Now starring in heaven - Jerry Stiller

Humor, serenity, light and love - that was the essence of Jerry Stiller, who passed away this week. Op-ed.

Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann ,

Jerry Stiller as Latke Larry with Rabbi Kaltmann
Jerry Stiller as Latke Larry with Rabbi Kaltmann

Maybe you knew him as Frank Costanza. Or as Arthur Spooner. Or as half of Stiller and Meara. Or maybe even as the voice of Latke Larry. However, you knew him, Jerry Stiller was a very funny guy. And I’ll tell you a secret: Jerry’s parents knew from his infancy that their son was in this world to make people laugh.

Jews in the Diaspora often have a ritual Hebrew name. Jerry’s parents gave him the name Yosef Yitzchak, which translates to “he will add in laughter.” Jerry was a friend of mine. He added laughter and light to my life. And I can guarantee you he’s already entertaining G-d and a host of angels.

There’s a story in the Talmud, a compendium of the oral tradition of the Torah, that says the prophet Elijah presented two men to a great sage and said they were destined for the World to Come. “What do you do?” the sage asked the men. “We are comedians,” they said, “and we go to cheer up those who are depressed.” That was Jerry.

Humor teaches us to dig beyond the veneer and gain a deeper, fresh perspective on the world. Jerry, in his sweet way, was all about making us happy. When he and I were together, walking down the street or eating in a restaurant, we often were stopped by fans who recognized him. He signed autographs and chatted with everyone.

Fifteen years ago, I created the singing action figure Latke Larry as a fundraiser to benefit Friendship Circle, a program that pairs teenagers with families that have children with special needs. I wanted a well-known voice and searched Hollywood for the most endearing, down-to-earth guy I could find to be that voice. Jerry won hands down. As soon as I called and told him what I wanted, he said yes. He even donated his time; he loved people and hated to see them suffer.

It’s fitting that Jerry passed away on the eve of the Jewish festival of Lag Ba'Omer. In Jewish tradition, after someone dies, a single candle is lit to represent the person’s soul flickering into a higher spirit. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who introduced Jewish mysticism to the world in the second century, said his own passing would be “the day of my happiness” and asked instead that his disciples light candles and bonfires in joyous observance. To this day, the essence of Lag Ba'Omer is the light and love of the world. Light and love was the essence of Jerry Stiller.

Jerry’s character Frank Costanza on Seinfeld was told by his doctor to say “Serenity now!” when he felt his blood pressure rise. As Latke Larry, Jerry ended his song the same way: “Serenity now!”

One thing I know for sure: Jerry “Yosef Yitzchak” Stiller, as he ascended to Heaven Monday and met a host of paparazzi angels asking him for autographs, said, “I want to talk to the boss. I want to talk to G-d.” His message to the King of Kings? “Enough with suffering. Enough with corona virus. We get the point. Serenity now!”

Areyah Kaltmann is the Executive Director of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center Home to LifeTown, Columbus, Ohio.