Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, a popular speaker, author and teacher who sought to demystify death and grief by sharing the dark and painful lessons he learned from suicide in youth, died Wednesday, according to his website. He was 96.
“You are dead, and you never came back,” Grollman taught. “Because suicide was so common among my peers, I learned about it early on.”
The principles he taught were for a wide audience, said his daughter, Ruth Grollman. Grollman’s website notes that he wrote five books, including “The Insomnia Answer: A Letter to You During the Poetry Experience.”
“Whether you are a poet or not, you’ve got to know who Grollman is,” his daughter said. “He taught so many people, but if you knew anything about the family, it was like he was a member of the family.”
Born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York, Grollman attended Yeshiva University in New York and Columbia University. After marrying the late Harriet Levy, who taught history, political science and religious studies, the couple set up homes in Bermuda and Marfa, Texas.
Their son, Rabbi Stephen Grollman, is president of the Frum Institute and The Hebrew College and is considered the father of modern Orthodox Judaism. Stephen and Ruth Grollman have five children.
Rabbi Harry Greenspan, a rabbi who had a high school teacher with whom he shared his father, recalled Grollman’s support of interfaith marriage.
“He very much supported people who married, and he never made people who married feel like sinners,” Greenspan said. “I felt very strongly that it was his philosophy that when people married, you should be honest about it. The two people should make a decision together, and whoever makes the worst mistake, has to live with it.”
He was known to dance out of the dark to “Magic,” a song by the Harry Chapin Memorial Trust. “Harry was always his family’s escort at the fire department, and he kept the traditions going,” Greenspan said.
The rabbi also pushed for spirituality through his work at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said Rabbi Moshe Safdie, dean of the institute, also a rabbi.
“He was a fantastic teacher,” Safdie said. “His teaching on death and grief was always on a high level. He taught very much like a scientist. He treated life as it relates to things that don’t make sense, like death.”
Grollman taught in congregations and schools for 50 years. He also wrote and lectured in his local, national and global audiences, his daughter said.
Among his senior staffers at the JTS Seminary was the late Isaac Goldberg, who later served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
An inspirational teacher, Grollman enjoyed driving people to Great Beyond.
His car had a bumper sticker that said, “If you miss the Holy One, the Holy Ghost, you will burn up in flames.” He’d give DVDs to his students, informing them he was preparing to go to Jerusalem at the same time, Greenspan said.
The rabbi didn’t suffer from diabetes and not all the pulpit stories ended well.
“He’d tell people that if they were going to die, that’s the time to teach more,” Greenspan said. “He had lots of stories, and they made you feel bad when he died, and then your second thought was, ‘Didn’t he deserve to live?'”
Grollman’s full name was Earl A. Gelman. He was predeceased by his wife. Survivors include three daughters, Ruth, Ruth Leibowitz and Estelle, eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
— By Miriam Falco with reporting by John Larson
CNN’s Noah Gray contributed to this report.