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Kirk Douglas’s Jewish Mountain

February 16, 2020 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The Hollywood icon's never-ending search for meaning.

The mezuzah on Kirk Douglas’s home was strangely symbolic of his Judaism. Kirk, fiercely proud of his Jewish identity, always had a mezuzah box on his doorpost, but the box was empty, devoid of the parchment with hand-written paragraphs from the Torah that are the essence of the mitzvah of mezuzah. Likewise, Kirk, who abandoned his Jewish education after his Bar Mitzvah, was devoid of the knowledge of Torah until, at the age of 77, he plunged into an ambitious schedule of Torah learning – and also affixed the proper Scriptural passages on the door of his Beverly Hills home.

So profoundly did learning Torah affect Kirk that in his second autobiography, Climbing the Mountain, written at the age of 80, he felt himself to be a different person than he was when he wrote his first autobiography just a decade before. “It has been ten years since I wrote my autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. I am not the same person now,” he confessed. “Only ten years have passed, but the questions that forced themselves upon me during this time … have reshaped me. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to discover myself.”1

Kirk considered the turning point in his life to be the helicopter crash in which two young men were killed and he, aged 74, survived. He kept asking himself why he had lived and what was expected of him to do with the additional years of life that had been granted him.

“I think that one reason I was spared was because I had never really come to grips with what it means to be a Jew.”

He had no facile answers. Having starred by then in more than 75 movies, Kirk had already realized a few years before the accident that movie offers were drying up, and he turned to writing as his new creative outlet. He wrote twelve books, including three novels and two books for young readers. He realized, however, that writing books, just like producing, directing, and acting in movies, was not an answer to the gnawing questions of the meaning and purpose of life. “I think that one reason I was spared [in the helicopter crash] was because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism. I had never really come to grips with what it means to be a Jew.”

The Hollywood Star

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, in December, 1916. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. The language of their home was Yiddish. His father Herschel/Harry, a ragman who could not get a job in the local mills because he was a Jew, spent most of his time and money in the saloon. Issur and his six sisters lived in poverty, often hungry. Their mother, Bryna, calm and loving, made challah for Shabbos and told her son that when she made challah, the angels sang and danced. She lit Shabbos candles and spent Shabbos morning on the porch praying from her prayer book. When, in Hollywood, Kirk bolted from the studios and formed his own production company, he called it, Bryna Productions.

Anti-Semitism plagued Issur from a young age. He was often beaten up and called a kike and a Christ-killer. He couldn’t get a job as a newspaper boy because he was Jewish. In college at St. Lawrence University, he couldn’t get into a fraternity because he was Jewish. Graduating college when he decided to become an actor, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas. After that, with his blonde hair, blue eyes, and Scottish name, he didn’t have to contend with anti-Semitism because few people realized he was Jewish.

Kirk married, divorced, and married again, both times to non-Jewish women. The only vestige he kept of the Judaism he was reared in was that he always fasted on Yom Kippur. He would proudly say that he fasted on Yom Kippur “even when I was kissing Lana Turner or having a gun battle with Burt Lancaster.”

As I get older, I feel the need to give thanks to a higher power.

The Ragman’s Son, which made it to the top of the bestseller lists, is the swashbuckling memoir of his rise to stardom, his glittering career, his affairs, his dozens of successful films, and his celebrity friends. Yet every autobiography requires some measure of self-reflection, and Kirk, in the process, began to think more deeply about his life and his choices. Toward the end of the book, he wrote:

Now, I’m at a time in my life when I really begin to think that perhaps there is a higher being. … I’m talking about the quiet inner awareness that says there must be a higher power responsible for the perfection of the universe we live in, for this beautiful setting. Now, more than ever, there is a need to believe. Am I being dramatic? An actor? No. I’m just beginning to discover things I’ve never thought about… As I get older, I feel the need to give thanks to a higher power.2

It would take the helicopter crash, a quasi-mystical encounter at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and meeting a young Orthodox rabbi for those inner promptings to crystalize into what became Kirk Douglas’s “return” to Judaism.

Jerusalem’s Magic

In 1994, Uriela Obst, Kirk’s editor and close friend (whom he called Ushi), visited Israel and studied Judaism at Isralight, a three-week learning program for non-religious adults. She came back to L.A. with glowing reports about the rabbi who led and taught the program, Rabbi David Aaron. Kirk was planning a visit to Israel to dedicate two playgrounds he had donated. Ushi suggested to Rabbi Aaron that he invite Kirk for a Shabbos dinner in his apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem. Rabbi Aaron, who had never heard of Kirk Douglas nor seen any of his films, duly faxed him an invitation. Surprisingly, Kirk accepted.

On a late Friday afternoon, 36-year-old Rabbi Aaron picked up 77-year-old Kirk at the King David Hotel. Before taking him to the Kotel for Shabbat prayers, the rabbi took him to the roof of Isralight Institute. Kirk surveyed the view of the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount, and, below them, the Kotel, where masses of worshippers were already converging. Suddenly, to Rabbi Aaron’s astonishment, Kirk started to chant in Hebrew the prayer for welcoming the Sabbath. “Rabbi, I know my lines,” Kirk said. “I grew up in an Orthodox home. But Judaism is all form, no content. Judaism lost me at age fourteen.”

As Kirk recalled that fateful encounter:

What he said in response staggered me. He pointed out that no rational adult would make a business decision based on what he knew when he was fourteen. No one would decide whom to marry based on what he knew about love and relationships when he was fourteen. But lots of people seem satisfied to dismiss religion based on what they learned – or didn’t learn – at fourteen.

He was right, and I was one of those that stupid.

Later, at Rabbi’s Aaron’s apartment, Kirk enjoyed the Shabbos meal with its soulful songs and nostalgic atmosphere. He would write in the sequel to his autobiography, Climbing the Mountain: “That night I felt that I had come home.”

On Sunday, Ushi had arranged for her friend, tour guide Tova Saul, to take Kirk through the Kotel tunnels. Two thousand years ago when King Herod expanded the Second Temple, he built retaining walls around Mount Moriah to hold the platform supporting the grand edifice. The Kotel is the exposed part of the western retaining wall, but 480 more meters of the western wall lie underground. Archeologists dug the Kotel tunnels running along the massive wall, exposing remains from various periods. At the end of the wall one can touch the bedrock of Mount Moriah, where the patriarch Abraham was tested by God to offer his son as a sacrifice, and was then commanded not to harm the boy.

Tova Saul, an expert tour guide, had done her homework. She had read in The Ragman’s Son how young Issur had seen in his Hebrew book a picture of Abraham “with his long beard bent over a frightened little boy, in his hand a long knife. That boy looked a lot like me.” That image had driven him away from Judaism. Tova now took Kirk to the end of the tunnels and announced, “This is the bedrock of Mount Moriah.”

He later related what happened next:

I looked at this black stone enshrouded with so much mystical meaning.

“You mean…”

She finished it for me. “Yes, this is the bedrock of the mountain where Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed.”

The picture from my Hebrew-school book flashed into my mind. But, to my surprise, it no longer frightened me. I wasn’t sure why. Something had happened to me here that I didn’t quite understand.

It was very quiet in the tunnel, dimly lit, cool.

Tova’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.

Three years after the helicopter crash, when God first rattled my complacency, I had come full circle. Little did I know that this was just the beginning.3

After that trip Kirk dedicated the Kirk Douglas Theater at Aish HaTorah, in order to share the meaning and significance of that holy spot with the world.

Learning Torah

Kirk accepted Rabbi Aaron’s offer to learn Torah with him. He flew Rabbi Aaron to L.A. for a week every six weeks and learned with him for five or six hours a day, starting with the first verse of Genesis. They learned in depth, with the profound and illuminating commentaries that distinguish Jewish understanding of the Bible from its Christian counterpart. When the rabbi left after the first week, Kirk quipped, “We aren’t out of the Garden of Eden yet.”

Kirk became excited and entranced by Torah study.

Kirk became excited and entranced by Torah study, impatient for Rabbi Aaron’s return from Jerusalem every six weeks. Finally, he asked Rabbi Aaron to move to Los Angeles to become his full-time teacher. Rabbi Aaron demurred, saying that he couldn’t leave the City of God for the City of Angels. So, Kirk started learning with Rabbi Nachum Braverman, the educational director of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles.

Rabbi David Aaron and Kirk Douglas

Kirk and Rabbi Braverman studied Torah together regularly. But when they reached Deuteronomy, the last book of Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, Kirk, whose sense of gratitude never wavered, brought Rabbi Aaron back to L.A. “You started me off in Chumash,” he wrote to him, “so I want you to finish it with me.”

After that, Kirk started learning with Rabbi David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple. They met weekly, studying the Bible, then the Mishna, then contemporary writings, their formal study giving way to deep conversations, until Kirk’s death at age 103 on February 5, 2020.

Kirk also started keeping certain mitzvot. He lit Shabbos candles at sundown every Friday. He put up a kosher mezuzah. He started every day by reciting in Hebrew Modeh Ani, the traditional prayer to be said upon awakening to thank God for another day of life. He prayed “Shema Yisrael” every morning. He occasionally donned the new tefillin that Rabbi Braverman had given him. After a hiatus of 65 years, he started periodically attending synagogue. At the age of 83, he had a second Bar Mitzvah.

Kirk Douglas signed his name in Hebrew in this inscription to Rabbi Aaron

But most significantly, he reconciled with God. Until that fateful visit to Jerusalem at the age of 77, Kirk had retained his childhood (and childish) concept of God as a big, often angry, figure in the sky. Eschewing the loaded term “God,” Rabbi Aaron introduced Kirk to “HaShem,” meaning “the Name,” the Hebrew term by which most religious Jews refer to the Creator. HaShem, Kirk learned, is loving and forgiving and leads each individual through life, giving endless opportunities to learn and grow. “I’m still not that good a Jew; you won’t find me in shul all that often,” Kirk wrote, “But HaShem is a forgiving God and often rewards me when I do go.”

As he learned more Judaism, Kirk regretted that he hadn’t started the process earlier – and taught his four sons (who, he admitted, were not halachically Jewish):

Now, as I study the Torah, I wonder if some of the problems my children have had might have been alleviated if I had exposed them more to religion. Maybe all children need some form of spiritual guidance to help them. I don’t mean the rote, ritualistic religion I was taught as a child; that had no significant value to me. I mean the kind of religion that helps you push aside your ego to let something spiritual come in.4

Of course, Kirk’s new preoccupation with Judaism did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. One fellow celebrity came up to him at a party and whispered that he, too, had had a Bar Mitzvah. But most of his Hollywood friends rolled their eyes and snickered. “I’m sure that they don’t really understand the biggest mystery – the mystery of the soul,” Kirk wrote. “No one can answer me when I ask: What is it inside of ourselves that guides our lives? Where does the inner voice come from? … When I bring up such questions in ‘polite company,’ I am often told to get down to reality.”

Life is for Growing

What inner quality enabled Kirk Douglas to start “climbing the mountain” of Judaism at the age of 77?

According to Ushi, “Kirk had a childlike curiosity. Most old people think they know everything. But Kirk was eager to learn new things.” He wasn’t afraid to tread, indeed hurtle down, new paths, and he didn’t let his ego deter him from the possibility of failure. Ushi remembers that Kirk always said that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to be a loose quote from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: “I tried. By God, I tried.”

This drive, not just to learn more, but to be more, kept him undertaking new projects well after his 80th birthday. As an octogenarian, he wrote four new books. He did a one-man show on his life, “Before I Forget,” at the age of 92. Even after a debilitating stroke forced him to learn to speak all over again, he made three more movies: “Diamond,” “It Runs in the Family,” and, at the age of 88, “Illusion.”

One of the books Kirk Douglas wrote

Kirk Douglas believed that life is for learning and growing. Always aspiring to be a better, kinder person, Kirk devoted himself to charitable undertakings. He built playgrounds all over the world. Finally forgiving his errant father, he went to his grave, begged his forgiveness, recited Kaddish there, then built a center for those in the film industry suffering from Alzheimer’s and named it for his father. He understood, however, that being kind on the micro level is as important as the big acts of altruism. As he wrote:

God gave me a second chance to make that journey within. You won’t catch me taking any cruises. I am committed to helping my fellow man – through building playgrounds and writing books – and to becoming a better person.

I don’t know any quick ways to do it, but I am working hard to improve in simple ways. When driving a car, I make a point of giving the other guy the right of way. It feels good to wave somebody ahead of you, and sometimes they raise their hand in friendly acknowledgement. And when I get behind another car that is going too slowly, I try to put myself in the other driver’s seat. Maybe he has a problem. This makes me less impatient…5

Aside from the big donations of his charitable trust fund, Kirk generously helped individuals, without a tax deduction. When a new Aish rabbi came to L.A., he and his wife invited Kirk for Shabbat dinner. He saw their shabby kitchen and later sent a check to have it renovated. Some two decades ago, Kirk, through Ushi, became aware of the plight of an American woman named Phyllis. Phyllis, divorced from a husband who had sexually abused their sons, had broken the law by taking her sons and fleeing to Fiji, then Israel. After years in hiding in an Israeli moshav, she was found by her ex-husband, who started the process of extraditing her to the U.S. Phyllis had no money, but needed $10,000 to hire a good lawyer to fight the extradition. Kirk decided to help Phyllis. Phyllis received in the mail a personal check for $10,000 signed by Kirk and his wife Anne. The accompanying note requested only that she keep her children Jewish and keep them in Israel.

Reflecting on his close association with Kirk, Rabbi David Aaron reminisced: “I learned from him that you can be a superstar in the world, but deep inside you’re still struggling with what will make your life matter. Kirk wanted to make his life matter.”

Looking back at his 103 years, it’s apparent that he succeeded.

For the aliyat neshama of Issur ben Tzvi

1. Climbing the Mountain, p. 227
2. The Ragman’s Son, p. 480
3. Climbing the Mountain, p. 127.
4. Climbing the Mountain, p. 143
5. Climbing the Mountain, p. 227

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