Over half a century after leaving Israel as the impoverished nine-year-old son of an Auschwitz death camp survivor, Chaim Witz returned to his birth country this week under different circumstances – as mega-millionaire rock star and TV personality Gene Simmons.

“It’s amazing to be back here,” said the outspoken 61- year-old co-founder of rock legend Kiss on Tuesday in Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel, where his entourage has taken over eight rooms.

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Simmons is here with his long-time companion Shannon Tweed and their son Nick to film episodes of their US reality show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels.

“One thing that’s striking is that I never remember seeing so many yarmulkes here. It’s all of a sudden teeming with hassidim – hassidim, but I don’t believe ’em,’ said Simmons, like a rapper. “I’m used to Israel as a secular place where people just are Israelis.

I much prefer it as a modern, not-so-archaic-looking place.”

Simmons is still adept at the Hebrew he learned as a child and responded in a broad American accent to a question of whether he still spoke the language, “Ken, aval shahachti hatzi hasafa (Yes, but I’ve forgotten half the language).”

An imposing figure with a mane of black hair, a dark sports coat and sunglasses, Simmons moves more slowly than in the days when he was regularly breathing fire and spitting theatrical blood onstage as the front man and bassist for Kiss, rock’s biggest spectacle in the 1970s.

But even without the sci-fi makeup, the exceptionally long tongue on display and the 10-inch platform shoes that undoubtedly created a superhuman effect onstage, he still possesses the magnetism that’s helped his group sell 100 million records, continue to draw sellout crowds and forge a multimillion-dollar business empire complete with Kiss video games, comics and even a credit card.

Simmons’ rags-to-riches story had a particularly difficult beginning as his father, a carpenter in Tirat Carmel, was barely able to eke out a living for his wife and son.

When Simmons’ Hungarian-born mother Flora left her husband and moved with the young Witz to Jackson Heights, Queens in 1960 in pursuit of the American dream, they were not far removed from the European nightmare the family had experienced in the Holocaust.

Imprisoned at Auschwitz at age 14, Flora saw her mother, grandmother and almost all of her family go the gas chambers, but it was a story that Simmons, who changed his name to Gene Klein in the US and eventually to Simmons, didn’t hear until much later.

“When I was growing up, my mother hardly ever talked to me about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps because she didn’t want to upset me, and I hardly ever asked her about it,” said Simmons.

“But over the years, I started to learn more about it and about how my entire family was killed and how my mother saw her mother go with her grandmother to the gas chambers.”

Even though he had never returned to Israel until this week, Simmons has always been an ardent supporter of the country, most recently sending a televised message to an IDF soldier (and Kiss fan) wounded during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, in which he called the soldier a “hero.”

Although Kiss has never appeared in Israel, Simmons dismissed other entertainers who have chosen to boycott the country as “idiots.”

“As an American, there’s no choice but to be supportive of Israel,” he said. “This is the Holy Land, and it’s no secret that everybody in America perceives Israel as its only real friend in the Middle East – who else are you going to rely on? “So when Israelis get touchy because – oops – somebody criticized them, they have to remember that Americans are used to criticizing everybody.

You need to develop a tough skin and remember, it’s not what someone says, it’s what they do.

“Do you ever doubt that if anything threatened Israel’s existence that the US would come to its defense with all of it nuclear capabilities? I don’t.”

According to Simmons, Israel has been a source of pride for him ever since he left.

“There ain’t no place like it on planet Earth. It’s astonishing that it’s still here – stronger and prouder than ever,” he said, adding that the recent upheavals in the Muslim world have filled him with hope for the future of Israeli-Arab ties.

“We went from being slaves in Egypt to actually having a peace treaty with the same people who enslaved us. And now, seeing those people rise up and want the same kinds of things that other democracies in the world have is astonishing,” he said.

“I saw a CNN interview that was so telling. The interviewer asked one of the young, well-dressed demonstrators in a Cairo street if he would like to thank anybody for the popular uprising, and he said, ‘I would like to thank Mr. Zuckerberg.’ Here’s an Egyptian Muslim thanking an American Jew for inventing Facebook! “And I just saw in The Jerusalem Post today a photo of Moroccan women holding up the ‘f’ from Facebook as they were demonstrating. It’s amazing that Facebook, invented by a Jew, is actually helping Muslims be able to express themselves. That’s the story!”

The other story for Simmons, and what brought him to Israel this week as a guest of the Tourism Ministry, is Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels, broadcast since 2006 on the A&E Channel in the US. The setting suits Simmons’ outlandish personality, perpetuated by decades of stories and boasts about his sexual appetites, rock-star exploits and his long-term relationship with former Playboy playmate and actress Tweed.

The family, minus daughter Sophie, who, Tweed explained, wasn’t able to miss school, will be filmed for the show touring holy sites and modern locations in the country, including a visit to Tirat Carmel.

After sitting in the David Citadel lounge enjoying sushi and pizza while their paterfamilias was doing his “Gene Simmons” act for a line of eager media reps, as the Family Jewels crew scurried around filming every moment, Tweed and her son Nick eagerly went “on camera” to express mixed feelings about having their lives exposed in front of the camera every week.

“It was Gene’s decision to launch to show – he wanted to do it and he asked us if we would do it, but I get the feeling that he would have gone through with it anyway,” said the still-striking Tweed.

“I completely regret it,” she laughed. “But in retrospect it’s been a lot of fun. I get to do a lot of things I might not have ordinarily planned for myself, like seeing the world,” she added, in eyeshot of the Old City walls.

“I’m completely fine with [being on the show],” said Nick, who bears a striking resemblance to his father and is even taller. “I’m a college student and it’s a source of income, so I can’t complain.”

Lack of income was the reason the elder Simmons gave for explaining why Kiss has never appeared in Israel.

“It’s so difficult – if you take a week to transport 20 tractor trailers worth of equipment for one or two shows, it’s enormously expensive. We would need a corporate partner to step up,” he said.

And proving that his bravado is not a thing of the past, Simmons expressed confidence that had Kiss emerged on the music scene today, they would have blown the competition out of the water.

“Kiss would have been huge if they came out today – they would have been the saviors of all music!” Simmons said with evangelical fervor.

“But, of course, Lady Gaga would say we were copying her. But it’s really the other way around.”

Then, with the light and camera men trailing his every move, and the makeup person not far behind, Simmons strode through the hotel lobby – the master of his world, where the rest of us are merely guests.

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