In the June 28 episode of A & E’s reality series, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” flamboyant KISS frontman Simmons – famed for his demonic makeup, fire-breathing, tongue-flicking, 10-inch platforms and female conquests – cries at his father’s grave in Israel.
It was the first time Simmons (born Chaim Witz in Haifa) had ever visited the grave; in fact, it was the first time the 61-year-old had returned to Israel in more than half a century, having left at 8 with his mother, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz. He stood at the grave and said “Kaddish” with half-siblings he did not even know he had until this “Family Jewels” trip; they were his father’s children from subsequent marriages.
Simmons’ longtime partner, Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy playmate, had arranged for the rocker to meet them: “She was very sneaky and planned the whole thing, with a lot of surprises,” he said. “I didn’t even know I had any siblings. We were at a restaurant when a good-looking guy approached me; I thought he was the waiter. Then they sprung it on me that he was my half-brother – and I met my half-sisters.”
For the KISS bass player-singer-songwriter (a.k.a. “The Demon”), it was a chance to confront some personal demons; particularly those surrounding the father he believed had abandoned him and his mother.
In the show, the catharsis comes as cameras follow Simmons into the the cemetery where his father, Feri Witz, is buried; a sibling reads aloud a heartbreaking letter Witz wrote but never mailed to Simmons in the United States. “I spoke six languages, was very good in math and physics,...but because of the war in Europe and here in Israel all the time, and all kinds of tragedies in my life, I couldn’t progress and I’m going to finish my life as a nobody, as a nothing,” Witz wrote. “The only thing I can be proud of is my children.” The letter goes on to say how avidly he had followed Simmons’ career and “I’m very happy that you are happy.”
It’s almost too much for the rock star, who laments, “I was so stupid…so f——-g stupid. Why didn’t I go see him?”
“I’ve been arrogant about lots of things, especially my father,” he says later in the show. “I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else and to my father that I didn’t need him. So once I proved it and became successful, I wanted to stand stubbornly on my pride…. Unfortunately I never saw my father again until I stood over his grave, and that was not easy.”
On the phone with me, Simmons recalled of the cemetery trip, “It was too much, actually. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. They don’t tell me anything on the show; what you see is pretty much what you get. They have cameras on all sides, so people think we do additional scenes, but we don’t. I thought we were going sightseeing on that day.
“I found out a lot of stuff: that my father was married at least six times, and apparently had a lot of kids,” he added.
Tweed, who this season has threatened to leave Simmons for his infidelities, noted the similarities between father and son. “Her point was: lots of women—it seems to be in the DNA,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve been around thousands of women.”
Confronting issues about his father proved transformative, however: “The last time I saw him I was almost 7,” Simmons said. “So it was time [for me] to grow up, because men don’t want to grow up, you know.”
Here are excerpts from the rest of my conversation with Simmons, who was alternatively thoughtful and provocative as he discussed his ardent support for Israel; why President Obama is “foolish” for his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; why Jews should change their names, and how “Baywatch” can save the world.
NPM: Why did you wait so long to return to Israel?
GS: I had come to America as an immigrant – a legal one, because there’s a difference – since my father had left us when I was 6. I couldn’t speak the language, and I hadn’t ever seen a supermarket before: to me, it was like a city of food, with streets [aisles] going in different directions. By 9 or 10 I was working: doing newspaper deliveries, scraping the fat off of butcher blocks, and was shocked by how easy it was to make money here. This truly was the land of dreams, the streets paved with gold and all that. And every day that I got up and became more successful, I was afraid to leave; I thought once you get off the bus, it leaves without you.
NPM: Did turning 60 have anything to do with your homecoming trip?
GS: No, it was more Shannon, who convinced me that Nick and Sophie [their children] should see where their father came from, because they’d already been to Canada to visit her birthplace.
NPM: You also revisited your home in Tirat Carmel, Haifa.
GS: When I was a kid there was nothing there except dirt roads and cactus, and one house on a dirt road. When I came back it was pretty bustling.
NPM: Your mother survived a death march from Auschwitz. How was it to visit the national Holocaust memorial, Yad VaShem?
GS: My mother has never really come clean and talked specifically about her [ordeal]; it’s just too emotional. She saw her mother and her grandmother walk to the gas chambers; almost her entire family was wiped out. So she doesn’t talk much about it. When we went to Yad VaShem, I was able to find concentration camp information, hand-written by the Nazis, which listed every single Jew in the camps. I actually found records of my mother as she was being taken from one camp to another at 14 years of age. There was her name, hand written by a Nazi.
NPM: While you were at Yad VaShem (this was back in late March) a bombing killed a British tourist just two miles away.
GS: We were shocked, but nobody on the streets even thought about it. It was very strange, like, “Oh, yeah, it rained today, no big deal.”
NPM: How do you feel about President Obama’s statement that Israel should return to its 1967 borders?
GS: I think he means well, but he clearly doesn’t understand the world body politic. He would understand if he lived in Israel: 1967 borders? You’re out of your mind! I don’t care if you think it’s a good idea, or if it’s right or wrong, it’s simply indefensible. Any military tactician will tell you that would be suicide.
NPM: You’ve called artists who have supported boycotting Israel (like Elvis Costello) “idiots.”
GS: It’s clear they’re being foolish. But let’s say war breaks out between Arabs and Jews again, whose side do you think they’re going to take? There’s no question it’s Israel’s, because I don’t remember the last Jew who ran down the street with bombs attached to himself and blew himself up. I know the history of the Stern gang and all that when Israel was formed, but today, the idea of Jewish extremists is a joke. And Christians by and large don’t run around doing wacky stuff, though there used to be the Inquisition and such. It’s just that certain cultures are going through their dark ages, the way all cultures have.
The cure for all that is American TV. Because watching “Baywatch,” [for example], emancipates women: [lets them know] it’s OK to wear makeup and high heels and skimpy skirts, because men shouldn’t have anything to say about who and what you are.
And by the way, I am vehemently against the Hasidim and the [ultra-Orthodox] having any effect on Israel. I get pissed off when I’m in the hotel and somebody tells me I can’t have the fleishedik with the milchigdik.
NPM: Do you feel optimistic about the future of the Middle East?
GS: What’s happening now in the Arab world is very inspiring. And during these amazing, inspirational marches across the Arab world, I don’t see any hatred towards the west or Israel. This is a new generation; things won’t happen overnight but the Internet helps. In fact, on the streets of Cairo, one of the leaders of the revolt was asked by CNN if there was anybody he wanted to thank and he said, “Yes, I want to thank Mark Zuckerberg for inventing Facebook.” He’s an Egyptian Muslim thanking an American Jew for inventing Facebook. That’s as cool as it gets.
NPM: KISS has never played in Israel. Would you like the band to perform there?
GS: Yes, but it’s very expensive. You’re surrounded on one side by Arab countries and on the other side by the sea, so you can’t just truck your equipment in there. And as soon as you put it 747s, it costs millions. That’s the only reason KISS hasn’t played there before.
NPM: Is it coincidence that you and Paul Stanley, the founding members of KISS, happen to be Jewish? [Current member Eric Singer is also an MOT, as well as former guitarists Ace Frehley and Bruce Kulick.]
GS: Yes, it’s coincidence. By and large, Jews don’t exist on the frontlines of pop culture; we tend to be more the managers and the record label owners and the movie studio executives and the producers and so on. There are no real Jewish stars.
NPM: What about you and Paul Stanley?
NPM: If anything, we changed our Jewish-sounding names; we’re the great assimilationists. It’s like that [old saying], “Dress British, think Yiddish,” because ultimately in the world, Jews know instinctively that the sound of their names are not perceived as cool; the Jewish culture itself isn’t really perceived as cool, so we change our names, we straighten our hair, we fix our noses.
NPM: So you and Stanley weren’t drawn together, at least in part, by your shared heritage?
GS: No, because that would have been the height of lunacy. By and large, if you look or sound Jewish – and this is a great wakeup call to those of us who are delusional—it doesn’t work; the masses don’t react to it.
NPM: My name is Naomi Pfefferman Magid.
GS: If I had that name, I would’ve changed it immediately.
The “Family Jewels” episode chronicling Simmons’ return to Israel, “Blood is Thicker Than Hummus,” will be rebroadcast on June 29 at 8 p.m., and at midnight on June 30, both Pacific time.