Tag Archives: Rabbi

The Letter I wish Robin Williams could have read

robin williams 660 1 reutersDear Robin,

It’s been a little over  3 weeks since our collective hearts were broken by your passing, and I feel there are things I would have loved to have told you if  I only had the chance.  I sat down to write this with so much appreciation for what you gave us that I was not even sure how to address the letter. Mr. Williams shows respect but I have the feeling no one was allowed to call you that.  I wanted to address it to the funny man up in heaven, but since I believe you want to be remembered as so much more than that, I ultimately decided on merely going with Robin.

It’s important that I begin by addressing your death.  Although most of those I speak with loved what you gave the world and feel sadness at your loss, there are some who are not as kind or tolerant, calling you a coward or showing anger at what they see as the lack of morality in suicide.  It is because of this that I wish to relay to you a story.  In the late 70s in the Dutch city of Arnhem there was a man, with a lovely wife and young teenage daughter who was so scarred from the events that took place during the Nazi occupation of Holland that he had lived much of his adult life with often debilitating mental illness. Although he was a man who was gentle and loving to his wife and daughter, his inner torment was so severe that he would occasionally explode in a verbal rage in public forums, most notably the local synagogue.  The Rabbi leading the congregation would see this on a regular basis, get to know the man and his family well, and rather than address something that could not be fixed, worked around it, making the man and his daughter as welcome as possible. Sadly the man’s inner rage caught up with him and one day the Rabbi received the horrifying call that was tragically somewhat inevitable. The man had taken a gun and shot himself dead.  In the Jewish religion, suicides takes away the rights to a proper burial and the proper etiquette of mourning.  However, fully aware of the mental condition of the man, and at least somewhat aware of the cause, the Rabbi made a decree that the man was not actually a victim of suicide but a victim of mental illness caused by the horrors of war.  The Rabbi, in my opinion admirably, made the distinction between someone who was escaping problems in his life or running from shame, from one finding freedom of an inescapable torment. As a result of this decree the man received the respect and honor anyone else would have received upon their death. Personally I always felt great admiration for the Rabbi’s decision on this matter.  It taught me so much about how to apply compassion when compassion is due, and it made me see suicide as something that is not ever a black and white issue.   I was always grateful for what the Rabbi taught me from his actions, especially since the Rabbi was my late father.

I know there are those who will argue that there is no comparison with what someone went through between 1940-45 in Holland and what you went through in your life.  Of course that is true and I am sure you would be the first person to say that.  The point I am making is not to compare the cause of the demons, but the actual demons themselves.  We can easily make a judgment as to whose life was worse, but we can’t make a judgment to who felt worse.  Your torment brought your life to a similar conclusion and although everyone is entitled to their opinion, that is the source of my personal compassion.

As far as who you were for so many of us I wish to tell you the following.  You made us happier.  As a fan of yours I go all the way back to the Mork & Mindy days.  I will never forget a classic scene, one I unfortunately can’t find anywhere online, in which “Mork”, played by you of course,  was holding a jar of ants, and someone, I believe Mindy said, “those ants are revolting”, in which Mork replied, “actually they’re quite happy with their present form of government. Look! They’re even dancing.”  It was not till later that I learned this wasn’t even a scripted scene. Apparently this scene, like many others on the show was ad-libbed by you.

When it came to your movies my 2 favorites were “The Fisher King”, a remarkable movie, one  I believe to be highly underrated, in which you play a vagrant whose life was tragically altered by a tragic loss.  And the second movie ironically is the beautiful movie, “What dreams may come”.  I say ironically, because this movie not only deals with the matter of suicide, but forgiveness for suicide as well.  I can’t imagine what impact it has on someone’s psyche to get into character for movies like these, but in both of these movies your performances were brilliantly moving and I suspect impacted you emotionally in one way or another.

I spoke with someone just yesterday who agreed that part of what made you so special was that so many of us felt a connection to you.  Everyone has those favorite entertainers they feel a connection with. What set you apart is the fact that millions felt that with you.  For what you were to us and the service you provided to us, you were admired and loved.  Unfortunately that love is a very superficial love and not nearly enough to chase away the demons that destroyed you.

I did not know your personal life, but by all accounts you had people close to you that loved you dearly as well. This makes what happened even more baffling and complicated.  I don’t dare to say I know why the pain you felt was so great, but I will share the theory I proposed to the person I was speaking about you to yesterday.  There are occasions when I am really on.  When that happens I am funny, sharp and personable.  I can draw on some of those qualities on command to some extent, some of the time, but to draw on all of those qualities at once I need the stars to align and to feel just right. Subsequently I can’t predict if and when it will happen.  It is my  guess that you were able to access all those qualities at a moment’s notice, and that therefore you never achieved the high regular people like I get when we do hit that peak.  You always hit that peak, which in an odd way may have given you less to look forward to.  Again, I don’t know this, but in knowing a little bit about who you were, I can’t help but wonder if that was a factor.

Then again maybe it is something as simple as wanting to be seen as more than the funny man or entertainer, maybe you wanted something deeper you could never find.  If that is the case the pain and suffering that ultimately took you from us is even more tragic.  Because in your professional brilliance, be it in comedy or drama, you brought so much to so many people that we all feel you deserved better.  And the personal attachments you had, so many of which seem to have been loving and close connections also didn’t succeed in bringing you the peace to go on any further.

In the past few months I’ve put out letters to a number of celebrities over the events taking place in the world today.  Events that are concerning at best, terrifying at worst.  The day you died I said, “at a time when we needed humor the most we lost the funniest man on the planet.”  Maybe that was a burden too hard for you to bear.  If that is the case I for one am sorry for the pressure that put on you.

I end this letter with an interesting and mystical thought.  As of yet I don’t know who if any of the celebrities I’ve written to have read my letters. However, somehow I feel that you will see this letter.  If you do I leave you with this.  Thank you, rest in peace, and please, when you get the chance, tell my Dad a joke.

Sincerely,

David Groen

 

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A Disgrace

HenrySiegmanThis post is more of a rant than an editorial, but seeing as I can hardly believe what I just heard I felt the need to do this.  No Henry Siegman, Israel is not the disgrace, you are.  No one is happy innocent civilians are being killed, but how dare you as a man ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, portray yourself as a voice for the Jews.  You call on Israel to stop the killing as though they were the one’s who stopped it.  You call the U.S. hypocrites for not working with Hamas, the same organization killing the people you claim to be part of.  Would you have told the people in the Warsaw Ghetto to go easy on the Nazis too?  How come I never heard your name while Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists were blowing up Jewish families?  I guess you’ve taken your life experiences and come out a self-hating Jew. I can think of no other logical reason.  You’re a disgrace.

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When A Decision Shows Greatness

dadc1It was in the late 1970’s when we were living in the city of Arnhem, capital of the Dutch province of Gelderland, that my father was thrust into a situation no one would ever envy.  As the Rabbi of Gelderland and 5 other provinces, his duties included visiting and counseling the sick, visiting Jewish inmates in prison, and probably the most common occurrence, the performance of funeral services.  One day he received an urgent call saying that a well-known member of the community had taken a gun to his head and had killed himself.  The man, someone we all knew well, was a good man, but a mentally tortured man.  Whatever suffering he had endured at the hands of his Nazis was unknown to me, but we all knew that whether it was the suffering caused by the murder of his family or personal torture, this man was a victim of the Holocaust and sadly suffered mentally in a way the majority of people, myself included, could never understand.  Under strict Jewish law, someone who commits suicide is not entitled to a proper Jewish burial and is not supposed to be mourned as others would be.  My father, someone who had experienced the Nazi-occupation of Holland first hand, and a man of compassion and wisdom, would have no part of this.  Understanding that this man was not a weak man taking the cowardly way out, but rather a victim of the horrors, my father ruled his death as a death by illness, regardless of whether or not the final action was self-inflicted or not.  By my father making this decree, the man was able to receive the proper burial he deserved, and was mourned and remembered in the days, weeks and months that followed.

I was no older than 17 when this happened.  It would be something I would never forget because this action was a testament to what was great about my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen who passed away 7 years ago today on June 13, 2007.  As a son I always loved him.  As a young man, this decision by my father made me admire him, and stayed we me my entire life.

 


Remembering My Father

dadc193 years ago today in Rotterdam, Holland, my father Nardus Groen was born.  His life was one filled with substance, meaning, and love.  I remember him fondly and miss him often.  Despite what one might take from the book “Jew Face”, I was aware of my father’s faults.  Every human being is flawed and my father was no exception.  However, one of the things I witnessed from the time I was a child, was that he never spoke one bad word of his parents who were murdered in Auschwitz.

My father was a great man.  I say that with certainty and pride.  He was principled, strong, ethical, and loving.  I often wonder if he would have liked the book “Jew Face” and my portrayal of his life.  I have often said that the greatest joy for me in writing the book was that in writing it I felt as though I got to know my parents as young adults.  My father never was able to confirm if that feeling of mine was justified, but it is one that I keep with me and cherish.

To use more modern vernacular, when looking at my father in the most difficult of times, my father was a bad ass.  He claimed in later years that he often felt fear, but his actions during the worst of times showed a behavior that showed otherwise.  The hardest thing for me as his son has always been the feeling that I have never been close to being the man that he was.  But then again, many never will be.

He was proud of who he was, and as a Rabbi he tried to use his understanding and extensive knowledge of Judaism to help and teach others, Jew and non-Jew alike.  The debate on what makes one truly religious is an endless one, but in my eyes and the eyes of many others, my father was indeed very religious, even if somewhat unconventional in practice.

He loved my mother, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren very much. No one has ever perfected the art of showing that love, my father being no exception, but to this day his love is never questioned.  Together with my mother, who God willing turns 91 in 2 weeks, a new world sprung forth of decent and loving people who do them both proud.

So today, on what would have been my father’s 93rd birthday, I remember my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, with love and respect, and hope that some of what I have done this past year has helped part of the world know why.


Tisha B’Av: In the Mind and in the Heart

Most of my posts are done with some degree of research and historical reference.  Although the basis of this post will originate in overall Jewish and personal experience, this particular post comes entirely from the heart.  The wide range of emotions felt by any one individual make up who they are and although there are many, the 2 primary ones are joy and sadness.  Emotions are impacted by our level of maturity.  This does not necessarily imply that one is immature if they do not feel certain emotions, but that who we are and how we have grown, positively or negatively, will impact our emotional responses.  I say this because when I look at how I feel about Tisha B’Av today compared to years back, the difference is significant.

I’ve always known the religious and historical reasons for the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av.  It is said that both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, many years apart, on the same day, Tisha B’Av.  The city burned, people died, and the greatest physical symbol of Judaism was destroyed twice, on the same calendar date.  Since the Holocaust, Tisha B’Av has held greater meaning as it is used to recognize the loss and sadness of the Jewish people during that horrific time.  And yet, through so many of my adult years, although I always intellectually understood the importance and acknowledged it to different degrees, I would be dishonest if I were to say I truly felt sad.  This was until a few years ago.

So what changed?  I did not become more observant.  I am still someone who for right or wrong, picks and chooses what Jewish laws I keep and which ones I do not.  No one sat me down and gave me a speech to influence my feelings.  And yet, tonight, as I sit and write this on Tisha B’Av, I feel a genuine sadness.  I credit much of how I feel to the impact the writing of the book had on me.  However, not in the way one might think.

My experience in writing the book had me immerse myself into the world of my parents between 1940 and 1945.  How fortunate I was to feel at times as though I was there with them yet never actually be hungry, desperate, cold, hunted, and in constant danger.  I imagined I was there yet at no time was my life ever threatened.  What this did was teach me one of the most important and poignant lessons of my entire life.  It’s not all about me.  We all live our lives that consist of the good and the bad.  Many do live with some degree of fear or danger.  I do not, and I thank God for that.  But today I am a different person.  I am now someone who understands that it is not only my personal suffering and tragedy or that of those close to me that matters and should cause me true sadness.  Tisha B’Av is a day to recognize the sadness of others and to allow ourselves to truly feel it with emotion, not just intellect.  A day in which my own personal growth has now given me the opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see past my comfort and freedom and be truly sad for the pain and suffering of the Jewish people.  Now on Tisha B’Av my heart feels what my mind always knew.  I once heard a Rabbi compare Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur and how we fast full days on both saying, on Yom Kippur if one truly understand the awe of judgment by God, who would be able to eat?  And on Tisha B’Av, knowing the true sadness of the day, who would want to eat?  That makes sense to me now, not because I understand it, I always did, but because now I feel it with true emotion.


Who was this man and what made him great?

Completing the week of special remembrance for my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, tonight and tomorrow is the Yahrzeit, Jewish calendar anniversary of his passing.  To honor his memory I am posting a slightly edited version of the eulogy I gave at his funeral.

Who was this man and what made him great?
He was a son
A brother
A student
A friend
A realist
A freedom fighter
A Hero
A Companion
A father
A soldier
A scholar
A father
A Rabbi
A father
A chief rabbi
A traveler
A Rabbi
A father
A salesman
A provider
A partner
A fighter

A son

Although I never had the good fortune of knowing any of my grandparents, I grew up my entire life hearing nothing but good words about my father’s mother and father. In the 65 years of his life that he lived without them, he gave them nothing but honor. He showed the example of how to honor your parents and passed it down.
A brother
He spoke with affection of his sister who was a victim of the holocaust along with his parents. He raised us knowing our uncles and aunts and he especially had a close relationship with his brother David who was taken from his life at a much too early time.
A student
As a child he was such a tremendous student that he practically knew the entire Siddur by heart at the time of his Bar mitzvah as well as having a similar mastery of the torah by the age of 18. His photographic memory coupled with his love of Jewish studies made this a labor of love throughout his life.
A friend
He made special friends. Friends that lasted a lifetime. Once you became my father’s friend you were a friend to the end and treated with unparelled warmth, respect and loyalty. From his early years till his passing, one of the hardest things for my father was watching all his friends pass on before him. The reunion taking place at this time must be one of glorious majesty.
A realist
He knew that when his neighborhood was being cleared out by the Germans that it was a sign of something horrible taking place. He left everything he knew behind and understood that to survive he needed to take on a new identity. He knew the benefit of approaching things as they were, not as he hoped they would be.
A freedom fighter
Most of us here today will never know what it was like to live through the horrible times of Nazi occupation. So many people were taken and those who survived did so only by the grace of God. One of my father’s favorites sayings was, Hakol Talooy B’Mazal, Everything depends on luck or fortune. Although to survive that horrible time one did need the fortune of God’s mercy, my father took on himself to battle, to fight. Not just for his survival, but for the survival of anyone else he could help.
A hero
He saved countless lives during those years. His pragmatic nature allowed him to see past what he wanted to see and understand what was truly happening. He escaped 4 times from makeshift Nazi prisons and even once from a concentration camp. But his most heroic feat may have been saving his future bride, my mother from certain death. Not once, but many times over.
A companion
In doing this so began a companionship of 2 people unlike anything anyone you will ever find. Little did they know at the time, but the relationship that began at that time with my parents, began with the birth of their firstborn son, and now stands at 23 offspring alone. Although one portion of his life was at its end, and riddled with tragedy, a new portion of his life was beginning, and his strength, his courage, and love of life was the driving force to what would turn into a familial kingdom.
A father
When you are the youngest child you tend to see it all from a different perspective. And I saw the love and pride my father had for my 3 brothers and my sister. You will hear this over and over, but nothing was more important to him than his wife and children. He had tremendous passions and many interests, but the greatest joy he could have would be to sit around a table with his family, and a bowl of my mother’s heavenly chicken soup and just talk. With the birth of his first son a glorious saga began, and throughout my life I saw the joy and pride his oldest son gave him, and I saw him develop into a man willing to allow this son to show the honor he felt for his father by letting him do for him in the way he knew how..
A soldier
He was a Dutch marine, attached to the US Marine Corp only because once Nazi occupation ended my father wanted to continue to fight for what was right. He had tremendous pride in his time in the military and it was only his family values, the values that drove him most, that stopped him from a life as a career soldier.
A father
Once again becoming a father with the birth of his second son, I saw something very special in the relationship he had with someone with such similar personality traits. The same fighting spirit and love of family caused these 2 to have a relationship that was very special and needless to say, never dull.
A Rabbi
After the war he became a Rabbi and had various pulpits in different parts of the world. To my father though, being a Rabbi was not something that depended on having a congregation. It was something you lived. And whether he was the chief Rabbi in Surinam or at a point in his life where he chose not to practice, he was always a Rabbi.
After starting a family with 2 sons, behold they saw a 3rd son. It took 3 tries, but he then had a son who physically looked liked him. He admired this son’s mind and pragmatism and guided and taught him in the ways of the world as he had begun to with his first 2 sons
He was a great scholar.
He learned regularly with a Rabbi who was known worldwide as one of, if not the greatest scholar of that era. My father’s knowledge of Jewish law was as great as anyone I ever knew and if there was a question to be asked, he knew the answer. Most impressively however, he loved the opportunity to give it.
A father again when he and my mother finally made a daughter, and gave her the combined name of both her mother and his, my sister was always his little girl. The protective man he always was had him looking out for her at every opportunity. Their relationship was by her own words private, but clear to everyone, it was special.
He was a provider for his family.
We always had a warm home and a full refrigerator and as children never knew the difference between the good financial times and the ones not as good. He was proud when it came to these matters and would never allow it to even be a discussion, and since I never felt like I ever missed any essentials it was just fine by me.

He was a grandfather.
His love for his grandchildren manifested itself in many ways similar to his love of his children. He advised them, he talked with them, he taught them, and bragged about them. I never knew how painful it could be to a lose a grandparent till I saw it this weekend in the eyes of so many of my nephews and nieces. The loss for them was as profound as the blessing of having him was in their lives.

He was a partner with my mother, always making the decisions that needed to be made, even if it meant that sometimes those decisions were difficult or unpopular.
He was not known for romantic words or sentimental actions, but his love for her was as strong as a love could be. As his son I saw this most clearly at times when she became ill. For this was the only time when I saw a chink in an otherwise impenetrable armor.
He had charm, wit, strength, passion, and love.
He was a man, who sometimes said after the fact that he my have been wrong about something, but whenever he made a decision, he always made it because he felt it was right. For if he did not feel that something was right, he was unable to do it.
And another one of his favorite sayings was Savlanoot oo’ beetechone, which in Hebrew means, Patience and Faith. For he know that with those 2 qualities man could overcome almost any obstacle.
And of all the things spoken of my father and of all the great qualities he had, the one spoken of less often may be the one that was the strongest. What made him strongest was his heart. It was what made him generous, loving, caring, and a fighter till the very end. Literally till the very last breath.

I have told you all many of the things that made this man great, but there was one I have not yet mentioned. And I personally saved it for last.
Hakohl kohl Yakov, Vehayadayim Yeday Esav-(the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau). This passage from the Torah talks about how Jacobs voice was deceptive to Isaac and not the true voice it was trying to be. One time in my life when there were things going on in my life that were not as I wanted them to be, my father wrote this to me in a letter to make me aware that he knew I was in distress, and although I do not even remember what the problem was, I remember that my father’s awareness of it, was what made it ultimately go away.

There are so many different things that made this man who he was and made him great. But what made him great to me was that he was my teacher, my guide, my friend, but most of all my father. I can smile and be happy for the wonderful relationship I had with my father. As I spoke with he and my father almost every day, even if it was only for one minute, to utter the Dutch words, Velte Rusten (Rest Well) and Gezond Veerop( Arise in health). As I say goodbye to you, the father I am so tremendously grateful for having for 45 years of my life, it is with all my love that I say Velte Rusten, and this time I say in Dutch, slaap met de goede engletjes (sleep with the good angels).

The Life That Was Not Lived

The following  piece written by my father of blessed memory is the Foreword for the book “Jew Face: A story of love and heroism in Nazi-occupied Holland.” It is extremely appropriate for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

FOREWORD
by Rabbi Nardus Groen, of blessed memory

The life that was not lived:

This is the story of two people whose experiences cannot be seen as
separated from one another. At the same time, it includes a multitude of people
whose story will never be told. We therefore consider it a privilege as well as a
duty to share with you some of the 4,380 days of our being on this earth.
Existence is more or less a state of exposure. Life, on the other hand,
is a matter of faith. If there was such a thing, my choice would be for
something in between. Some attributes may be applied to it, and others
may not fit the shoe.

We may in the course of it meet people who, for whatever it’s worth,
may be portrayed as heroes, while others are cowards, pacifists, or activists.
They are all the products of mankind. For them, there will always be a
place under the sun (with the exception of the traitor). But being as we are
a homogenous society, no one can ever be left out. And as it is by the very
inclination of the human race, the dark shadow of the wicked will play an
overpowering role in leaving behind the marks in the way of scars brought
upon them by society.

If the worst could ever be turned into good, the only lesson to be learned
of that is, never ever forget. For in the past lay the present, and in the present
the future. Without that, we will be repeating our mistakes and shortcomings,
and as a result the world will not be the place it was created to be.

In order to live, you still have to be able to somehow believe in the
goodness of mankind. In that light, we will start with our first words to
describe that which has been and never should have been.