From Issur to Izzy to Kirk Douglas

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Who knew that the Spartacus star was Jewish? Or that he has rediscovered his faith at a ripe old age?
by ANT KATZ | Jan 05, 2015

In an op-ed piece published today, entitled ARE YESHIVAS ONLY FOR RABBIS?, Rabbi Shmuel Bloch writes about how Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, was Jewish, and how his family had wanted him to go to a yeshiva – which he resisted.

So we went a-Googling…

Kirk Douglas was, in fact, born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York. He was the only son of Bryna "Bertha" (née Sanglel) and Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch, a businessman. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Chavusy, Mogilev Region, in the Russian Empire (now Belarus), and the family spoke Yiddish. His father's brother, who emigrated earlier, used the surname Demsky, which Douglas' family adopted in the United States. Douglas, therefore, grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy during the Second World War.

In his 1988 autobiography “The Ragman's Son” Douglas describes the hardships his family endured during their early years in America:

So my father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. . .. Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman's son.

Living with 6 sisters was stifling him

Coming from a poor family, as a boy Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and worked at more than 40 jobs before becoming an actor. He found living in a family of six sisters to be stifling, stating: "I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me." During high school, he acted in school plays, and discovered: "The one thing in my life that I always knew, that was always constant, was that I wanted to be an actor."


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Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, the slave who led a revolt against Rome

College graduation, 1939

Unable to afford tuition, Douglas talked his way into St Lawrence University and received a loan which he paid back by working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team, and wrestled one summer in a carnival to make money.

Douglas' acting talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and he received a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (later to become better known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career. Another classmate was aspiring Bermudian actress Diana Dill. While doing summer stock theatre during a college term break, he began using the name Kirk Douglas, which he later legally adopted. He earned his first money as an actor that summer. Upon graduating from drama school, Douglas made his Broadway debut as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again.

Douglas enlisted in the United States Navy in 1941, shortly after the United States entered the Second World War. He was medically discharged for war injuries in 1944. On May 3, 1943, Diana Dill, his former classmate, appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Seeing the photograph, Douglas told his fellow sailors that he was going to marry her. He did on November 2, 1943. The couple had two sons (Michael in 1944 and Joel in 1947) before they divorced in 1951.

After the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio, theatre, and commercials. His stage break occurred in Kiss and Tell, which led to other roles. Douglas had planned to remain a stage actor but Lauren Bacall helped him get his first screen role in the Hal B Wallis film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck.

Wallis was on his way to New York to look for new talent when Bacall suggested he visit Douglas, who was rehearsing a play called The Wind Is Ninety. Douglas finished the play's run and, with no follow-up work in sight, headed to Hollywood. He was immediately cast in one of the leading roles in Wallis' film and made his film acting debut as a weak man dominated by a ruthless woman, unlike his later roles where he often played dominating characters.

Coming home to Judaism

In “ARE YESHIVAS ONLY FOR RABBIS” Rabbi Bloch explains:

“In an interview with on his 83rd birthday, Kirk revealed that being blessed with a sharp mind, he did extremely well in his cheder studies. All the Jews of his community wanted to collect money to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi.

“This frightened and terrified Kirk immensely. He did not want to be a rabbi; He wanted to be an actor! The community was insistent. Kirk himself testified that he had to work extremely hard to not to go to yeshiva.

“With honesty and introspection, Kirk discusses how for well over 70 years he neglected his Jewish heritage. Kirk never entirely lost his connection to his Judaism, and rediscovered it almost 70 years later in the 1990s.  In another book of his, ‘Climbing the mountain’, he details his eventual renewal with his heritage and his affiliation to ‘Aish Hatorah’.”


  1. 6 Denis Solomons 05 Jan
    His son Michael Douglas wasn't such a paragon of virtue being treated for sex addiction !
  2. 5 Choni 05 Jan
    A close relative (1st. cousin?) of Kirk Douglas was 'Pinky' Danilewitz of Krugersdorp the Springbok bowler.
  3. 4 Lenny G 08 Jan
    Some more info on Kirk Douglas: In addition to Aish Hatorah he also studied under Rabbis David Wolpe and Robert Wexler. He had his second bar mitzvah in 1999 aged 83 at Sinai Temple with Rabbi Wolpe officiating.
    After his second wife Anne Buydens converted to Judaism they married again in 2004 with Rabbi Wolpe again officiating.
  4. 3 Jonni 22 Jan
    This article appears to have been plagiarised off Wikipaedia

    I'll buy a farm in Eloff Str if you publish this .
  5. 2 ANT KATZ 22 Jan
    Take out your chequebook, Jonni-boy,

    We VERY CLEARLY INTRODUCED the above article thus (SEE ABOVE): "In an op-ed piece published today, entitled ARE YESHIVAS ONLY FOR RABBIS?, Rabbi Shmuel Bloch writes about how Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, was Jewish, and how his family had wanted him to go to a yeshiva – which he resisted. So we went

    You are correct in that most of the background research came from information we found on Wikipedia (note correct spelling). As a regular user and comment-poster, you will know that we use this resource often.

    Some of the reasons are that their peer review system separates the true from the unproven or questionable.Another is that it is open source information and, within certain clearly set parameters,can be used without quoting them as the source.

    You may note that on three of the occasions we used them for reference purposes over the past week, we did give both the source and the page twice in the case of the“Blood Libel” story where we quoted “WIKIPEDIA” as the source – each of the two linked references takes users straight to their page we used.

    So, while you are only partly correct in that we used allowed edited Wikipedia reference. But you are, I am afraid to say, completely wrong in that there was no question of plagiarism involved.

    Regards, Ant Katz, [email protected]

    PS: Good luck finding that farm in Eloff Street!   :)

  6. 1 Jonni 23 Jan
    Mea Culpa.

    Thanks for pointing out the missspellling of Wikid Peediyah,must have been a typo.
    In the RSA today farms are no longer available for purchase by Pilpulist Pale Male Zionist Gangsters  !!!!!


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