Yom Kippur Celebrity Stories

Yom Kippur Celebrity Stories

Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday of the year, has produced a number of celebrity anecdotes.

Famous actor KIRK DOUGLAS, who became very religious in the early 1990s, recalls that for most of his life he was not observant, but he always went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. He credits this practice with keeping a spark of faith alive that was kindled in his later years.

In a lighter vein, comedian ROBERT KLEIN says that against his better judgment he once accepted a lucrative club date on Yom Kippur. He got an infected wart. Since then, Klein has not played on Yom Kippur, and he says that one club owner calls him the ” SANDY KOUFAX of comedy.”

The owner, of course, was referring to the decision of baseball great not to pitch in a 1965 World Series game which fell on the holiday. Other Jewish players who have sat out the day include Hall-of-Famer HANK GREENBERG, recently retired slugger SHAWN GREEN, and KEN HOLTZMAN, an excellent pitcher who played for several teams in the ’60s and ’70s.

Holtzman, then playing for Oakland Athletics, declined to pitch in a 1973 play-off game against the Baltimore Orioles that fell on Yom Kippur. His team had no problem with his decision and the A’s management said it would find a local Baltimore synagogue where Holtzman could attend services. He was, however, surprised when a limousine appeared in front of his Baltimore hotel on Yom Kippur morning. The driver told Holtzman that he was told to take the pitcher to synagogue.

As reported by the Forward newspaper, “[Holtzman] was escorted to front row center of the synagogue, where he was offered a handshake by a distinguished-looking man standing near his family. ‘Ken, let me introduce myself,’ the man said. ‘I’m JERRY HOFFBERGER, owner of the Orioles.’ For Holtzman, the moral of the story was simple: ‘Jews stick together.'”

Another story concerns musical great SAMMY DAVIS, JR. , who converted to Judaism in the mid-1950s. In 1959, Davis refused to work on Yom Kippur during the film production of “Porgy and Bess.” Director OTTO PREMINGER, who was Jewish, but famous for his insensitivity to other people’s feelings, got angry at Davis and called the film’s producer, the legendary SAMUEL GOLDWYN.

Goldwyn immediately called Davis and wanted to know if it was true about his refusing to work. Sammy said that as a Jew he could not work on the Day of Atonement. There was silence for a moment, with Goldwyn no doubt noting that stopping production to accommodate Davis would cost $30,000, a large sum then. Finally, Goldwyn, who was a non-practicing Jew, said, “Bless you.” Production on the film was stopped for Yom Kippur.

The final anecdote concerns the famous composer/conductor LEONARD BERNSTEIN. Bernstein came from a family of Talmudic scholars, but was only moderately observant in his adult years. However, Bernstein would hire a taxicab for Yom Kippur and go around Manhattan “shul-hopping.” He did this because he loved to hear many different cantors’ interpretations of the traditional prayers.

Bernstein knew, of course, that riding was forbidden on the holiday, so he would have the cab driver drop him off a block away from each synagogue so that synagogue-goers would not see the famous conductor riding on the holiday.

His son, ALEXANDER, commented that his father would immediately intensely concentrate on the service and the cantor upon entering a synagogue. He was carried-away, his son said, in a world of his own.