Tag Archives: Legion of Honour

Jew of the Week: Kirk Douglas

In Memory of Hollywood’s Biggest Star

Kirk Douglas

Issur Danielovitch (1916-2020) was born in New York to a traditional Yiddish-speaking family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. Growing up in poverty, young Issur worked hard delivering newspapers and selling snacks to mill workers to help make a living. He studied at the local religious cheder, and was such a good student that everyone wanted him to become a rabbi. This frightened him, so he ended up moving to public school where he first got to act in plays. At this point, he went by the name Izzy Demsky (a last name he adopted from his uncle), and only changed his name to Kirk Douglas when he enlisted in the US Navy in 1941. Not long before that he graduated from St. Lawrence University, having convinced the dean to allow him to study for free since he had no money for tuition. While he tried to make it as an actor, Douglas also worked as a gardener, janitor, and professional wrestler. He eventually made it to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and received a scholarship there, too. Douglas served in the navy for three years working in anti-submarine combat and was honourably discharged after being injured. After the war, he got his first acting job doing commercials and soap operas over the radio. A friend got him his first film role in 1946, after which he was instantly recognized as a “natural film actor”. He got his first Oscar nomination just three years later. Douglas was Hollywood’s biggest star through the 1950s and 60s, and took the lead in classic films like Spartacus (at that point the most expensive film ever made), The Bad and the Beautiful, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Ace in the Hole (ranked among the greatest movies of all time). His portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life was especially praised. (He actually stayed in character throughout the weeks of filming, even when off-set!) He also played Israeli Hershel Vilnofsky in Victory at Entebbe, the first film about the famous rescue operation. All in all, Douglas starred in nearly 100 films, acted on Broadway, and made appearances in numerous TV shows. He also wrote 11 books, had his own film production company, and directed a number of films, too. Outside of Hollywood, Douglas was a noted philanthropist. He was an American goodwill ambassador for decades, donated some $50 million over his life to schools, hospitals, synagogues, and charities, and promised to leave most of his remaining $80 million net worth to charity as well. After a helicopter crash in 1991, he sought new meaning in life and rediscovered Judaism. He would write in his autobiography that while he once “tried to forget” that he was Jewish (though he never broke a Yom Kippur fast), he later realized “that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.” Douglas became more observant, and had a second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He studied Torah weekly with Rabbi David Wolpe. Douglas was also actively engaged with Aish HaTorah of Los Angeles, and helped support the Aish World Center across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem (the building’s Kirk Douglas Theater is named after him, as is Jerusalem’s Douglas Garden). Among his many awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honour, the National Medal of Arts, the King David Award, two Golden Globes and, of course, an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Sadly, Kirk Douglas passed away earlier today, aged 103. He is remembered as a film genius (who memorized not only his own lines, but seemingly every word of the entire script), a dedicated philanthropist, and one of the greatest actors of all time.

Words of the Week

The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written.
– Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, with Aish founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg on his left.

Jew of the Week: Amos Oz

Israel’s Greatest Writer

Amos Oz (Credit: Michiel Hendryckx)

Amos Klausner (1939-2018) was born in Jerusalem, the only child of Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish parents. Although his family was entirely secular, Amos was sent to a religious school because the only other option was a socialist school that his parents vehemently opposed. At 14, he decided to go off on his own, changed his last name to “Oz”, and joined a kibbutz. He wasn’t fit for kibbutz work, and was made fun of constantly. Oz found solace in writing, and was eventually given permission by the kibbutz to have one day off a week to do so. After three years of military service, the kibbutz sent him to study literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He graduated in 1963, returning to the kibbutz to work as a teacher, and continuing to write once a week. Two years later, he published his first book, a collection of short stories. It was his third publication, the novel My Michael, that became a bestseller and thrust him into fame. (Even after this, his kibbutz only allowed three days a week to write!) Oz would follow that up with 13 more popular novels, four more collections of prized short stories, and another twelve of essays on various topics, along with two children’s books. The most famous of these is his 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was adapted into a film by Natalie Portman. All in all, he produced some 40 books and 450 essays, with his work translated into nearly 50 languages – more than any other Israeli writer. Oz served in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In 1987, he came a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University, a post he held until 2014. While often seen as the face of the Israeli left, Oz defended Israel in its military campaigns, explaining their necessity and never failing to point out the evils of the terrorist enemy. He was one of the first to speak of a two-state solution (penning an essay immediately after the Six-Day War) and was opposed to Israeli settlements, but supported the West Bank barrier wall. He admitted that Israelis have always been willing to work for peace while Arabs not so much, and said that it takes “two hands to clap”. He remained a staunch Zionist his entire life and vocally opposed non-Zionists. In these ways, he mitigated the Israeli left, trying to keep them from falling into extremes, and from getting into the habit of blaming Israel for everything. Oz worked tirelessly for peace, and some of his actions in doing so were severely criticized (like the recent letter he sent to imprisoned Palestinian activist/terrorist Marwan Barghouti). Among his long list of awards is the Israel Prize, the French Legion of Honour, the Spanish Order of Civil Merit, and the South Korean Park Kyong-ni Prize for Literature. Sadly, Oz passed away last week. The man who has been called Israel’s greatest writer was laid to rest in the kibbutz that was his home for over three decades.

Words of the Week

The story of modern Israel, as many have noted, is a miracle unlike any… It is a robust and inclusive democracy, and is at the leading edge of science and technology… What hypocrites demand of Israelis and the scrutiny Israel is subjected to by them, they would not dare make of any other nation.
– Salim Mansur