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Remembering Jerry Stiller

Remembering Jerry Stiller

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Photo by Tim Boxer
Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Photo by Tim Boxer

Jerry Stiller, born in Brooklyn 1927 as Gerald Isaac Stiller, told me how hard it was to keep kosher. His father William, a taxi driver then a city bus driver, never made enough money to sustain the family. They moved 11 times the first 13 years of Jerry’s life. One day they moved from one end of the block to the other.

“We worked our way down the economic ladder,” Jerry told me in an interview at Cheers restaurant in 1988. “We kept going from the better neighborhood to the worse and worse and worse, finally ending up on the Lower East Side when I was 12.”

He said his mother Bella kept kosher in Brooklyn. Life got rough during the poverty-stricken days of the Depression which made it difficult to keep kosher. “What can you think about kosher when you don’t have enough food?”

When the city gave out free food to the impoverished, his father brought back cans that had no label on them. Turned out to be pork, which his mother would not allow in the house. She made him take all the cans back and trade them for chicken or something else.

“We didn’t go out of our way to eat a ham sandwich,” Jerry said. “We still went for pastrami and corned beef.” Then Chinese became a staple on the table.

Jerry Stiller told an Israel Bonds dinner in 1998 how proud he was that many celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Wolf Blitzer did not Anglicize their name. “Which raises the question of assimilation: why are so many gentile women attracted to Jewish men?”

“The answer’s right here,” said his wife Anne Meara, a Brooklyn-born Irish Catholic. “I married a very romantic short man [at 5’5”]. I was studying with Rabbi Bamberger. I was converting [in 1961], getting my teeth fixed and seeing an obstetrician at the same time. It was so confusing.”

Jerry and Anne were married for over 60 years. She died in 2015 at age 85. They made regular TV appearances as a comedy team on the Ed Sullivan Show. Jerry played Frank Costanza, the hysterically high-strung father of George (portrayed by Jason Alexander), on “Seinfeld.”

Show business is a family trade. Their son Ben Stiller, who had a bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Synagogue, is a film actor and director; daughter Amy Stiller is a standup comedian and actress.

Jerry said he yearned to visit Israel. Every year he’d say next year in Jerusalem, but his acting obligations came first. When Ben was 17 he talked his father into making the trip together. Jerry was ecstatic.

“It filled me with personal strength and a connection with who I am,” he said. “The diaspora would never be the same after having been in Israel.”

On the way down from Masada, in the cable car, there was a group of Americans. One started singing in Yiddish, then segued into “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” It was Passover-Easter week.

“In Israel.” Jerry said, “you’ll never be alone. You’ll always be invited to a seder.” Jerry was invited to a seder at the American Archeological Society at the Albright Institute.

Jerry died of natural causes at home on the Upper West Side on May 11, 2020. He was 92.

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