Tag Archives: Russian Jews

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: Yitzhak Rabin

In Memory of a Great Israeli Hero

Yitzhak Rabin in 1948

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) was born in Jerusalem to Russian-Jewish parents who settled in the Holy Land during the Third Aliyah. He was raised in Tel-Aviv, and at the age of 14 enrolled in an agricultural school founded by his mother, at the same time enlisting in the Haganah defense force. Though originally hoping to be an irrigation engineer, he ultimately decided to stay in the military and fight for the Jewish homeland. In 1941, he joined the Haganah’s elite unit, Palmach, and his first mission was to assist the Allied Forces in the invasion of Lebanon during World War II. After the war, he spent time training new recruits and worked against British efforts to restrict Jewish immigration. At one point, Rabin was arrested by the British and spent five months in prison. During Israel’s War of Independence, Rabin was the Palmach’s COO and commanded its second battalion. He was in charge of the southern front against Egypt, and was involved in the capture of the cities of Ramle and Lod, and the liberation of Ramat Rachel. He was part of Israel’s delegation during the 1949 peace talks that ended the war. He later headed Israel’s Northern Command, and in 1964 was made Chief of Staff, the top general of the IDF. It was under his tenure that Israel planned and executed the miraculous Six-Day War and recaptured Jerusalem. For Rabin, this was the culmination of his military career, and the fulfilment of his dreams. It was time to retire. The following year, he was made ambassador to the United States, serving in that role for 5 years. Rabin was instrumental in getting the US to start selling its fighter jets to Israel, and during his time the US became Israel’s biggest military supplier. He returned to Israel following the Yom Kippur War and was elected to the Knesset. Several months later, Golda Meir resigned and Rabin became Israel’s prime minister. In 1976, he gave the difficult order to plan a rescue operation for Jewish hostages held in Entebbe, resulting in the stunning Operation Thunderbolt. A year later, his Labour Party was defeated in the elections, but Rabin remained in the Knesset, and in 1984 was appointed Minister of Defense. As terrorism from the West Bank got worse, Rabin instituted an “Iron Fist” determent policy, and during the First Intifada was nicknamed “Rabin the Bone Breaker”. Nonetheless, the violence only worsened, and Rabin decided to give peace a chance. He won the 1992 election and returned to the role of prime minister, his main goal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He signed the controversial Oslo Accords in 1993, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also worked out the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994. Meanwhile, Rabin was a huge economic reformer, transforming Israel from a state with a more socialist bent to a fully capitalist one. His “Yozma” program encouraged foreign venture capital and led to the development of Israel’s booming high-tech sector. His government boosted spending in education by 70%, and in 1995 instituted Israel’s universal health care system. On November 4th of that same year, Rabin was tragically assassinated by an extremist for “capitulating” to the Arabs. The square where he was shot was renamed after him, as were many other streets and landmarks. Politics aside, very few people have done more for the State of Israel and its citizens than Yitzhak Rabin. He is rightfully remembered as one of Israel’s greatest heroes.

Video: Bill Clinton Describes His “Love Like No Other” for Yitzhak Rabin

Words of the Week

It does no good… to brand one as an “enemy” or “anti-Semite”, however tempting it is to do so even if that person vehemently denies it. It can only be counterproductive. On the contrary, ways and means should be found to persuade such a person to take a favourable stance, at least publicly. We haven’t got too many friends, and attaching labels will not gain us any.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe