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