For nearly a quarter-century, David Wolpe met weekly with Kirk Douglas—born Issur Danielovich—to study Torah. Wolpe reminisces about this Hollywood star, who died on Wednesday, and his strong sense of connection to the Jewish people:
[Douglas] came from nothing. His father, Herschel, who emigrated from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1908, literally picked rags up on the street and resold them. His son, Issur, born in 1916, trained himself as a wrestler and managed to combine sports and academic prizes at his public school to go to St. Lawrence University where he became student-body president. From there it was to the New York stage, the navy, and then Hollywood, with the encouragement of his old friend, [and fellow Jew], Lauren Bacall.
Issur Danielovich became Kirk Douglas after college graduation. He sat around with friends trying on new names (Norman Dems was another consideration). He wanted a name that started with a “d,” and someone suggested Douglas. Another friend suggested Kirk and he liked the hard sound of it. He explained later that the Gentile-sounding name exposed him to new levels of anti-Semitism because people did not know he was Jewish and would say vile things about Jews blithely to his face. “Issur” he wrote in his biography, “was with me all the time.”
He got angry about anti-Semitism, about the government, about Israel and the Palestinians, about things in the Torah he did not like. Once, fed up with a certain passage where he believed God was being harsh, he slammed the book shut and said “Ach, get me a better story.” Yet he would also say over and over that the stories in the Bible were the wisest in the world, and if he were young, he would start making movies of them, beginning with King David—[about whom he once said], “That’s the role I was born to play.”