Life & Culture

Kirk Douglas changed the stereotype of the American Jew in the gentile world

The screen giant, who died last week aged 103, was both outsider and all-American icon, writes Tom Tugend


During the glitzy Academy Awards ceremony on Hollywood on Sunday, when the mutual congratulations were briefly interrupted to memorialize the members of the movie colony who had passed away since last year’s festivities, the audience burst into the loudest applause when the picture of Kirk Douglas flashed on the screen.

Douglas had died four days earlier, at the age of 103,  after a remarkable life that saw him rise from abject poverty as Issur Danielovitch, the son of an rag-picking Russian-Jewish immigrant, to superstardom.

The transformation of the blond, blue-eyed Issur, frequently the target of antisemitic badgering, to the kind of folk hero he often played on the movie screen was the kind of rags-to-riches tale that Americans traditionally dote on.

During a career that spanned 87 films — including 73 big screen features and 14 television productions, Douglas was instrumental in establishing the archetype of the loner ready to take on the world for a righteous cause.

Though best known for the title role in Spartacus as the leader of a slave rebellion against Roman overlords, the actor always cited the 1962 film Lonely Are the Brave as his favorite film.

Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter whom Douglas had extracted from the blacklist of “Communist fellow travelers”, told the actor that after viewing Lonely Are the Brave, members of the audience would leave the theatre saying, “That is what I really am. Or at least it is what I want to be in my finest hour. You did it. You showed the heart of a man.”

However, the strongest impact of Douglas’ stature and character may well be his contribution to changing the stereotype of the American Jew in the gentile world.

During this writer’s stint in a US infantry stint during the Second World War, my declaration that I was Jewish was met with disbelief time after time, since everybody “knew” that Jews were cowardly draft dodgers. Even if somehow drafted, common knowledge had it, Jews served in cushy rear echelon jobs, well out of earshot of rifle bullets or artillery shells.

The stereotype also extended to a Sturmer-like physical caricature of Jews, with hooked noses and, among barracks mates from small rural towns, the belief that Jews cold be recognised by horns growing out of their foreheads.

Douglas, of course, did not change the stereotype single-handedly over the last half century. Much of the credit for that goes to Israel’s victories on the battlefields of the Middle East, as well as to the civil rights movements in the United States. Indeed, it took Douglas some decades to come out as a proud Jew after encountering extensive antisemitism in his home town of Amsterdam in upper New York state and later in college.

His “conversion” occurred in the early 1990s, after he survived a helicopter crash in which two younger companions were killed and which compressed his spine by three inches.

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” Douglas told me in one of the half-dozen lengthy discussions we had over the years in his Beverly Hills home.

Since then, Douglas embarked on a lengthy study course of the Torah with local rabbis, generously endowed playgrounds in the poorer sections of Jerusalem and Los Angeles, as well as funding a theatre facing the Western Wall and feature films on the history of Judaism and Jerusalem.

His son, actor Michael Douglas, has reinforced the Jewish standing of the family by winning the 2005 Genesis Prize, a $1 million award (passed on to charities), which recognises highly accomplished Jews who incorporate Jewish values.

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