Studying the Bible With Kirk Douglas
He was known to the world as Spartacus. I knew him as Issur Danielovich.
By David Wolpe
Mr. Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of “David: The Divided Heart.”
The world knows Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, and as one of the greatest movie stars of the greatest generation. I know him as my hevruta — the Aramaic word for study partner.
For almost 25 years I met with Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovich, once a week to study Torah. After we read through the Bible and hit up all the greats — “That’s a role I was born to play,” he said of King David — we moved on to other books: the Mishna for rabbinical wisdom; “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran; Walt Whitman’s poetry; and modern theology from Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber. In time, we just met to talk.
When I first met Kirk in his 70s, he had already had a stroke, a heart attack and survived a helicopter crash that killed two other two occupants. In the 30 years I had the privilege to know him, Kirk, who died Wednesday at age 103, endured a lot. He lost a child to addiction and lost friend after friend to old age until he was left without many contemporaries.
Yet he was never alone. He had a remarriage ceremony with Anne after 50 years. She converted to Judaism to remarry him. (Kirk had been married before, and Anne converted, as she put it, because “it is about time Kirk marries a Jew!”) She studied seriously and converted a month before the second wedding. He told me with pride how Anne lit the Shabbat candles ever Friday night, as my former wife taught her to do.
When I officiated at the ceremony, Kirk tried to step on the glass to break it but couldn’t muster enough strength, so he smashed it with his cane. He was, until the last, spry, funny and self-aware.
Kirk was a star in an age with few, if any, restrictions on behavior. He had, in the words of one of his best movies, a lust for life. He traveled everywhere, partied with Sinatra and Dean Martin and J.F.K. His home, although unpretentious by the standards of stardom, was seeded with reminders of an extraordinary life. Walking into his house for the first time and seeing the famous Karsch portrait of Picasso holding a vase across the hall from the very Picasso vase in the portrait, I looked around for something I could admire that was not showy or obvious. I pointed to a silver hand-held mirror on the table in the far corner. “Oh, Sadat gave me that mirror,” he said nonchalantly. Of course he did.
Once I asked him if having so much made him jaded. He turned very serious. “I never forgot being poor and hungry.” One particularly hot day when I said something about the blessing of air conditioning, I said “When you were young, you probably had a block of ice and a fan.” He fixed me with a stare and said, “Who had a fan?”
He came from nothing. His father, Herschel, who emigrated from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1908, literally picked rags up on the street and resold them. His son, Issur, born in 1916, trained himself as a wrestler and managed to combine sports and academic prizes at his public school to go to St. Lawrence University where he became student body president. From there it was to the New York stage, the navy and then Hollywood, with the encouragement of his old friend Lauren Bacall.
Issue Danielovich became Kirk Douglas after college graduation. He sat around with friends trying on new names (Norman Dems was another consideration). He wanted a name that started with a “d,” and someone suggested Douglas. Another friend suggested Kirk and he liked the hard sound of it. He explained later that the gentile-sounding name exposed him to new levels of anti-Semitism because people did not know he was Jewish and would say vile things about Jews blithely to his face. “Issur” he wrote in his biography, “was with me all the time.”
He wildly outstripped his background, and yet always felt himself unappreciated by his father and seen with suspicion by a prejudiced world. He had six sisters and a mother who adored him (“When my son walks, the earth trembles” she said, and he loved to quote her. His production company, Bryna, was named for his mother.) But his father, abusive and irascible, never told his son he was proud — and it rankled him until the very end.
Kirk would speak to me wistfully at times about things he might have done better. He wished he had spent even more time with his beloved sons and told me that Anne was the best and kindest person he had ever known. He joked that he gave her all his money and the only thing he still owned was his wedding ring. Kirk had a deep well of self-confidence, and when he single-handedly broke the blacklist by naming Dalton Trumbo as the writer of Spartacus, he did it without a shadow of doubt. “I knew about exclusion,” he once told me. “After all, I was a Jew.” It was his proudest professional moment, and when the movie “Trumbo” came out he urged me to see it. (I did.)
The man who kissed Lana Turner in “The Bad and the Beautiful” on Yom Kippur (“Do you know how hard it is to kiss Lana Turner on an empty stomach?”) never quite lost his acute angle toward the world. He was always teasing and pushing and challenging himself and others. A few years ago, at 101, he gave me a stack of books to donate to the synagogue library. He could still walk but very slowly, with a walker and an aide on each side to make sure he did not fall. As I hoisted the books he looked over and said: “Like some help?”
He could be stubborn and prideful, but there was an element of self-aware mockery as well. As he and I once walked through a famous Hollywood restaurant, someone from a table called out “You were the greatest!” He turned and hit me on the shoulder and said: “Hear that? Now, a little respect.”
He got angry about anti-Semitism, about the government, about Israel and the Palestinians, about things in the Torah he did not like. Once, fed up with a certain passage when he believed God was being harsh, he slammed the book shut and said “Ach, get me a better story.” Yet he would also say over and over that the stories in the Bible were the wisest in the world, and if he were young, he would start making movies of them, beginning with King David.
He knew his life was possible only in America. He once told me that the luckiest thing that ever happened to him was that his parents came to this country. And he lived a very long time. Once when I asked him if he remembered Jackie Robinson, he replied, “Do I remember Jackie Robinson? Rabbi, I was four when women got the vote!”
Shortly after his 90th birthday as I was leaving his house, he called from the doorway: “Hurry back Rabbi. There is a lot to learn, and the sun is setting.”
The sun has now set on Issur Danielovich, Kirk Douglas. In his final days he was at home, surrounded by his family, in a house full of flowers, holding hands with his bride of over 60 years. I had the privilege of reciting the Hebrew vidui, the final confessional, at his bedside. And I said goodbye to a man who I love and from whom I learned.
David Wolpe (@RabbiWolpe) is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of “David: The Divided Heart.”