Reconnecting to My Jewish Roots

Picture of Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas  was a legendary actor who portrayed legions of tough guys and embraced his Jewish heritage later in life. In addition to his stellar acting career, Douglas also worked as an author, penning twelve books (one co-authored with his wife Anne), including some on Jewish themes. In 1997, Douglas published The Broken Mirror, a novel about the Holocaust aimed at younger readers. He followed that up in 1999 with Young Heroes of the Bible, which re-tells stories from the Five Books of Moses for children.

"But as time went on, I began to see it a little differently. The catalyst was my son Michael. One day he asked me: "Dad, where did our ancestors come from?" That startled me. I wasn't sure. I knew my parents came from Russia, someplace called Mogilev. I suddenly realized that I knew nothing about my background. Anyone who could tell me was now 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 his ancestors?"

It all started in 1991. I was in a helicopter and we had just lifted 50 feet above the ground. At the same time, a small plane was taking off with an instructor and his student. We collided. Our helicopter crashed to the tarmac. But the plane exploded. Its two passengers were killed. I woke up in the hospital, tormented by a wave of guilt – why did those two young people die? Why was I alive? That haunted me. And I tried to find the answer.

Where do you find an answer to a question like that? Where would you go? See a fortune-teller – have your cards read? An astrologer? Or maybe go to India – find a guru? An audience with the Dalai Lama? But I never thought of Judaism for the answer. See, Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y.

Back then, 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. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very 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.

I got frightened away from Judaism at age 14 after reading the story of Abraham and Isaac: God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son 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 he convince him that this was only a test. 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 always knew I was a Jew. I even auditioned to join a Yiddish Theater in New York. They looked at my blonde hair and blue eyes and said: “If we have a part for a Nazi, we’ll call you.” Although I felt drawn to the drama and the mystery of Judaism, other aspects pushed me away. What did I have in common with those black-hatted, bearded men with their long payos?

But as time went on, I began to see it a little differently. The catalyst was my son Michael. One day he asked me: “Dad, where did our ancestors come from?” That startled me. I wasn’t sure. I knew my parents came from Russia, someplace called Mogilev. I suddenly realized that I knew nothing about my background. Anyone who could tell me was now 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 his ancestors?

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 Chagalls – the lithographs from his Bible series. It hit me. Here were my ancestors! They were more famous than movie stars! Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Solomon, David, Rebecca, Rachel, Ruth, Esther. There were musicians in my family, warriors, poets, lawgivers.

I started to read about them and the more I read the happier I felt. Why? They all came from dysfunctional families. Like me. They all had problems. Cain kills Abel. Jacob deceives his father. Joseph gets sold into slavery by his brothers. One sinner after another and despite that they were given a second chance. 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 come from. Then I found out that Chagall, a Russian Jew, came from a town near my parents’ in White Russia. In fact, my father and Chagall both left that region, known as Pale of Settlement, about the same time. Chagall became a famous artist in Paris, and my father became a famous ragman in Amsterdam, New York. Jews have diverse talents.

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, Greeks, Romans, all are long gone but we remain. How did we survive? 

And that is when I realized that we should thank those pious, black-hatted, bearded Jews – for keeping Judaism alive for so long. They understood something very deep that we more secular types never learned. God gave us the Torah – and that made us the conscience of the world. The ideas of love, compassion, kindness to strangers and the poor, the ideas of holiness of human purpose, a reverence for life and self-discipline all – all come from the Torah. Even if we Jews sometimes forget that, our persecutors remember.

Here is what Adolf Hitler said:

“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.”

Hitler was right. It’s all about the battle between good and evil. I’m just beginning to realize what that means for us Jews, and it scares me. It carries such an enormous responsibility. No wonder that so many Jews 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 to power, Germany was the country where Jews had assimilated to a staggering degree. Judaism was dying out. And then the German people, who had absorbed the Jews with such open-arms, turned on them with such hatred. It has happened over and over again.

How odd that, with all the persecutions we have been subjected to, the worst comes when we’ve moved away from Judaism. Is God 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 but I always fasted. You see, there was something frightening to me about that book in which is written – who shall live and who shall die – who will survive a helicopter crash, like me, and who will be killed.

My helicopter crash brought to my consciousness what had been roiling under the surface for all those years. I made a visit to Israel after a 12-year absence. I had filmed four movies there. I had been there many times but I stayed away too long. I was excited.

We drove up to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Everyone seemed so glad to see me again. They ushered me and my wife into our room. 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.

The first time I looked out of that same window more than 40 years ago, I saw Arab soldiers, pacing back and forth, keeping me out of the Old City, making sure I couldn’t get to the Kotel, the Holy Wall. How Israel had changed since then. So many new things. But more important, so many OLD things.

The OLD is what brought me back. I didn’t wait to change my clothes. I rushed out of the hotel. The sun was just setting. The Wall was crowded with worshippers. The energy emanating 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 piece of paper with my prayer. I found one. As I reached deep, my fingers touched other pieces placed there before me. Had those prayers been answered? I think so. Because God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is “no.”

I took a walk through the tunnel along the foundations of the Temple. That tunnel takes you deep along what once was the most sacred place to all Jews. As I slowly walked along following my guide, I let my fingers caress the huge blocks of stone that enclose the mountain 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 for me. “Yes, this is where Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed.”

The picture from my hebrew school book flashed into my mind. But it no longer frightened me. Now I knew that Abraham lived at a time when sacrificing your son to idols was a common practice. The lesson of Mount Moriah was precisely that God does not want human sacrifice – that God is not Someone to be afraid of. It was very quiet 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 a home in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. We sang songs, happy songs. I felt good. Through the open window I could hear the same songs echoing in the night, and see other houses lit by the warm light of candles. I closed my eyes and I could see the face of my mother through the candlelight, saying the Shabbat prayers. 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. When I first picked up the Torah, I was encouraged. It has only 350 pages. But when I began to study seriously, I realized why they say that Judaism is a lifetime of learning. It took me more than two months just to get out of the Garden of Eden. Before I could finish my back gave out and I had an operation. Two weeks later I had a stroke. After that my life was consumed by having to learn to speak again.

Now I am not as cocky as I used to be. I no longer take speech for granted. When I had no trouble with it, it seemed so natural. You think a thought and then you express it vocally. You don’t realize that there are thousands of nerve endings in your cheek, your tongue, your lips. You never think of the movement of your tongue against your teeth – all coordinated with your vocal chords. It’s a miracle. Miracles come only from God. And they are all around us. 

I remember being suddenly awakened by an earthquake. I was almost thrown out of my bed. Such power – where did it come from? Have you ever watched a hurricane and seen large trees uprooted like toothpicks. It is awesome. Have you ever looked up at the sky on a dark night? There are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone and there are billions of other galaxies. Billions of light years away! 

Such a huge miracle staggers the mind. But I am hoping for a small miracle. I am hoping it’s not too late for me. If God is a patient God, 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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