Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, Montgomery County, NY, on December 9, 1916, will be 100 on Friday. He grew up in poverty with his immigrant (Belarus) parents Bryna “Bertha” and Herschel “Harry” Danielovitch, and six sisters. The family spoke Yiddish at home. The family adopted the name Demsky, so Kirk grew up as Izzy Demsky, and changed his name to Kirk Douglas before enlisting in the Navy in World War II.
In his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas wrote: “My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. […] Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
Besides his stellar career, making close to 100 films and being number 17 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest male screen legends of classic Hollywood cinema – he’s the highest ranked living male screen legend – Douglas is also credited with being on the side of the angels in the effort to end the Hollywood Blacklist.
Douglas had a complicated relationship with his Jewish identity. In 1999, at age 83, he celebrated his second bar mitzvah, telling the congregation at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, “Today I am a man.” He then did it again in 2012, when he was 96, maybe to make sure it sticks. But between his first and second bar mitzvahs Douglas was living well outside his Jewish faith.
In an interview he gave Aish.com in 2000, Douglas explained: “Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, NY. 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.”
All his children were born to non-Jewish mothers, but Douglas insists they were “aware culturally” of his “deep convictions,” and he never tried to influence their own religious decisions. In 2004, Douglas’s wife Anne converted to Judaism.
Douglas told Author Deborah Moore in 1994 that the underlying theme of some of his films – The Juggler (1953), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Remembrance of Love (1982) – were about “a Jew who doesn’t think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness.” The Juggler was the first Hollywood feature filmed in the state of Israel.
Cast a Giant Shadow was a big-budget action film based on the life of Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish-American military officer who commanded IDF units during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Kirk Douglas starred as Marcus, alongside Senta Berger (as Haganah fighter Magda Simon), Yul Brynner (Haganah commander Asher), John Wayne (Marcus’s commanding officer in the Second World War), Frank Sinatra (Vince Talmadge, an expatriate American pilot) and Angie Dickinson (Marcus’s wife). Melville Shavelson adapted, produced and directed.