By Bill Simons
Time is inexorable, even the human markings of eternity. Izzy Demsky, age 103, died on Shevat 10 (February 5), 2020. The is his third yahrzeit, a time for remembrance of Izzy.
Born into a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family in Amsterdam, NY, Izzy thought of himself as “The Ragman’s Son,” the title of his autobiography. Coming of age in Amsterdam, Izzy encountered antisemitism, deprivation and gang assault, which, in turn, fueled aspiration and anger. Much of the anger came from his relationship with his father, Harry. That anger ignited a ferocious drive in Izzy. Under his adopted name, Kirk Douglas, Izzy would acquire fame as an actor, producer, antagonist of the Blacklist, proponent of Israel, author and philanthropist. Remembrance of Izzy inevitably elicits reflections on Harry.
In Izzy’s memoir, his father is a powerful, violent, brutish, abusive, alcoholic man, emotionally inaccessible to his six daughters, son and wife Bryna. Blocked from employment in Amsterdam’s rug factories by antisemitism, Harry earned meager wages buying and selling rags and other second-hand goods from his horse-drawn wagon. Even much of that money was squandered in saloons before reaching home, a dwelling reliant on horse manure for insulation. Eventually, Bryna threw Harry out of the house and divorced him. Yet Izzy craved the approval and attention that his father continued to withhold.
To understand Izzy, I look for Harry, who, as Herschel Denielovitch, left Russia at the turn of the last century. On Sunday morning, October 16, 2022, Bob Cudmore, whose decades of newspaper columns, radio broadcasts and, more recently, podcasts attest to his status as Amsterdam’s pre-eminent historian, generously met with me. Bob’s grandfather, an Eagle Street neighbor of the Demskys, knew Harry well. Due to his strength, celebrated barroom brawls and wagon trade, Harry was once better known in Amsterdam than Izzy. Bob introduced me to John and Linda Naple, retired educators, who graciously accompanied me to Harry’s grave.
The Congregation Sons of Israel Cemetery, small but well kept, is tucked away in the village of Cranesville. John and Linda commented on the headstones of several people they knew. Harry’s grave was found, and John quietly said, “Hello, Harry.” We placed stones on Harry’s grave, noting the Hebrew engraving and birth/death dates (1884-1954). Due to family discord, Harry is the only Demsky buried in the cemetery. Nonetheless, the inscription on Harry’s gravestone calls him “Beloved Husband and Father.” John’s family lived across from the Demskys on Eagle Street. As a small boy, John knew Harry.
John never saw Harry in the bars, but the Harry that he knew from the street was friendly to neighborhood kids. He would shout out, “Rags, rags,” as his wagon came down the street. Harry would over-tip kids for bringing him rags, and four little girls stole rags from the wagon and then sold them back to an unsuspecting Harry.
Harry’s death did not end Izzy’s struggle to come to terms with his father as evidenced by his autobiography and several of his films. Professionally, Izzy morphed into superstar Kirk Douglas, but, in the twilight of his acting career, dug deep into the father-son relationship. In 2000, Douglas was the special guest star in the television series “Touched by an Angel,” appearing in an episode titled “Bar Mitzvah.”
“Bar Mitzvah” concerns four generations of men in the Burger family – the long-since departed great-grandfather (not referenced by name), the grandfather Ross (played by Kirk Douglas), the son, Alan, and the great-grandson, Aaron. “Bar Mitzvah” contains strong autobiographical elements. Like Douglas, Ross was 83 years old at the time of the production, proud of his recovery from a major stroke (whose remnant is limited to a moderate speech impairment), physically robust despite the inroads of age and stroke, successful, headstrong and resentful of his own father. Ross, owner of a fitness center, also has his issues with his son, Alan, 50, an erudite and thoughtful philosophy professor. However, Ross is a hero to his 13-year-old grandson Aaron, who is reluctantly preparing for his bar mitzvah Torah portion. Aaron shares his grandfather’s belief that religion is for weaklings, a sentiment not shared by the devout Alan.
Alan is unexpectedly diagnosed with a fast-growing, inoperable brain tumor. Alan convinces Ross to find his own father’s tallit and phylacteries, and to don them in prayer in the hospital room. Alan requests this for Ross’ sake, not his own. During his attic search for the prayer vestments, Ross asserts that he hated his father for imposing Judaism on him and later Alan. Ross looks at an actual photo of Harry Demsky with son, Izzy, during this tirade.
On the day of Aaron’s scheduled ceremony, the rabbi announces that there will be no bar mitzvah given the boy’s emotional devastation at the death of his father a few days before. Ross stands up, citing the importance of Jewish tradition and proclaims, “There will be a bar mitzvah today. Mine.” The rabbi affirms as 70 years is the normative allotment of life, an 83-year-old is entitled to a second bar mitzvah. Ross tells Aaron that his father, Alan, was the strong one and was right about religion. Ross and Aaron go to the bima together. The drama ends with Ross/Kirk/Izzy reading from the Torah. In real life, Izzy at age 83 had his second bar mitzvah around the time the program was broadcast.
In the last seconds of consciousness before he died, Alan recited the Shema, expressing the central tenet of Judaism. Hopefully, Harry and Izzy had the opportunity to do so, as well.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.