Michael Douglas is a rarity in Hollywood: the son of an enormously successful actor and producer who equaled his father’s enormous and enduring stardom, and even surpassed him in earning industry awards, such as the Oscar. Their physical resemblance is also uncanny.
But father and son share something else, too: each got involved in Judaism later in life. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitz, the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. Now 98 and a longtime supporter of Aish HaTorah, he reconnected with his Judaism at age 70, and had a second bar mitzvah at 83. Michael Douglas, now also 70, has credited his 15-year-old son with a new interest in Judaism.
The number 70 in Judaism is a very significant number, and often represents a turning point in history. People who achieve the age of 70 are considered elders, worthy of respect for the wisdom they have accumulated over a lifetime. For both Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas, reaching the age of 70 indeed sparked a personal turning point.
In March 2015, Michael Douglas wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that took aim at the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide. His essay was prompted by a family vacation he took with his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their two children to Southern Europe the previous summer. Their son, Dylan, was the target of anti-Semitic invective while at the hotel pool. When Dylan reported the incident to his father, Douglas wrote, “I stared at him. And suddenly I had an awful realization of what might have caused the man's outrage: Dylan was wearing a Star of David. Dylan, you just had your first taste of anti-Semitism.”
While Douglas's mother is not Jewish, he says that he has "learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions.”
Douglas recalled that when he was in high school, he was outraged upon hearing a friend repeat the ugly anti-Semitic charge that “all Jews cheat.” “With little knowledge of what it meant to be a Jew, I found myself passionately defending the Jewish people,” Douglas wrote. “Now, half a century later, I have to defend my son. Anti-Semitism, I've seen, is like a disease that goes dormant, flaring up with the next political trigger.”
Douglas credits his son for having begun to care about Jewish tradition. Influenced by Jewish friends, Dylan also wanted a bar mitzvah, which he prepared for and which the family celebrated in Jerusalem.
At this stage of life, Douglas also could have simply sat back after the anti-Semitic incident with his son, letting “the professionals” fight that fight. But he decided to take a stand, urging everyone to “speak up against this hate” and complimenting the few world leaders who are doing so.
This seems to have had a “pay it forward” effect. Shortly after the op-ed appeared, Douglas was named as the recipient of the 2015 Genesis Prize, honoring "exceptional people whose values and achievements will inspire the next generation of Jews." At the awards ceremony in Jerusalem in June 2015, Douglas said that his son’s decision to have a bar mitzvah “made me think and it made me strong. And for that I will always be grateful. . . . My journey to this stage was a long time in the making,” Douglas said.
You can almost count on one hand the number of people in the entertainment industry who take a stand in defense of Israel, against anti-Semitism, or for Jewish traditions. In fact, the movie industry was mostly invented by Jews eager to prove they were Americans first, and Jews only distantly second. Many of the suspected communists targeted by the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s were also Jewish, and Kirk Douglas is widely credited with helping to break the blacklist once and for all by insisting on giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit for “Spartacus,” the epic Oscar-winning movie for which Douglas served as both executive producer and star. Trumbo’s reputation as a fast and skillful screenwriter assured that he had steady work during those years, but he had to use pseudonyms. Aish.com will review the newly released movie about him, Trumbo, next week.
Both Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas have played a lot of tough guys in their legendary careers. In later life, each has added the role of defender of the Jewish people – perhaps the toughest, proudest role of all.