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Jewish Journal

Kirk Douglas—Bar Mitzvah Boy

by Tom Tugend

December 23, 1999 | 7:00 pm

The 200-seat chapel at Sinai Temple was crammed with Hollywood luminaries of yesterday and today, when Rabbi David Wolpe called Issur ben Heshel to the Torah for his bar mitzvah reading and speech.

"Today, I am a man," intoned 83-year-old actor Kirk Douglas in the prescribed fashion, adding, from the perspective of a long and rich life, "But it takes time to really become a man and assume your responsibilities in this troubled world."

Douglas had decided some years ago to crown his return to his Jewish roots with a second bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday, following the traditional allotted life span of 70 years.

Draped around his shoulders was the same tallit he wore on the same date of Dec. 9 exactly 70 years earlier, when Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor, illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants, marked his coming of age at the Sons of Israel synagogue in Amsterdam, New York.

Now, seven decades and 84 films later, his trademark dimpled chin was still jutting out, though his blond hair had turned to white. His slow and occasionally slurred words were a reminder of a stroke almost four years ago, which had left him literally speechless.

Douglas briefly recounted his movie career, when as a Nordic-looking hero "I killed so many Vikings and Romans, I knocked people out of the ring, and I shot it out with Burt Lancaster."

He always knew he was a Jew, but kept that knowledge to himself, Douglas recalled, except for one link.

"I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked (on the movie set), but I fasted. And let me tell you, it's not easy making love to Ava Gardner on an empty stomach" -- a remark greeted, in Hollywood fashion, with enthusiastic applause.

Douglas dates his return to Jewish observance and full identification to a helicopter crash in 1991, in which two men died. While lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pains, he started pondering the meaning of his survival and his life.

"I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish," he said.

Since then, he has become a conscientious Torah student, under the guidance of Rabbis Nahum Braverman of Aish HaTorah, Robert Wexler at the University of Judaism, and Wolpe of Sinai Temple.

In a second career as a writer, Douglas has turned to Jewish themes. Before the bar mitzvah ceremony, he read excerpts from his latest work, "Young Heroes of the Bible" to a Sinai class.

As any other bar mitzvah boy, Douglas was surrounded by his proud family, including Anne, his wife of 45 years, three of his four sons, and three grandchildren.

Although none of Douglas's sons are Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), or were raised as Jews, they increasingly "feel" Jewish, said their father. In a graceful luncheon talk, producer-actor Michael Douglas, the oldest son, easily inserted Yiddish and Hebrew expressions.

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