Several weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting an onstage
conversation with Theodore Bikel, one day after his 91st birthday,
at American Jewish University here in Los Angeles. The University had just
screened his documentary Theodore Bikel:
In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, which has been making the rounds of Jewish
film festivals over the past year. Not surprisingly, the audience response was
tremendous. The film opens with Bikel recalling the fateful day when the Nazis
overran his home town of Vienna, and follows him to the New World and his many
Theo has had some health issues of late, but his mind is as
sharp as ever. (He recently updated his autobiography to add “reflections upon
my 90th year.”) We had a lively conversation, but the challenge for
me was where to start? He’s led so many lives—as an actor, folksinger, Civil
Rights activist, union leader, and more. I teased him by saying he was the only
person I could think of who had worked with Humphrey Bogart, Rodgers and
Hammerstein, and Frank Zappa! Theo waited for the audience laughter to subside before
remarking that Zappa was the oddest of the group—which came as no surprise. (He
played a band manager in 200 Motels, but
gently refused Zappa’s request to dress as a nun for one scene.) He was the
original Baron von Trapp in The Sound of
Music on Broadway, a best-selling recording artist, and a busy character
actor who earned an Oscar nomination playing a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones. Those are just a handful
of his many credits.
His lifelong connection to the celebrated author Sholom
Aleichem predates his casting as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. (He has logged more than 2,000 performances,
and acknowledges that the play’s universal appeal is based in part on its
ability to make the author’s work palatable to a non-Jewish audience. He
describes it as “Sholom Aleichem lite.”)
Theo explained that his father spoke only Yiddish at home
and prided himself on his library of Sholom Aleichem books, which they were
forced to leave behind when his family fled to Palestine in 1938. The
postscript is quite amazing: his grandmother, who stayed behind, hounded the
Nazis who guarded confiscated property—so much so that they eventually let her
reclaim the books, which turned up on the Bikels’ doorstep in Palestine, to the
utter amazement of Theo and his parents.
His mother spoke German at home, his father spoke Yiddish,
he was given Hebrew lessons as a child, and learned French while visiting a
family retreat during the summer. English was his fifth language—the fifth of
many. (When he played linguist Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady and George Cukor asked him to draw on his skill with
dialects, Bikel reminded Cukor that of the two of them, he was not the one with Hungarian roots.)
Throughout the documentary, which is narrated by Alan Alda, Bikel
performs monologues and readings that capture the quixotic and uniquely
contrary humor of Sholom Aleichem, who is remembered on camera by various
admirers including his famous granddaughter, author Bel Kaufman (who died last
year at the age of 103).
My wife remembers attending protest rallies at Washington
Square Park in the 1960s when Theo’s folk songs roused the young people. When
Alice and I moved to Los Angeles and went to our first Rosh Hashanah service,
we found ourselves sitting in front of Theo and had the thrill of hearing his
sonorous voice in prayer all night long.
Yes, he has lived many lives…and he’s not done yet.
In 2013 he was invited to appear before the Austrian
Parliament to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Krystallnacht—the dreadful
night that synagogues were burned to the ground throughout Germany and Austria.
He recognizes that today’s Austria is not run by, or populated by, the same
people who were responsible for those atrocities, and while he can never
forget, he is willing to move on.
At a reception following the screening we met his doctor,
who told us that he advised Theo not to make the arduous trip to Vienna—but the
entertainer and activist refused. This was one date he wasn’t going to miss.
If you’re curious about Theodore
Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, produced by John Lollos and Marsha
Lebby, here is a trailer:
[Theodore Bikel died on July 21, 2015 which makes the memory of this afternoon all the more special to me.]