“Jews are the conscience of the world. G-d chose them to be the carriers of the law, the teachings of morality – the Ten Commandments. Without the Ten Commandments where would we be? We’d have no compass.” These words came from Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight – one of the most recognizable Hollywood actors of the 1970’s – during our recent phone conversation.
“That doesn’t mean that every Jew understands this. Most of them don’t. And if they did many would say, ‘That’s not for me,’ which is unfortunate. G-d has placed this responsibility on this group of people.”
Voight, I soon learned, is a very spiritual person with a strong belief in G-d. He was raised as a Catholic, attended Catholic parochial schools, and graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and thus has extensive knowledge of the “Old Testament,” based on the Tanach. Because he is highly inquisitive and thirsts for the truth, he has even taken classes with Orthodox rabbis. But his high regard for the Jewish people, our heritage, and Israel goes beyond his education and knowledge. He connects to the Jewish people through his soul, he said. This connection started when he was very young.
Jon Voight was born into a family of modest means in 1938 in Yonkers, N.Y., at a time when antisemitism in this country was still accepted. Jews were openly restricted from living in certain neighborhoods, from frequenting certain hotels, and not allowed in many private clubs, particularly country clubs. Consequently, they formed their own. Voight’s father worked at one of these early Jewish country clubs.
“I remember the story about how this club came to be, which was a Jewish country club. These Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century were not able to get into any country clubs because of antisemitism. So they gathered some funds, bought land, and developed their own country club, the Sunningdale Country Club.
“I saw these people as who they were: people with positive energy, fortitude, who didn’t cower as victims but made their way. It was because of the freedoms involved in our Constitutional principles they were able to be successful. It was a real American success story. I always found these people to be remarkable. Even though, when I was very young I knew what antisemitism was. To me antisemitism was a kind of insanity.
“My father grew up a very poor boy in Yonkers and at eight-years-old went and caddied at the Sunnydale Country Club in Scarsdale. He was a charming kid, and I think he had what the Jewish people would call chutzpah in a certain way, because he was a little scamp who tried to make a little extra money by saying when he went out, ‘My birthday’s today.’ And they’d say, ‘Whitey,’ – they called him Whitey because of his blond hair – they’d say, ‘Whitey, I thought your birthday was two weeks ago.’ But they found that charming and not disturbing.
“And they encouraged him in his love for golf. I believe that my father, who turned out to be the most remarkable father and a wonderful positive energy for his family, for us, was really raised, taken on by the members of this club as uncles and aunts, going forth. At 16-years-old he became a professional golfer at that club and at 18 he was given the responsibility of being the head professional, a position which he held until his passing.
“So he was very wedded to the Jewish people at this club and they provided the livelihood for our family. I was very grateful for these people and I understood at a very early age many things about the world through my dad’s eyes and through my interactions with the Jewish people at this country club who were always very gracious to our family. From that time on, I always found myself in the company of Jewish people.”
Over the years Voight has maintained very close and dear Jewish friends, one of whom is Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of California. Their friendship came about when Voight first met him approximately 35 years ago. It was his first encounter with Chabad, which he knew nothing about. When he went to this very poor, thread-bare office of the young rabbi’s – consisting of only a rug, a couch, and a desk – a young couple was there in need of furniture for the apartment they had just moved into, immediately Rabbi Cunin offered them the very couch they were sitting on.
Voight was hooked. He even ended up personally taking the couch over to their place in his jeep. Since then he has joyfully participated in the yearly Chabad Telethon, where among other things he joins in the dancing.
“I’m very impressed with the Chabad group and their very committed and positive contribution to society in spreading kindness and truth throughout the world. All of these people whom I’ve met are the most positive people. They have amazing energy and an aura about them that’s wonderful. You just enjoy being in their presence. They are full of fun and very eloquent in their in-depth understandings of Judaism from their perspective. I’ve had a great relationship with them”
In addition to his acting Voight co-produces a television show on Jewish Life Television (JLTV) titled Friends of Chabad. The host and co-producer Steven Paul asks basic questions about Judaism and the two rabbis, Rabbi Chaim Cunin and his brother Levy Cunin, respond.
“The simple questions are the ones everybody wants to ask,” Voight says, “and it opens the door to all of this wisdom and joy and storytelling and music – they even start singing songs.” Voight also is present and participates in the shows.
“Jews are the keepers of the law and that’s why they are being attacked,” Voight tells me. “If you look at the Bible, the Jewish Bible, the Torah, you see the Jewish people and the story of the land of Israel, and it’s an extraordinary story.
“We’re living in a very challenging time where people have been programmed against the truth. They can’t see the attacks against the Jewish people as horrific and criminal. It’s very disturbing that people have no understanding of history, no decency. We’ve been attacked by Marxism for a long time. We’ve had many attempts for villains to find a way into our society to break it down, to destroy it, and they’ve been very successful. Atheism has had a rebirth in our society. We have a loss of G-d in our society.
“We’re in a battle here and we have to be strong and contribute to this battle in order that the truth will survive. We have to stand up against it and encourage others to. It’s very upsetting to me personally and to all righteous people, I believe. You have to strive to be a righteous human being. That’s what Judaism is all about – becoming righteous.
“Look in the Bible and you see that safety and health, good works, and good cheer comes from morality. Someone said the Ten Commandments are the ten rules of happiness, and they’re right. I think the people who are happiest are people who have a relationship to G-d.”