Just like at the Academy Awards presentation ceremony, where those in attendance pause to acknowledge the members of the Motion Picture Academy who have died during the past year, it is not at all uncommon, on my professional rabbinic listserv, for there to be a yearly quest to learn which prominent Jews have died since the last new year was ushered in.
Quite honestly, I’ve never found that to be a particularly helpful exercise. I don’t really like the idea of a “prominent Jew” possessing a larger claim to our sadness than a common one, whatever that means. Eleven years ago, shortly after my father’s sudden death right before Rosh Hashanah, when the inevitable question came across my listserv- “what prominent Jews died during the past year?”- I had a particularly visceral reaction.
My father, I remember thinking, was no one’s version of a “prominent Jew”- he was, if anything, shy and retiring, public prominence was not something that he sought out in any way, and he was not particularly deserving of it. But to me, in my grief at that time and to this day, he remains an extraordinarily prominent Jew, having sacrificed any potential for a more comfortable life that he might have had for the sake of sending my sister and me to day school, private universities, for securing my Jewish education through college, and working summers so that I could go to a Jewish summer camp. Humble and modest though he was, he set a spectacular example of selflessness and devotion for my sister and me. The idea of singling out any one’s person death as being worthy of communal sadness because he/she is well-known just seemed wrong to me, absent the glaring exception. Fame and fortune may put you in the public eye, but they don’t necessarily make you worthy of being singled out. Who you are, and how you live your life, make you worthy. And so it is that I am, quite usually, reluctant to focus on any one person or group of people when we recite Yizkor.
So now that I’ve said that, I’m going to make an exception this year, for a variety of reasons that I’ll share with you, and- ironically- the person on whose death I wish to focus on was not Jewish, though he considered himself, in his own words, to be an “honorary Jew.” As we prepare to remember those members of our family who were so instrumental in making us who and what we are, I want to devote a few moments this morning to the sudden, utterly unexpected and self-inflicted death of Robin Williams just a few months ago.
I am no stranger to death, and it is a sad and debilitating aspect of my work that I am often among the first to learn when there’s been a death in our community, either expected or shocking. I’ve never made my peace with it, but if one can be said to be “used to being shocked,” that would describe me. But Robin William’s death- his suicide- hit me particularly hard, and I’m still struggling to understand why in these few weeks since he died. I think that what I’ve come to understand so far through that struggle may have some light to shed on the processing of memory that is so much a part of reciting Yizkor, and on a few other related issues as well.
I have always loved comedy, and like all of you, I’m sure, through the years, I’ve had my favorites. I still marvel at how brilliantly funny Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner were in the 2000-year-old man routines fifty years ago, Alan Sherman still makes me laugh, and during his early years of doing stand-up, Bill Cosby could make me howl with laughter when he chronicled his family’s adventures and misadventures. Jerry Seinfeld is a brilliant stand-up comedian. But Robin Williams always seemed to inhabit a different if parallel world of comedy. You never really knew where he was going or what might follow, because his brain seemed to be inhabited by short, brief bursts of utter comedic brilliance that weren’t necessarily connected one to the other. They sort of morphed one into the other in a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness kind of way, and invariably, they were so unrelentingly funny and brilliantly creative that you could laugh until you were left breathless. His was a unique comedic genius in the truest sense of the word “unique.” There was no one else quite like him.
Had he died of a massive heart attack or stroke, I certainly would have been shocked and saddened. But the fact that he took his own life just seemed too painful a play on the Pagliacci theme, the clown whose art masks his sadness. How could it possibly be that the man who was arguably the singular comedic genius of his time, the one who could take my breath away from laughter, could be quite so unhappy as to take his own life?
I will come back to that question in a few moments, but the first thing I have come to understand and appreciate on a level far deeper than I ever did before is exactly how important laughter is in our lives- and, more specifically, how important the people who make us laugh are. I’m sure it sounds simplistic, even obvious, but it’s hardly either. As a society and culture, we tend to reserve our greatest respect for the serious thinkers, the philosophers, the men and women of letters, the great political leaders, but not for the people who make us laugh.
Laughter doesn’t come easily to everyone. Those people who are gifted with the capacity to lift our spirits, to remind us that laughter is the greatest tonic for so many of the ills that plague us, they are particularly precious members of the performing arts community. Apropos Yizkor, those who are mourning for a lost loved one often find that their capacity for humor, their own or anyone else’s, is severely diminished. To laugh is to abandon your grief for a brief moment, and people in deep pain are reluctant to do that. It can make them feel guilty, and inappropriate. Retrieving the capacity to laugh is an essential part of healing, a marker on the road to recovery. When we lose someone who made us all laugh, it is a more profound loss than we realize. The world is such a sober place, so sad, so troubled… Losing someone who could make us all laugh is a loss larger than just the death of a famous individual.
Once we understand that, we can return to the question that I posed just a moment or two ago. How could it possibly be that the man who was arguably the singular comedic genius of his time, the one who could take my breath away from laughter, could be quite so unhappy as to take his own life?
The simplest way to answer to this question is to state the unvarnished truth. We thought we knew Robin Williams because he made us laugh. Funny guy! But obviously, we didn’t know him at all. We had no idea what sadness lay behind the obsessive need to make us laugh, what demons haunted him, and made it impossible for him to revel in the admiration of others. In short, as I said- we didn’t really know him at all.
You might be tempted to say that we didn’t know Robin Williams because he was an untouchable figure to us, too famous for us to know personally, so we knew only what we saw or were fed. But everything I just said him, we could easily say about each other.
Think about it. We see each other in synagogue, maybe bump into each other at the supermarket, and occasionally catch a movie together. We exchange casual pleasantries, sometimes at greater length than others, and we form friendships with the people we appear to be the most compatible with, whose company we enjoy the most. But by and large, people tend not to share those things about themselves and their families that they choose not to share, and that is, of course, as it should be. Everyone needs to have a privacy zone, and if they don’t, well, that itself is a problem…. Too much information! We all know how uncomfortable that can be. The problem is that we sometimes forget about that zone of privacy, and think that we know all that there is to know about someone, famous or not famous, just because of his/her public face. It just doesn’t work that way. All the things that matter the most to someone- how happy he/she is, how their marriage really is behind closed doors, the concerns they may have about their children or parents, the struggle with alcohol or substance abuse that may impact all the members of the family in an ongoing debilitating way… we just don’t know, because people don’t share that information.
In Robin William’s case, it is clear that there was a history of substance abuse, which he often used as comic fodder much the way the later Richard Pryor did, another genius whose demons ultimately consumed him. There were rumors that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease… no one knows for sure. But more significantly, most significantly, we know he struggled with depression… a chemical imbalance within the human mind that is every bit as debilitating and potentially deadly as a killer virus. Depression is most commonly a condition that can be managed with both drugs and talk therapy, but some cases are much harder to deal with than others, and some patients much harder to treat.
If your life has been touched by depression, either your own or that of someone whom you love, you will know what it means to have it be a struggle to even get out of bed in the morning, much less feel at all positive about life and its possibilities, make crucial life decisions, care for children, be a loving partner to a spouse, or show up at synagogue pretending that you’re just fine, because that’s what you want people to think. Chronic clinical depression is an awful disease, and it was as much a reality of Robin William’s life as his remarkable comedy was. He wore that comedic mask remarkably well, and convincingly, even brilliantly, but obviously, his struggle proved to be too burdensome to bear. It behooves us to remember humbly that the things that we love and admire the most about someone are not necessarily the sum total of the person. And what is concealed is, as often as not, equally significant to that which is revealed.
Finally, as we prepare to recite Yizkor this morning, I want to encourage you to take this insight into the unknown and often unseen complexities of a human being and superimpose it onto the memories of the people that you loved, and have lost.
Memory is, as you know all too well, a phenomenally complex process. Sometimes we remember those we loved with rose-colored glasses, bathed in sepia tones, romanticizing their lives and, to borrow a concept from another faith tradition, essentially beatifying them after their death. In our mind’s eye, we make them into saints, because we miss them so much. And then, of course, there is exactly the opposite phenomenon, where the memory of a relative kindles such negative feelings that even reciting Yizkor becomes too unpleasant a thought to bear. It can be impossible to see any good when those unwanted memories crowd out anything positive that there might have been in a relationship.
Both of these types of memory share the same lack; they obscure the complexity of the people whom we remember. Few people- very few people- are all of one type or another, both for better and for worse, but even more to the point… those whom we remember were governed by the same dichotomy of the hidden and the revealed as those whom we know now. Each of them had pieces of their lives that they either chose not to share or could not share, and that made them who they were. Some offered love effusively; others couldn’t get the words “I love you” out of their mouths, even when they wanted to. Some were the products of unhappy childhoods but managed not to let that prevent them from being loving parents, and their children never knew the pain they carried within. Others visited the sins of the parents upon the children… And still others, of course, were taken from their loved ones before they had a chance to fulfill their destinies…
Once again, both out of a sense of humility and the hope that this insight might add a crucial dimension to your recitation of Yizkor, I urge you to consider these few reflections on the life, art and, ultimately, death of Robin Williams. Remember always that embracing the capacity for laughter is an essential component of the human spirit. Laughter is good for you, and those who help us laugh play a vital role in these troubled times. Remember too that just about everyone, without exception, has pieces of their lives that they guard carefully from the public eye, and that is, for the most part, as it should be. But we should never allow ourselves to believe that we know all there is to know about someone- even those closest to us.
And last but very much not least, as we recite Yizkor, let us try to allow for the fact that those whom we have loved and lost were real people, and probably far more complex than we might allow for through our memories. I hope that it might allow us all to be just a bit more forgiving of those who may have disappointed us, and appreciative of those who didn’t.
Whatever it is that might generate tears as we recite Yizkor- whether our own painful family legacies, or ongoing struggles with either physical or mental illness, please remember that this synagogue, and all synagogues, needs to be a place where it is safe to be broken, safe to be imperfect, safe to struggle. Admitting imperfection lies at the root of all true penitence, but it is a notoriously difficult thing to do. It takes courage- especially when you think that everyone else in the community has the perfect family, the perfect children, the perfect parents. Few do; believe me, few do. Community can be the greatest asset in dealing with pain, or the worst hindrance. It pains me that the the church world does such a much better job of having its houses of worship be a safe space for those broken of body and spirit; we have much to learn from them in making our synagogues similarly welcoming…
Yizkor is but four times a year. Dealing with the legacies that our families have left us, and with our own struggles, is a 24/7 issue. Let the synagogue be a safe place to be real; not perfect, but real… Having a privacy zone is critically important, but having to hide your pain in your own spiritual community is unconscionable.
A G’mar Chatimah Tovah to us all; may the year just begun be rich with blessing, and a deep appreciation of the rich complexity that makes our lives so meaningful.