JERUSALEM — When actor Michael Douglas learned that he had been chosen to receive the “Jewish Nobel Prize,” he pointed out a small problem: Under strict religious law, the Oscar-winning actor isn’t Jewish.
Douglas, who only recently has embraced his Jewish roots, is vowing to use the $1 million Genesis Prize to build bridges between Israel and increasingly assimilated Jewish communities around the world.
“Abraham’s tent had its flaps open and so hopefully since approximately half of the Jewish population in the world is outside of Israel, we can find ways to better understand each other and to grow together,” Douglas said. Douglas, accompanied by his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their two children, was in Israel this week to accept the Genesis Prize. Jay Leno hosted the high-powered event, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to present the award.
Douglas, 70, said he remains cancer free after being diagnosed with oral cancer in 2010, and that his marriage to Zeta-Jones is going strong after hitting a rough patch two years ago.
For Douglas, the Genesis Prize, caps a process that was generations in the making. His father, actor Kirk Douglas, was born Issur Danielovitch to Russian immigrant parents and raised as an Orthodox Jew. But he drifted away from his faith. Michael Douglas’ mother, actress Diane Dill, is not Jewish.
Douglas said he began to be drawn to Judaism after his father survived a 1991 helicopter crash that left two others dead. He said that his father began studying the Bible with a rabbi.
More recently, he said his son Dylan had grown interested in Judaism and decided he wanted to have a bar mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for 13-year-old males.
Under a complicated arrangement, Israel allows anyone with at least a Jewish grandparent to qualify for citizenship under its “Law of Return.” Yet the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate oversees civil services for Jews, including circumcisions, weddings, divorces and burials.
That means that Douglas and his son could theoretically immigrate to the Jewish state, but as the children of intermarriages, they could not marry or have a Jewish burial here. Under Orthodox Jewish law, only people with a Jewish mother are considered Jewish.
Douglas said he raised this issue when the Genesis Prize Foundation approached him about its award. But he said the group was interested in him because he represented so many other people in similar positions.