Kirk Douglas the mensch
Photo: Douglas Collection
Kirk Douglas at the Western Wall in 1977.

First Person

By Harriet P. Gross
I’m not a Facebook person, but sometimes something — some urge brought on by seeing a familiar name — makes me want to take a look. And a few days ago, the message was from my friend and fellow scribbler, Mike Precker. He had entered into some sort of online conversation about the much beloved but recently departed Kirk Douglas; a woman had posted how much she LOVED (caps were hers!) him as Mickey Marcus in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” and Precker, who knows parts of Kirk’s history I’d never heard of, told me he had chimed in with the date of the film: “That was 1966,” he said. And then he told me this:
“Somewhere in the family archive is a photo of Kirk Douglas, shooting the first-ever Hollywood film in Israel, in 1952.” Mike then went on about his own experience, adding a bit of sorrow at the end about his connection through his wife Ruthie, a native Israeli:
“Ruthie’s late father, Shlomo, was a tour guide at the time, who took Kirk Douglas around the country,” Mike said. Then came his sadness about the lost opportunity of a lifetime: “Douglas returned in 1982 to shoot a Holocaust reunion romance, and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t try to pull some strings to get the two of them back together again.” After that, a brief pause until Mike ended with “RIP, Kirk and Shlomo both.”
I too am able to recount a very personal recollection of my own very different experience with Kirk Douglas — one that had joy rather than sorrow attached. It happened at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967, the fight that meant everything to Israel — its very right to exist, and to claim its rights to Jerusalem and the holy places there. American Jews everywhere were gathering together to raise funds for the cause, and where I lived then was no exception: My town was Park Forest, Illinois — the the most southern of the many southern Chicago suburbs. We Jews in all of them had planned to rally together one evening at Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields, our area’s largest Jewish house of worship, the only place that could accommodate the anticipated crowd. Its auditorium was at that very time being filled with folding chairs for the occasion.
It was the day of the rally, and guess who was in town: Kirk Douglas himself! Actually, he was at the movie theater in Park Forest, the south suburbs’ largest — which was only a very short two blocks from my newspaper office of the time. He was there to publicize the opening of his new release — I think it was “The Way West,” but I never really knew, because I was not a dedicated film-watcher. What mattered to me then was that the star who had played Israel Colonel Mickey Marcus on the big screen was actually standing there in person, on a red carpet, greeting with smiles and handshakes a long line of his adoring fans at the entrance, and I was thinking about the rally…
My work at that time was largely enterprise reporting — I dug up my own ideas and turned them into feature stories. And now, suddenly, that big but often elusive lightbulb lit up right over my head, giving me a very big idea: What might be my feature of a lifetime was right in town, and If I could carry it off, I could turn my idea into a very big story!
Since the theater was so close to my office, I just walked right over and took my place at end of the long line and patiently waited my turn like everyone else. And although I was planning to do something out of the ordinary, even for me, I wasn’t nervous at all, because I was on a mission! When I finally reached the head of the line, I shook hands with Douglas and said only this: “Do you have some time for Israel?” His short, immediate reply was “When?” “Tonight,” I said. His two “handlers,” standing protectively by him, shook their heads: “No!” But the star shook his head “Yes,” back at them. He knew about all the fundraiser rallies going on across the country, and simply asked me, “Where and when?” So I told him, giving his little entourage the easy instructions for reaching Anshe Sholom. “Go around the back,” I said. “There’s a door that will be open to take you right onto the stage.” Then I returned to my office and called the temple, telling the rabbi’s secretary to make sure the back door would be opened for the rally, that the stage curtains would be closed, and that someone would be there to open them when a “very special guest” had arrived and was in place.
I didn’t tell anyone else anything — not even my husband! I was afraid that something would happen … that his “handlers” had called the shots after all … that the curtains would remain closed because the incredible surprise guest I had promised would not arrive. But he did — right on schedule!
And so it happened that Kirk Douglas made an impromptu appearance for a fundraiser attended by virtually every Jew who lived in any of the many suburbs south of the big city. And once all the attendees at that full house got their breath back, and the star had spoken, answered questions and announced his own support of Israel, more purses and wallets were emptied of more money than our little corner of the Jewish universe had ever put together in all our many earlier rallies to help the beleaguered country that we all loved from afar.
Everyone everywhere knew Kirk Douglas then as the great film star he was. But I, and all those who were there with me that night, have always remembered him as a mensch who put Israel first. We in Chicago’s south suburbs got to know him that night for what he really was: the man who continued to cast a giant shadow — a most benevolent one — over Judaism. And in the years after, we continued to cheer as we had that night, as he continued to support Israel, and as he publicly reconnected with his faith, had a bar mitzvah at 83 and was dedicated to Judaism for the rest of his long life.
So now that I’ve learned more from Mike, I will echo his words myself: “RIP, Shlomo and Kirk both!”

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