In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Larry King, the legendary TV talk show host who died Saturday at 87.
Larry King changed his name from Lawrence Harvey Zeiger early in his radio career in Miami. “Nowadays, they wouldn’t have changed it,” he says. “Today in broadcasting, any name goes. But when I started in 1957, right before I went on the air, the general manager asked me what name I was going to use. I hadn’t even thought of it. He had the Miami Herald newspaper open to an ad: ‘The King’s Wholesale Liquors.’ So he said, ‘How about Larry King?’ And I said, ‘Fine.’”
King was turned off to Judaism back in Hebrew school in Bensonhurst. “I didn’t like the God of the Old Testament,” he says. “The God that’s printed there was vindictive, vain, petty, violent. Why would I want to share an afterlife with that God? And I never bought the whole story—that Moses went up the mountain and God spoke to him. I thought Moses was kind of a genius for coming up with the Ten Commandments—most of which don’t make any sense today. For instance: ‘You can’t covet.’ Everybody covets? You don’t do anything about it, but who doesn’t covet?
“So I’m not a religious Jew—I grew up away from that. But I’m so culturally Jewish. For example, the thought of mixing milk and meat would cause me to throw up. I would never take a piece of steak and a glass of milk; I think I’d faint. I’ll eat a piece of bacon. But it has to be very dry. And my mother used to bring home bacon that wasn’t from a pig.”
His mother wasn’t Orthodox, but she kept a kosher home, lit candles every Friday night, and hosted a seder. “And we ate Chinese food on Sunday like every good Jew.” King smiles. “I still do yizkor [tribute to the dead] every Yom Kippur even though I don’t believe my mother is hearing it anywhere. I don’t know if there’s a God. I’m a classic agnostic, but I’m a Jewish agnostic. That is, ‘Maybe there’s something! Don’t count it out!’”
He no longer fasts on Yom Kippur. “I used to. Once I made a terrible mistake. I was a big smoker before I had a heart attack, and one year I broke the fast with a cigarette. This is not smart. When you inhale it, and you haven’t had anything—no food for twenty-four hours—I thought I was going to topple over. I used to go to William Safire’s house [the New York Times columnist]; he used to do a big break-fast dinner. He’d say, ‘Eat light. A little matzo ball soup first.’”
I ask about King’s two children (by his current wife), ages four and three at the time of our meeting. “They’re going to be Mormons,” he says, “because my wife is so devout. When we got married, I said, ‘Look, since I’m agnostic, I have no right to tell you not to teach them what you believe. But give them an opening.’ So if they ever ask me, I’d tell them the exact same thing I’m telling you; ‘I don’t buy that God, I don’t know if there’s an afterlife.’ I’ll tell them the truth. I’ll take them with me when I go to synagogue on Yom Kippur and explain what it is. I hope they choose what they want. Most people believe what their parents believe. You’re a Mormon because your father was a Mormon. I’m a Jew because my father was a Jew.”
Would it matter if his children ultimately don’t call themselves Jews? “It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t, but I’d like them to know that they’re Jewish,” he replies. “Whenever we apply to schools we list them as both Jewish and Mormon. I have three grown children too—a boy, forty-seven, another boy forty, and a daughter thirty-five. The only one of the five who goes to synagogue is the boy who is forty. He’s raising his kids Jewish. I have five grandchildren. Three are being raised Jewish.” King pauses for a moment. “I just want my kids to be smart enough to learn for themselves and not be something by rote. I don’t want to believe something just because my father believed it.”
Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.