighborhood caroling, and, in his retirement from Columbia, worked at the Palate Wine Shop on Liberty Street. He also became a devoted member of Congregation Agudas Israel, whose rabbi, Jacob Rosner, presided over his funeral in Newburgh and burial at Spring Hill Cemetery in Milwaukee on July 1.
Yaakov was predeceased by his parents and long-time friend, Scott Smith. He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, John and Mary Sullivan, of California, several nieces and nephews, countless friends, and a cat, Thomas, whom he cared for in his final years. He faced the illness that ultimately took him with courage and humanity, and found comfort in the view of the Hudson River from his bedroom, the Irish composer John Field’s “Nocturnes,” and the poetry of Max Jacob, John Donne, Philip Larkin, and W.H. Auden, whom Yaakov loved to quote as saying, “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”
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