Last January, Michael Douglas was “blindsided,” in his words, when he was asked to accept the Genesis Prize, a $1 million award known as the “Jewish Nobel Prize.”
The initial response from the Oscar-winning film star and producer was, “This is a mistake, I’m not Jewish,” he recalled the other day. He noted that from early childhood, “I knew my dad [actor Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch] was Jewish but was told that I wasn’t.”
His mother, Diana Dill, who died last year, was Anglican.
He says he was emotionally moved when officials of the prize, which was founded and is largely supported by wealthy, Russian-speaking Jews seeking to sustain and deepen Jewish identity among young people, explained to Douglas that the judges selected him, in part, because he has chosen to identify as a Jew at a time of increasing assimilation.
“When they told me I am a Jew” in the eyes of the Reform movement, which welcomes those born of a Jewish father, “I had a cathartic moment,” a feeling of finally being acknowledged, he explained the other day as we sat in his spacious apartment overlooking Central Park.
“I was more resentful than I’d realized over the years, feeling I’d been excluded. … There was nothing welcoming about the faith. But I feel much more accepted now.”
Douglas was the second annual award winner of the prize; the first was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the latest is violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, who will be honored in Israel in June.
A gracious, relaxed host, Douglas, 71, still seems a bit in awe of his sudden and highly public ascendance in Jewish life after decades far removed from it. About to embark on a cross-country speaking tour at three college campuses (co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Genesis Prize Foundation and Hillel) with Natan Sharansky, the iconic symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement, Douglas reflected on his unlikely, controversial and personally meaningful Jewish journey over the last several years.
He said he and Sharansky plan to discuss their opposition to BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel) and, presumably, will share their very different stories of how they came from no religious background to publicly express their Jewish identity and love of Israel.
Sharansky, now head of the Jewish Agency, defied the Kremlin and served almost a decade in the Gulag for seeking to make aliyah. Douglas said he now thinks of his own Jewish identity as being passed down by his father’s genes and passed up from his teenage son Dylan, whose deep interest in and embrace of Judaism, leading to a bar mitzvah two years ago, brought the family a new sense of spirituality.
Kirk Douglas, now 99, was born to observant immigrants from Belarus, but he focused on his Hollywood career, with little interest in Judaism, until he survived a fatal helicopter accident when he was 70. It was then that he began studying Jewish texts and spirituality, his son recalled, “and this hard-working, driven man changed dramatically. In the third chapter of his life he became kinder and gentler, and I was happy for him.”
Douglas noted that he, too, had a spiritual awakening around the age of 70. “It wasn’t as dramatic, but I began searching and thinking [about Jewish traditions and values], thanks to my son.”
In accepting the Genesis Prize in June at a lavish ceremony in Israel, where he was publicly praised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other dignitaries, Douglas declared: “I am a Jew; those are four words of pride.” He went on to assert that with assimilation on the rise, and the Jewish community faced with “the fundamental choice to exclude or welcome” non-Jewish spouses, “the answer to me is clear.” He urged the community to emulate the hospitality, inclusion and tolerance that the biblical Abraham, the first Jew, displayed in his open tent.
It’s been a long road for Douglas. When he was a teenager playing intramural volleyball at an elite New England prep school, his team was made up of students who called themselves “The Non-Denoms.”
“We wore T-shirts featuring a Star of David with a cross in the middle,” he said.
For many years religion was not a major factor in his life. True, he took offense when a classmate casually mentioned that “all Jews cheat in business,” but his motivation to speak out came from his own liberal leanings, he said. As an adult he sometimes filled in for his famous father in speaking at Jewish fundraising events. And ever since he spent six weeks in Israel, accompanying his father, who was filming “Cast A Giant Shadow” 50 years ago, Douglas has felt a strong affinity for the people, land and state of Israel. Indeed, he considers Col. Mickey Marcus, the American who was the subject of the film for coming to Israel’s aid in the 1948 war, his first Jewish hero.
Marcus, who tragically was killed by friendly fire, became modern Israel’s first general.
“It was a phenomenal experience for me being in Israel, seeing such a vibrant democracy, this mix of races, color, ethnicity,” Douglas said.
But when it came to religious belief or practice, Douglas identified with the non-denoms.
All of that changed several years ago when his son, Dylan, started visiting Jewish friends from school for Shabbat and spoke warmly of the experience at home. He asked his parents — Douglas is married to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones — to light Shabbat candles. Douglas said the act of lighting candles warmed his soul, evoking memories of his doing so during his brief time in the 1960s studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who influenced the Beatles.
Dylan started attending Hebrew school with his friends and soon asked his parents for a bar mitzvah. When Douglas saw that it was “not just about wanting a party,” he readily agreed. He expressed pride in his son’s commitment in preparing for the ceremony, learning to read Hebrew and leading part of the service.
He noted that his daughter, Carys, is now preparing for her bat mitzvah in May, and that the family enjoys going to synagogue on occasion near their primary home in a small community about 50 miles north of Manhattan.
Still, Douglas is well aware that his limited Jewish observance and the fact that he is not considered Jewish according to halacha, or religious law, made his choice as recipient of the Genesis Prize last year a point of contention for many.
On hearing the news, Forward editor Jane Eisner wrote that Douglas “makes [former New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg [the inaugural winner of the prize] look like a combination of Golda Meir, Louis Brandeis and, hell, even Moses in his public devotion to the Jewish people.
“Michael Douglas. Really?”
‘Welcoming Rather Than Alienating’
Douglas says he understands the seriousness of the debate, though “many people are too polite” to raise it with him directly. He pointed out that the prize is awarded in conjunction with the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel and the Jewish Agency, and that a number of judges are prominent Jewish figures.
The intention in citing him was “to support the vision of an inclusive global Jewish community,” according to a statement by prize officials, taking into account increasing assimilation here and in much of the diaspora. In effect, their objective in Douglas’ case was less about recognizing Jewish accomplishment than to view him as a role model, an internationally admired professional in his field who chose to embrace his heritage and culture.
“They understand that some of the traditions are going by the wayside,” Douglas said of the prize officials, and that “it’s in the faith’s best interest to be welcoming rather than alienating.”
He says he embraces Jewish values like tikkun olam, some of which he has learned from and discussed with his close friend, George Blumenthal, a New York businessman and philanthropist he’s known for more than 40 years.
Blumenthal has high praise for Douglas as a serious, thoughtful and caring man who harbored resentment about his ambivalent religious status for many years. Dylan’s interest in Judaism was “the tipping point for Michael,” Blumenthal said. “He was always respectful of his heritage and now he has sought it out for himself.”
Last March, Douglas recounted a painful lesson about the reach and depth of anti-Semitism. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he described how upset Dylan was when, during a family holiday in Southern Europe, a man at the hotel swimming pool insulted the boy on seeing the Star of David around his neck. “While some Jews believe that not having a Jewish mother makes me not Jewish,” Douglas wrote, “I have learned the hard way that those who hate do not make such fine distinctions.” He said it was “a lesson that I wish I didn’t have to teach [Dylan], a lesson I hope he will never have to teach his children.”
Douglas waived the prize money and an initial grant went was given to Hillel to engage young people from intermarried families. In addition, the Jewish Funders Network is managing a matching grant for “big tent” interfaith outreach efforts, like those of the Reform movement. Thanks to another matching grant from an unnamed Russian oligarch, the pot has grown to $4 million.
“The people at Genesis clearly knew what they were doing, bringing me in from the outside,” Douglas mused. The result has been to not only present him as an inspiration to a new generation of intermarried Jews but to rekindle his own Jewish spark.
“I want to be part of this tribe,” he said.