We’re still learning more about the extraordinary comic and brilliant actor Robin Williams, who, alas, killed himself at age 63. Recently, many of us discovered that he was considered an honorary Jew, so to speak. It’s not just that he could effortlessly drop Yiddishisms or perfectly articulate the accent of an elderly Eastern European Jewish man, or that he had countless close friends and colleagues who were members of the tribe. His affection and support for Judaism ran deeper.
According to the New York Jewish Week, Williams reportedly attended 13 Bar Mitzvahs in the eighth grade while growing up in Detroit. But his identification transcended social lines. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, remembers sitting at a table next to Williams at the 2005 annual banquet of the USC Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. Hosted by Steven Spielberg, the evening featured former President Bill Clinton. Williams provided the comedy. “A comedy act at a Holocaust event is never easy,” Eshman wrote, “but Williams nailed it,”leaving everyone in stitches; offending no one.
Williams remained at the banquet long after the headliners left. “You were hysterical,” Eshman told him. “Thank you,”Williams said. “And you stayed to the end.” “This means a lot to me,” he said. “His voice caught me off guard at first,”Eshman wrote, from a man who on stage slipped with restless energy from one crazy voice to another. Then I realized:the earnest, quiet sincere voice I was hearing — that was his own.”
When Spielberg was filming “Schindler’s List,” Williams called him every day during the production to “brighten the director’s mood.” Bet you didn’t know that. “He seemed to be one of us,” the Jewish Week said of this son of an Episcopalian father and Christian Scientist mother, adding that “he wasn’t really one of us.” Or was he, just not by blood or faith?
The Jewish Week also cited the Facebook page of the Jewish Federations of North America: “We mourn the loss of the great actor, comedian Robin Williams, z”l.” The federation used the initials for the Hebrew expression zichrono li-veracha, “may his memory be a blessing.
Some of Williams’ fans did think he was Jewish. Depending on whatever zany dimension he inhabited at the moment, you could believe Williams was a teacher in a boys’ academy or a psychologist or an alien. The reality is that he was a human being — hilarious in public but crying in the dark. He was the ultimate enigma, and Everyman.
A few years ago on “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton asked Williams the final question on the Proust Questionnaire: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear at the pearly gates?”
“First, I’d like to have a front row seat,” he smiled. “It would be nice to know that there’s laughter. And it would be nice to hear G-d say, ‘Two Jews go into a bar . . . ’”
We hope the laughter has followed you, Robin Williams. May your troubled soul rest in peace.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News