Larry King is as known for sitting hunched over a microphone, schmoozing with everyone who is anyone, as he is for wearing big black glasses and suspenders over shirt sleeves. But as the TV icon approaches the big 7-0 (his birthday is Nov. 19), he's increasingly wearing something else on his sleeve: his Judaism.
Viewers are as likely to spy him at a benefit for the State of Israel Bonds or the Jewish Braille Institute as they are to see him interviewing the Duchess of York or Barbara Bush on CNN's "Larry King Live." Last month, he appeared in a half-hour special, "Yom Kippur: Prayers of Atonement," for Los Angeles' Temple Shalom for the Arts. And during a Sept. 29 interview with Neil Diamond, he made sure to say the show featured "two little Jewish boys from Brooklyn." King spoke this week at the Bnai Zion Foundation's Women of Accomplishment Awards Dinner.
In a recent chat with The Journal, King spoke effusively about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. He also discussed the highs and lows of his career -- which includes the publication of his first novel, a 2003 comic mystery titled "Moon Over Manhattan" (New Millennium, $24.95) -- and true love with spouse number seven, Shawn Southwick King.
The Jewish Journal: In your book, "Larry King Live," you describe the Brooklyn you grew up in the '30s and '40s in as a place of two religions -- Jewish and Italian. How Jewish was your life in Brooklyn?
Larry King: We kept the Shabbos, we kept a kosher home, we went to the synagogue, my mother lit the candles for Shabbos, we never had milk and meat together -- we observed all the laws. I did my bar mitzvah completely in Hebrew, and all my friends did the same way. I went to cheder. It was a very cultural Jewish life.
JJ: What else did you get from growing up in Brooklyn?
LK: A high degree of loyalty, the desire to succeed. Friendships count to me. [Brooklyn taught me n]ever to screw a friend. I like ethnic groups because of growing up in Brooklyn -- and I developed a very liberal social consciousness. All my life I have resisted the inhumanity of prejudice.
JJ: What about street smarts?
LK: Definitely street smarts! I always say that if you were a D student in Brooklyn, you could be mayor of Des Moines. Brooklyn is still a magical place for me.
JJ: At some point in your life you became an agnostic. Why?
LK: I lost my religious aspects somewhere along the line after my father died [when King was 10]. I remember always questioning the [Bible]. I thought the God of the [Bible] was vindictive and petty -- that "smite my enemies" and "pray only to me" stuff. I couldn't accept faith blindly, which you were required to do as an Orthodox Jew. The older I got, the less religious I got.
JJ: Do you think that would have been different had your father not died?
LK: I don't know how to measure that. I said "Kaddish" morning and night for a year when my father died. I did that out of respect. I still go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and I spoke at the temple two years in a row. I just don't believe anymore. I am not an atheist, I'm an agnostic.
JJ: In 1998 you wrote a book called "Powerful Prayers," in which you discussed the power of prayer and your own reluctance to pray, yet you end the book with a prayer to God of your own. Do you ever pray today?
LK: I still will occasionally pray, but that is conditioning. Since I am agnostic I don't know that I'm not being heard. My wife is a devout Mormon, and so I will ask her to pray for someone.
JJ: I saw you speak at an event for the Los Angeles Sephardic Home for the Aging, where you made a joke that people look at you, and then look at your wife, and look back at you and then you say what they're thinking -- "If she dies, she dies...."
LK: Yes, people do look at her, and they tell me I have a beautiful daughter and beautiful grandchildren. But I have a great marriage.
JJ: How is turning 70 going to change your life? Can you imagine yourself slowing down any time soon?
LK: Well, I watch what I eat, I keep my weight down and I take a lot of vitamins. I think that having young kids keep me young, and having a young wife keeps me young. But I am by nature a workaholic. I love it [work] as much now as I did when I was making $80 a week.
JJ: What was the low point of your career as a broadcaster?
LK: In the early '70s I was out of work. I didn't handle a dollar very well. I wasn't good with money -- it was unimportant to me. Now I have people who take care of all my bills -- I have never seen a CNN paycheck. It goes straight to them. I don't know what it looks like.
JJ: What about the high points?
LK: There were a few -- winning two Peabody awards, one for radio and one for television, winning an Emmy when cable became eligible for Emmys.... Also, I have the Larry King Cardiac Foundation [which pays for heart surgery for those who can't afford it] and every time I get to call someone and tell them they can get their heart surgery, it's a high.
JJ: What does Larry Zeiger [King's name before he changed it] think of all this success?
LK: Larry Zeiger is still in there -- he is Larry King on the outside. But every day I feel amazed.