Jewish Journal

O Captain, My Captain

by Susan Esther Barnes

August 11, 2014 | 5:11 pm

Sitting here at my desk, I feel like crying. I notice a post on my Twitter feed from Rabbi Joe Black, asking, “Why does the death of Robin Williams hit so hard?” It’s an excellent question. Suicide is always so sad. It always feel like it could have been prevented, although God knows, Robin Williams had access to the best modern science has to offer, and it was not enough to end his suffering, or even to reduce it to what he considered to be a manageable level.

But this is different. It feels more personal, even though I never met the man. It must have something to do with how hard he made me laugh, for so long. It may be a cliché, but he was a comic genius. I remember watching one recording of a live show, in which he said something which clearly offended the audience. After that, they were not on his side. Yet he did not give up or give in. He kept going, and before long, the audience had forgiven him, and were laughing along with him once again. What bravery and skill it took for him to do that!

It is so hard to reconcile the deep belly laughs, the tears of hysteria, the gasps for the next joyous breath, with the thought that this man suffered so much and for so long that he finally decided he had to put an end to it.

Rabbi David Wolpe retweeted a message from Downtown Josh Brown which said, simply, “Oh captain, my captain.” It struck me particularly hard. It’s a quote from the 1989 film, “Dead Poets Society,” and seems to sum it up so perfectly.

For those of us who loved the improvisational insanity of Mork and Mindy, “Dead Poets Society” was our first chance to see Robin Williams in a serious dramatic role. It was a revelation to learn he was not just a clown, but a fine dramatic actor. In it, Robin William’s character invites his students, “Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain My Captain.”

The poem by Walt Whitman, from which this quote comes, starts, “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;” and ends, “Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.” Yes, it fits perfectly, and it pains me to think it.

There are no words to describe our loss. In a world so in need of laughter, a brilliant, shining light has gone out.

Please, if you are thinking the world is too dark for you to go on, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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