Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review: Climbing the Mountain

A Fair Trade Book (for how long?)

Title: Climbing the Mountain

Author: Kirk Douglas

Author's blog:

Illustrations: black and white photos

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Date: 1997

Length: 269 pages including 13-page index

Quote: “But we were alive in the tangled wreckage. David and Lee were dead in the smoldering remains...Why did they die? Why was I alive?”

When Kirk Douglas was seventy-four, his editor found him alive in the burning wreck of a helicopter. About this experience he dryly observed that if the “long tunnel with a blazing white light at the other end...was there, I missed the show.” Acute pain, he was told, was a good sign—he wasn't paralyzed. And he started thinking about God and what, if anything, he believed.

Writing books about one's “personal relationship with God” has generally been a Protestant thing. Jewish tradition has been more modest, wary of mysticism, fearful of provoking persecution, and shy about misrepresenting either God or Judaism; Jewish writers usually write about their personal relationships with living people, Jewish or otherwise, and let that testify to whatever they believe about God. This has been both good and bad. Sometimes non-Jewish readers wonder whether Judaism is still a religion or merely a cultural tradition, and, if it's a religion, what its practice is like...and that's what Climbing the Mountain has to tell us. Kirk Douglas had already outlived many of his friends and co-workers; after his own near-death experience he did some serious thinking about life and death and faith and gratitude and similar things.

Of course, it would not be possible for him to have done this thinking without a fair amount of serious, personal consideration of famous people; that's who his friends were. When he thought about disabilities, he thought about Burt Lancaster. When he thought about sudden death, he thought about Mike Todd. When he thought about his legacy, he thought about Michael Douglas...and so on. Many people enjoy the paintings of Marc Chagall, and so did Kirk Douglas, but in a more personal way: “I met him...Chagall and my father left Russia the same year.” He hadn't been especially religious, before the helicopter crash: “I didn't observe any Jewish religious practices, except for fasting on Yom Kippur,” which made it “difficult making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach; of course, nobody knew it.” (If a man touches a woman who's not his wife while he's fasting for religious reasons, doesn't that count as a violation of the fast? Granted they weren't “really” having sex, but still, I thought that if anything Jews were stricter about touching than Christians...there's always more to learn.)

So there's plenty of twentieth century Hollywood history in Climbing the Mountain. But this book doesn't read at all like the standard Hollywood memoir. It's more personal—the actor known as Kirk Douglas started life as a poet, and wrote his own books—and much more serious. This is a book that people who take Sabbath/Sunday observance seriously can read on their day of rest-as-spiritual-retreat.

It's tasteful. Douglas observes that “There can't be another place like” Lourdes; “Let me put it another way—I hope there isn't.” His description of Lourdes is too long to quote here and too good to miss. Read the book. “I'm quite willing to believe that a sweet, innocent girl did have a vision...then how—in good conscience—can they put that little girl's sacred experience on a key chain or a T-shirt?” Douglas asks, noting,”We all would prefer a God we can see, touch, put in our back pocket—on a key chain.” He is writing about something more meaningful than that. “Judaism holds that faith means bubkes if you cheat your don't have to be a member of any particular religion to get to God, but you have to be a good person.”

Considering the number of countries where the computer shows that this web site is read, let's add a note about Douglas's use of Yiddish words. One indicator of the influence Jewish actors and other entertainers have had on U.S. culture is that non-Jewish Americans understand, and use, words like bubkes (“nothing”). There's no official rule on spelling (bubkes is also sometimes found as bupkis and so on) but everybody learns these words by hearing them in the media. For those who've not shared this U.S. cultural experience, The Joys of Yiddish is a good read, anyway, and recommended. Words like bubkes, kvell, shtetl, tzaddik are used without explanation in Climbing the Mountain. Yiddish and Hebrew words that are not standard U.S. slang, but are used in religious contexts, like Shema (“Hear!”; “the Shema,” the Bible text translated as “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”), Halakhah (“the path”), and lashon hara (“evil speaking”) are explained.

Douglas's “road back” to serious Jewish practice began, he says, “Here's a shocker—with Jesus.” Not in the sense that he became a Messianic Jew (he didn't), but that he was somewhat surprised to learn that Jesus “was not only a Jew, but a rabbi who gave sermons on the Torah. Do Christians know that?” It's right there in the Bible, but many so-called Christians are so clueless about the Bible that they may well not know that. I take exception to Douglas's (typically Jewish) claim that St. Paul “added a number of Pagan rituals” to Christian practice—Real Historians say the Pagan rituals crept in gradually, many of them during the lifetime of the Emperor Constantine—but apart from that throwaway line, pages 118-124 of Climbing the Mountain should be required reading for all Christians. We're supposed to have been told all these things by Christian pastors. Too many of us weren't, or maybe we were just sleeping late the day they were discussed.

The next chapter discusses charitable gifts, which in Hebrew (including biblical Hebrew) are classified as “justice.” The Bible says nothing about equality. Having more than someone else is not only an individual's right, but often described as God's reward for the person's good life. But that someone else doesn't have enough to live decently is a lack of “justice.” People have a right to choose, either directly, or indirectly by choosing to do less or lower-paid work, to carry things around in an old shopping bag rather than a Gucci bag. (I mention this because in the summer of 2014, when I wrote this review, I was working in a store that sold Gucci bags and carrying my knitting around in a canvas shopping bag.) But if they're willing and able to work and still don't have a place to leave the bag, injustice is being done and every decent person has the responsibility to address this injustice. Christians need to hear more about this than most of us do, also.

Douglas shares firsthand experience with the ways big government becomes part of the problem. “I got the idea of building a park empty, ill-kempt lot...I offered to pay the full put up all the money. Then the bureaucracy kicked in. You can't just give something to the city...In the end, frustrated by it all, I told them, 'Let's make everybody happy—let's forget it.'” But, he says, he and his wife then dedicated money to the cause of building parks in poorer communities, in the U.S. and in “the Moslem Quarter inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The poorest of the poor live here.”

He moves on to a consideration of stories in the Bible, including a sample of midrash, individual commentary on a Bible story. Midrash are subjective, non-authoritative, and often funny; Douglas's version of the story of Joseph and his brothers are chortle-worthy.

“Jews have a prayer for everything,” Douglas observes, commenting on post-biblical aspects of his tradition. “[T]here is a commandment to get drunk during the festival of drive home the point that evil and good work hand in hand in God's unfathomable plan; often, we choose good only when confronted with evil.” And so, after quoting a series of well-known non-Jewish authors' tributes to what Judaism has given the world, “So why have we been so hated?...In a strange way, anti-Semitism is responsible for the very survival of Judaism...When things are going well, we have a tendency to forget our special obligation to bring the light into the slip quietly into the comfortable womb of assimilation.” (The tendency exists for Christians too...consider all those European Pagan rituals that crept in when European Pagans like Constantine were getting on well with European Christians.)

The commercial media's harassment of celebrities fits into a sermon on the sin of lashon hara, “evil speaking.” “Did President Clinton have an affair years ago? I don't know and I don't care,” Douglas said. Bill Clinton's sexual behavior did matter to women writers investigating his performance of his public duties. Men who think a man's sexual misbehavior is “private” may not consciously mean “Women don't count. Lying to women is in a different category from lying to other men. Women who want to be protected from sexual predators, or even spared from sexual bores, should stay at home with the curtains drawn,” although that is the system they're perpetuating. And in fact the way Bill Clinton treated women was, in a larger sense, remarkably like the way he treated men: no loyalty, no gratitude, no shame, just a giant oaf with a monster-size need for attention. But what about the exaggeration of anything that sounds remotely scandalous, when there's no need to protect anybody, merely to sell tabloids? “If I were his/her wife/husband, I'd get a divorce,” says a former employee, resenting someone's demand that he stay awake on the job, and next week the headlines scream “Inside Source Says They'll Divorce.” Considering the story Douglas tells about Carol Burnett shows why lashon hara is a sin just like the drunkenness, adultery, and fraud of which every issue of some tabloids accuses someone or other, with or without a basis. Withholding financial support from the worst offenders is an easy way to help Hollywood's professional “evil speakers” reform. Helping the local busybodies in our neighborhoods should only be so easy.

The chapter after the one about the sin of “evil speaking” contains a few more stories in which Douglas holds up acquaintances as bad examples. “I'm a sinner,” he explains, counting on readers to say that, if it's true, if it explains a more hurtful story someone else may have told about how you and a former friend fell out or explains something about you that your present-time friends need to know, it's not all that evil. Why did Billy Wilder become a former friend? Douglas says he has no idea. What about Henry Kissinger? That, Douglas can explain.

How did Douglas, the newly religious Jew, feel about his editor's conversion to Judaism? Jews do not officially encourage conversion. “[A] very efficient worker who is a constant thorn in your side, reminding you of your own failings as a Jew” and “taking a lot of time off” (for Sabbath and the holidays), Douglas grouses, and “Then, of course, she will only eat in kosher restaurants.” These days, however, when few publishers pay editors to do real editing, it's not just any writer who can find a good editor. No matter how satisfactory our marriages may be, the writer-editor relationship is equally passionate, only on a different level. We can understand why she converted. And why, on the whole, he's pleased. And why he's not recommending that other non-Jews convert. Judaism teaches that non-Jews can find God too, in our own ways, so why, if you weren't born into an ethnic tradition and aren't trying to marry into it, would you want to adopt it?

Fair disclosure: out of love and respect for a wonderful older lady, my own mother officially moved onto the Jewish side of the Messianic Jewish and whole-Bible Christian fellowship in St. Petersburg, Florida, while she lived there. My mother, at sixty, made bas mitzvah. My mother owns a menorah. (Though not a mezuzah—both objects are discussed in Climbing the Mountain.) My mother has a rabbi. Yes, this is the same mother who warned me when I was a little girl that people who thought we looked Jewish did not mean it as a compliment, even if I thought it was one because so many Jewish actresses were so pretty. My mother is now a sort of honorary Messianic Jew, despite the fact that all that's known about our ancestors' religious practice is that all of them claimed to be Christians and some were even celebrity Christians. I, too, enjoyed long-term working relationships with wonderful Jewish clients, and out of love and respect for them I explain when people ask that a whole-Bible Christian is a completely different thing from a Jew—mainly in the sense of having a different set of ancestors and dysfunctional genes. So I grok the ambivalence here.

There's more about the quirkiness and stubbornness for which Jews (and other unassimilated, unrepentant minority groups) are justly famed, further along in Climbing the Mountain, when Douglas discussed the stroke he had after the helicopter crash. “One of the worst things about being a victim of a stroke is that people feel sorry for you. They want to do things for you. And since you also feel very sorry for yourself, you are more than willing to accept their gifts of kindness...Beware...Such well-meaning people are encouraging you to become an invalid. Next thing you know, they'll be feeding you and diapering you.” Douglas considered having Michael Douglas accept his Academy Award for him, but Michael Douglas did the right thing: “Go up there even if you have to crawl.” Kirk Douglas did not have to crawl.

This is one Hollywood actor's memoir that's worth reading even if you never cared for the actor or for his movies. The movies weren't my favorites but I'd be surprised (and disappointed) if anyone who likes this web site didn't like Climbing the Mountain.

Kirk Douglas's death has been reported twice but, at last report, those reports turned out to be wrong. He's ninety-seven, he's had some more medical problems, but he's still alive and apparently in his right mind. Awesome. I was planning to schedule this book review for next week but think I'll rush it out now, out of respect for a tough old writer. If anybody out there wants to buy Climbing the Mountain as a Fair Trade Book, we'll sell it as one. $5 per book, $5 per package (I doubt that more than two copies would fit into one package), to the address at the very bottom of this page (I just figured out how to put the contact information at the bottom of every single page of this web site, isn't it cool?); this makes the total price of the book $10, of which 10%, $1, will be sent to a charity of the author's choice.