Obituaries | Remembering Robin Williams, an honorary Jew

A lot of people will be posting their Robin Williams memories. Beyond the hours of laughter he gave me, I have one personal memory of Williams, who was found dead Aug. 11 at his home in Tiburon at age 63, a suicide.

Williams was one of the entertainers at the annual banquet for the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Institute. It was Feb. 17, 2005. Steven Spielberg, who created the Shoah Foundation with the proceeds from his film “Schindler’s List,” was the host. Williams provided the comedy, Sheryl Crow the entertainment, and the lead speaker and guest of honor was former President Bill Clinton.

Robin Williams tweeted this photo of himself wearing a kippah on the set of “The Crazy Ones” in March. His son Zachary attended the JCCSF’s Early Childhood Center in the mid-1980s, and Williams helped raise money at the school’s Monte Carlo Night one year by volunteering as a blackjack dealer.

My table was next to Williams, who sat beside Crow and her then-boyfriend, Lance Armstrong.

A comedy act at a Holocaust event is never easy — that’s another whole story — but Williams nailed it. I remember one line from a rapid-fire monologue that left him sweating and spent, and the crowd in stitches.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Williams said in a Yiddish accent, “Welcome to Temple Beth Prada. This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”

Williams, born and raised Episcopalian, said on many occasions he considered himself an “honorary Jew.” He certainly played some on screen, most memorably (for me) as the spiritually lost Everyman in an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”

Last March, the actor tweeted a picture of himself in a kippah on the set of his sitcom “The Crazy Ones.”

Williams tweeted: “Too late for a career change? Rabbi Robin?” The actor’s Twitter followers liked the tweet. One man responded “Never too late Rabbi Williams.”

And, not long ago, Williams had this memorable exchange on German TV:

German interviewer: “Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?”

Williams: “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”

My memory? As the Shoah event went on, I noticed Williams had returned to his seat and remained to the very end, long past the time most headliners duck out. As we all got up to leave, I found myself standing right beside him.

“You were hysterical,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said.

“And you stayed to the end,” I said.

Williams looked at me with great sincerity.

“This means a lot to me,” he said. “Of course.”

His voice caught me off guard at first, coming 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.

Bless you, Robin Williams.

This essay originally appeared at

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is Senior Contributing Editor of the Forward. Follow him on Instagram @foodaism and Twitter @foodaism or email [email protected].