Kirk Douglas views Torah as greatest screenplay ever

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It has been a long road back to his Jewish roots for the veteran of 82 movies who began life as Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor, illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants, became college wrestler Isadore (Izzy) Demsky and then actor Kirk Douglas.

His trademark chin jutting out — for his first movie role, Paramount honchos wanted to obliterate the million-dollar cleft through plastic surgery — Douglas reminisced about his life and faith during a 75-minute interview in his art-filled, but relatively modest, Beverly Hills home.

But this did not seem like a conversation with an 80-year-old man with an implanted pacemaker, sorely tested in the past few years by severe injuries sustained in a helicopter crash and, more recently, by a stroke.

Having passed his biblically allotted lifespan of 70, he is looking forward to his second bar mitzvah in Israel at age 83.

His fifth and sixth books, published by Simon & Schuster, have recently been released.

In "Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning," Douglas narrates, with both earnestness and humor, his long, spiritual journey back to Judaism and the Torah.

"The Broken Mirror," a Holocaust-themed book for children, similarly touches on the struggle of a young boy, an orphan of the Shoah, who denies his Jewishness and eventually finds his way back.

Douglas is planning a film for a first collaboration with his oldest son, Michael. "A Song for David" centers on the relationship between a workaholic son and a father who rediscovers his Judaism in old age.

Waiting in the wings, "if HaShem wills it," he said, is another joint film project, tentatively titled "Josiah's Cannon," also on a Jewish theme.

Then there is his carefully selected collection of modern, not-yet-fashionable painters and pet charitable projects: playgrounds for poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Israel; an Alzheimer's unit at a hospital for retired show-business workers; AIDS and homeless projects; the Access Theater for the Handicapped; and a $2 million theater opposite the Western Wall, where worshippers will watch films on the history of Judaism.

Douglas said he has a date at the White House on Dec. 23, together with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to watch President Clinton light the first Chanukah candle, which will also symbolize the beginning of Israel's 50th anniversary year.

Douglas hopes next year to revisit Israel, where he has made three films.

Unfulfilled, as yet, is his ambition to greet the sunrise at the top of Mount Sinai.

Finally, there is his family. His countless love affairs and one-night stands — with movie queens and casual pickups alike — well behind him, Douglas speaks often and proudly of his 43-year marriage to his second wife, Anne, and of his four sons from his two marriages — Joel, Peter, Eric and Michael.

Despite their father's dire warning, all four sons work in the film industry as actors and/or producers.

For most of his life, Douglas has been an indifferent Jew at best. At one point in his college career, though a popular student body president and champion wrestler, he said he tried to pass himself off as only half Jewish.

He dates his return to Jewish observance and full Jewish identification to a 1991 collision between his helicopter and a light stunt plane that killed two young men.

The crash compressed his spine by three inches, and while lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pain, he started pondering the meaning of his survival and his life.

"I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish," Douglas reflected.

He embarked on a course of Torah studies with two young Orthodox rabbis, David Aaron of the Israelight Institute in Jerusalem and Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles.

However, Douglas, like many American Jews, picks and chooses among religious rules and injunctions to fit his personal needs.

"I attend High Holy Days services, mainly at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, and have fasted on Yom Kippur all my life. I now light candles in my home every Shabbat," he said.

"But I think of myself as a secular Jew," he added, noting that he rides in cars on Shabbat and doesn't keep kosher.

"But it would be very difficult for me to go into a restaurant and order pork."

The Jewishness of his four sons falls into another, increasingly common, niche. Both Douglas' former and current wives are non-Jews, so none of his sons, by Jewish law, is Jewish or was raised as such.

"I have never followed the commandment to teach your children," Douglas said. "But my sons always knew I was a Jew, even way before I studied the Torah."

His own increasing connection to Judaism "has impressed my sons," he said, adding, "Michael, I think, is very Jewish. He feels as a Jew and he is ready to help Jewish causes."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent