More from actor Kirk Douglas about being Jewish

October, 30 2008

We hope you’ve all seen our exclusive interview with actor Kirk Douglas in the September/October issue of Moment in which he talks with his rabbi, David Wolpe.

Moment has published thoughts from Douglas before. Back in 1995 we published a (slightly adapted) speech that he had previously given to the Los Angeles Synagogue for the Performing Arts. From the Moment archives, the article follows…

When I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, New York, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. It scared the hell out of me, because I didn’t want to become a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel synagogue were persistent.

I had to work hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew. You see, I got frightened at age 14 by the story of Abraham and Isaac. I remember the picture in my Hebrew school book. Abraham with a long beard. In one outstretched hand, holding a large knife, in the other—a frightened little boy. And that kid looked an awful lot like me. A hovering angel was having a hard time restraining Abraham. How could the angel convince Abraham that G-D was only testing him? Some test! That picture stayed in my mind for a long time as I drifted away from Judaism. I grew up, went to college, but my Judaism stayed stuck in a 14-year-old boy’s Hebrew school book.

It has been pointed out to me that no rational adult would make a business decision based on what they knew when they were 14. You wouldn’t decide who to marry based on what you knew about love and relationships when you were 14. But lots of us seem satisfied to dismiss religion based on what we learned at 14, and I was one of those that stupid. Of course, I was always proud to be a Jew, even though it would have been easier for me not to be. I remember when I auditioned as a young actor in a Yiddish theater in New York. They looked at me and said: “If we have a part for a Nazi, we’ll call you.”

Although I felt drawn to the mystery of Judaism; other aspects pushed me away. What did I have in common with those black-hatted, bearded men with their long payis? But as time went on, I got older and I began to change. The catalyst was my son Michael. One day he asked me: “Dad, where did my grandfather come from?” I suddenly realized how little I knew about my background. Anyone who could tell me was long dead. I had no ancestors. This thought depressed me. It haunted me. I had no ancestors! can a man know who he truly is, if he doesn’t know who his ancestors were? I was lying in my room pondering this question for the umpteenth time, when I happened to look up over my bed. There on the wall hangs my collection of Chagall lithographs, his Bible series. And then it hit me. Here were my ancestors! And what a famous group — Moses, Abraham, Jacob, and so many others! I began to read about them, and the more I read, the happier I felt. Why? They all came from dysfunctional familes. They all had problems. Cain kills Abel. Jacob deceives his father. Joseph gets sold into slavery by his brothers. King David sees beautiful Bathsheba, naked, washing herself. She’s a married woman. But, next thing you know, she is pregnant with his child, and her husband is dead. One sinner after another, and despite that, they all overcame the odds and accomplished great things!

What an inspiration to a sinner like me. And what a load of guilt off my shoulders. I was very grateful to Chagall for reminding me what an incredible lineage I had. Then I found out that Chagall, a Russian Jew, came from Vitesbsk, a town not far from Mogilev, my parents’ home town, in White Russia. In fact, my father and Chagall both left that region, the Pale of Settlement, where Jews had to live, about the same time. Chagall became a famous artist in Paris, and my father became a ragman in Amsterdam, New York. Jews have diverse talents.

The more I studied Jewish history, the more it fascinated me. How did we survive? Lost in different parts of the world, among strange cultures—constantly persecuted. Yet, our tormentors rose and fell, and we still hung on. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, all are long gone and we remain, despite all the persecution. And that is when I started to think that we should thank those pious, black-hatted, bearded Jews with their long payis— for keeping Judaism alive for so long. They understood something very deep that we more secular types never learned, or forgot if we did. G-D gave us the Torah—and that made us the conscience of the world. I was facinated to learn that even if we Jews sometimes forget it, our persecutors remember.

Here is what Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “It is true we Germans are barbarians; that is an honored title to us. I free humanity from the shackles of the soul; from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind: circumcision on its body and conscience on its soul. They are Jewish inventions. The war for the domination of the world is waged only between these two camps alone, the Germans and the Jews. Everything else is but deception.”

He was right, it was all about the battle between good and evil. I am just beginning to realize what that means for us Jews, and it scares me. It carries such an enormous burden. No wonder that Jews the world over have tried to escape into the safety of assimilation. But that safety always turns out to be a trap. Amazing, isn’t it—before the Nazis came into power, Germany was the country where Jews had assimilated almost completely. Judaism was dying out. Some German Jews—like Heine and Marx—even became famous for their anti-Semitism. And then the German people, who had absorbed the Jews with such open arms, turned on them with such viciousness. It has happened over and over in history.

In 1492, while Columbus was discovering America, Torquemada was doing his best to get rid of all the Jews in Spain. This I learned from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book Jewish LIteracy (William Morrow & Co.). No home should be without it. Back then in Spain, the situation was very much like that in Germany some 500 years later. The Sephardic Jews were well along the route of assimilation and held important posts in Spain. Contrary to popular misconception, the Inquisition was not directed only against Jews, but particularly former Jews who had converted to Christianity. How odd that, with all the persecutions we have been subjected to, the worst comes when we’ve moved away from Judaism. Is G-D telling us something? I’m beginning to think so.

Throughout my life, when I was moving farther and farther from Judaism, I always clung to a single thread—Yom Kippur. On that one day I fasted. I might be shooting it out with Burt Lancaster or John Wayne, or battling Lawrence Olivier and his Romans, but I always fasted. You see, there was something frightening to me about that Golden Book in which is written and sealed—who shall live and who shall die—who will survive a helicopter crash, like me, and who will be killed. That helicopter crash—two people died—brought to my consciousness what had been broiling under the surface for all those years.

And so, two years ago, I went with my son Eric, who is a stand-up comedian, to the Kol Nidre service at the Comedy Club on Sunset Boulevard. This year, I spent Yom Kippur at a synagogue in Paris. Now that I’m a member of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, I hope to spend my next Yom Kippur there.

In September, I visited Israel after a 12-year absence. I had made four movies there. I had been there many times, but I stayed away too long. I was excited. We drove up to the hotel. Everyone seemed so glad to see me again. They ushered me and my wife into our room and I was amazed. They had put my initials—KD—on the sheets, towels, bathrobes, everything. I was so moved and very flattered until my wife said, “Honey, this is the King David Hotel.” I walked to the window and stared out at the magnificent view of the Old City, the Ottoman Empire walls surrounded by grass and flowers. I couldn’t help but remember the first time I saw that view more than 40 years ago, when I came to Israel to make “The Juggler”—a movie about a Holocaust survivor who had lost his Jewishness and finds it again in Israel. But back then, when I looked out of the window of this same King David Hotel, where the grass and flowers now grow, I saw Arab soldiers in dirty uniforms, pacing back and forth. I paid a visit to David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister, in his office—a trailer. After a few minutes, he dismissed me: “Go make your movie —I have a country to run.” Israel was hungry then—literally. Food was rationed. Everyone was allowed one egg a month. But no one complained. They all seemed so happy. They were deciding to learn some Hebrew too. Of course, I knew lots of prayers, but I never knew what I was saying. I learned this sentence in Hebrew: “Ani rotzeh I’habir et simehati harabah l’hisdamnut asher natnah li l’vaker b’Yisroel, ha’aretz hak’tanah b’madatah v’hag’dolah b’ruchah.” I’m glad to have this opportunity to visit the land of Israel, so small in area, but so big in aspirations.”

Over the course of many visits I made to Israel since that first time; I saw most of those aspirations fulfilled. Now I was back again. How Israel had changed. So many new things. But more important, so many old things. The old is what had brought me here. I didn’t want to change my clothes. I rushed out of the hotel. The sun was just setting. The Kotel, the Western Wall, was crowded with worshippers. The energy emanated from all the praying Jews, davening at a wild pace, was overwhelming. I moved through the crowd. It was difficult to find a place to touch the wall. I looked around for a crevice where I could put the tiny folded up piece of paper with my prayer. I found one.

As I reached deep into it, my fingers touched the other pieces placed there before me. I hoped that all those prayers had been answered. The next day, I took a walk through the Western Wall tunnel, along the foundations of the Temple Mount, the tunnel that takes you deep underneath the Moslem Quarter. As I slowly walked along, following my guide, I let my fingers caress the huge blocks of stone that enclose the mount where the Temple once stood. And then we stopped at the point where we could touch bedrock. My guide, a young girl from Pittsburgh who had moved to Israel, spoke softly: “This is the rock of Mount Moriah,” I looked at this rough black stone. “Mount Moriah?” I asked. “You mean…” She finished it for me. “Yes, this is where Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed.” The picture from my Hebrew school nook flashed
into my mind. But it no longer frightened me. Now I knew that Abraham lived at a time when sacrificing your son to the idols was a common practice. The lesson of Mount Moriah was precisely that G-D does not want human sacrifice—that G-D is not Someone to be afraid of. It was very quite in the tunnel, dimly lit, cool. My guide’s voice was barely above a whisper. “This is where it all started.” I couldn’t speak. She was right. This place represented the beginning of my doubts. And, at long last, the end of them. Here in the dark tunnel, touching the rock of Mount Moriah, I grew up.

That night I had Shabbat at the home of Rabbi Aaron, a young rabbi who has a school—Israelight Institute; in the heart of the Jewish Quarter—teaching adults what they, like me, had never learned as children: the joy of Judaism. We sang songs, with the rabbi beating time on the table. Through the window I could see other houses lit by the warm light of candles and could hear the same songs echoing in the night. They were happy songs. I felt good. That night I felt that I had come home. And yet I know that my journey is not over. I still have a long way to go. Judaism is a lifetime of learning, and I’ve just started. I hope it’s not too late. If G-D is a patient G-D, maybe He’ll give me enough time to learn the things I need to know to understand what it is that makes us Jews the conscience of the world.

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