Three extraordinary lives: Kirk Douglas, Abe Zarem and Max Webb

April 13, 2017
From left: Kirk Douglas, Abe Zarem and Max Webb

The rabbis teach that Abraham was the first who had the merit of looking old. Notice the word — “merit.” It was considered, by our tradition, a good thing; it meant you had lived and learned. We compliment people by saying, “You look so young!” Accomplishment and wisdom counted more to our ancestors than vitality; innocence was not as valued as experience. For our tradition, what lay before you was not as important as what was behind you.

Recently in my synagogue, we celebrated three remarkable individuals who reached their 100th birthdays. One hundred years is a long time when measuring a human life. Each was distinguished in different fields, and together, they summed up the Jewish experience of the 20th century.

I am proud and privileged to introduce you to the star, the scientist and the survivor.

It is a privilege and a blessing to know each of them. The first is the star: Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch. 

One day in the mid-’90s, I was preparing to move back to New York to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The phone rang and when I answered, the voice on the other end of the line said, “This is Kirk Douglas.”

Yes, I wanted to say, and I’m the queen of England.

But it was! He had seen me on a TV show about the Bible and wanted to study together. But I was leaving. Two years later, when I came to Sinai Temple, we reconnected and have been studying together ever since.

The first time I met him, he told me that because of his stroke, he spoke slowly and felt a little guilty for it. I said, “Don’t feel guilty, everyone uses what they have. Didn’t you always use the fact that you were handsome and charming?” I asked. “You know,” Douglas answered, “I never thought I was handsome.”

“Really?” I marveled, “and what about charming?”

“Oh,” he said, “I always knew I was charming.”

Kirk Douglas grew up so poor that his father would pick up rags off the street and resell them. On a hot day when I was marveling at air conditioning, I said to him, “My God, in your day, you had a block of ice and a fan.” He fixed me with his famous stare and said, “Who had a fan?”

But he roared out of Brooklyn and onto the stage and screen. He named his production company after his mother, Bryna. She lived to see it in lights on Broadway. Surrounded by friends and family, he celebrated his 100th birthday.

He and his wife, Anne, have dedicated almost 500 playgrounds, enabling kids from poor neighborhoods to have beautiful, modern facilities on which to play. In addition to his other charities, they named the Early Childhood Center here at Sinai Temple.

The scientist, Abe Zarem, was born in Chicago. Abe is among the dwindling number of surviving people who worked on the Manhattan Project, the greatest cooperative scientific endeavor of modern times. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer directed the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where scientists dedicated themselves to building an atomic bomb before our enemies accomplished it.

After such an auspicious beginning, Abe went on to the Stanford Research Institute and became vice president of Xerox. He is also responsible for the invention of the camera with the fastest shutter speed in the world.

But Abe is gifted not only with an extraordinary scientific mind. His mother told him when he was young that his life’s mission was to meet gifted people and make them better than they would have been if they hadn’t met him. So Abe mentored thousands of people — scientists and CEOs and more than a couple of rabbis.

When Abe first took me under his wing, he told me he was a mentor and a tormentor. He pushed, encouraged and gave honest feedback. 

Our Chumashim are dedicated by Abe and Esther as a legacy of this man. Each time we follow along in the Torah, it is because of the philanthropy of Abe Zarem, whose foundation gives to causes near and far.

 On Yom Kippur, this then-99-year-old man chanted the Book of Jonah — the entire book — in a voice the entire congregation could hear. It rang out, and we were stunned by the vitality and skill of someone who has seen so much and done so much.

And the survivor: Max Webb. Max was born in Lodz, Poland. He and his family were taken by the Nazis. He trained himself as a medic and survived 18 concentration camps. He saw the worst of human beings.

But he knew he would survive if it was possible. He told his mother when the Nazis were coming that if she heard he was shot or hanged, it might be true, but if she heard he starved, don’t believe it. He knew he had the smarts and resources to survive.

After the war, he became a dance instructor. And the same grace and spirit that animated his dance has woven throughout his life.

Max’s success as a builder touches all areas of his life. He promised that if he survived, he would help rebuild Jewish life. And he has — here and in Israel. Apart from the actual buildings he has created, many synagogues, schools and even university programs owe their existence to this remarkable man.

I could not be more proud to be the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple.

No life can be adequately summarized in a few sentences. Even more, no 100-year-old life can. And most of all, not lives as rich and fascinating as those of Kirk, Abe and Max.

In these three lives is the story of our people. The star, the scientist, the survivor. One created works of art that millions admire. The second created products and ideas that benefited the lives of countless people. The third supported Jewish life here and abroad and told the story of our people over and over again to young and old.

All three have unbelievable life force. These are men who, even at 100, sparkle with life and give you life when you are with them. They have seen incredible changes; they were born at the end of World War I, an era of trench warfare and silent pictures. These men and a few others like them took that world and brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Not only their talents, but their longevity enabled these three titans to contribute so much to our community and to the world. We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of their goodness, generosity and wisdom. The rabbis were right: The blessings of age are often greater than the blessings of youth.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.