Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

An interview with Theodore Bikel

In May, Mr. Bikel, in wheelchair, spoke at Kulturfest NYC. With him, from left, are actor Alan Alda, film director John Lollos, and Jewish Standard film critic Eric Goldman.
In May, Mr. Bikel, in wheelchair, spoke at Kulturfest NYC. With him, from left, are actor Alan Alda, film director John Lollos, and Jewish Standard film critic Eric Goldman.

Theodore Bikel died on Tuesday in Los Angeles, where he lived. He was 91, and survived by his fourth wife, Aimee Ginsburg; his sons, Robert and Daniel; two stepsons, Zeev and Noam Ginsburg, and three grandchildren.

In 2006, journalist Rahel Musleah interviewed Mr. Bikel. We reprint an edited version of that interview here.

Theodore Bikel’s cell phone rang.

“If I Were a Rich Man,” it tinkled, though it was hardly a match for the rich and still-robust baritone of the man who played Tevye in more than 2,000 stage performances for 40 years. In fact, Mr. Bikel’s treasury of talents adds up to no less than an embarrassment of riches: His versatility spans stage, screen, and television; he is an actor, folk singer, lecturer, raconteur, political activist, and advocate for the arts.

Throughout his life, he maintained a relentless concert schedule. He lived at home but called himself “the flying Jew.” He was instrumental in reviving Jewish life in Poland; he has active in Canada, Israel, and Cyprus too. Where does his stamina come from? “From God,” he said, with a nod to Tevye.

At the North American Jewish Choral Festival, where he received an award for his “lifetime contribution to the arts, the Jewish people and humanity,” Mr. Bikel transported the audience to different eras and characters through subtle transformations in his own demeanor. His timing was as impeccable as his diction. In suspenders and rolled-up shirt-sleeves, with his plentiful white hair boyishly combed down over his forehead, he leaned into the microphone. He strummed his guitar among early Zionist pioneers, then Russian gypsies. He became the original Captain von Trapp crooning a tender “Edelweiss;” he evoked the lost Yiddish world of his own childhood. And suddenly he was on his feet in front of the Soviet Embassy, his arm raised in protest, Nye Byussa! — “I do not fear” — on his lips.

The group was mesmerized. “He’s the voice of my childhood,” said Cantor Erica Lippitz, one of the participants.

To Mr. Bikel, acting and singing were “as important as breathing.” As he wrote in his autobiography, “Theo,” actors “make children laugh and clap their hands and grown-ups forget the burdens of the day, and that’s just as important as sending them off to learn a lesson.”

A master of characterization, Mr. Bikel played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a Russian submarine skipper, an American university dean, a Chinese crook, a Scottish police officer, a Hindu doctor, and others. His autobiography overflows with the names of prominent actors with whom he has worked, from Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire” to Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen,” his first film role.

He spoke five languages fluently (English, German, French, Hebrew and Yiddish), two passably (Russian and Spanish) and sang in 23 languages. His television credits ranged from “Star Trek” and “Dynasty” to “Murder, She Wrote” and “All in the Family.” He received an Emmy award for PBS’s “Harris Newmark” and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor as the Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones” (1968, with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis).

Though he asserted that the arts don’t have to have an agenda, for Mr. Bikel art and activism were intertwined. Born in Vienna in 1924, he recalled at 13 he watched a celebratory Nazi procession from his window, his neighbors cheering as Hitler and Goring rode by in open limousines. Some of his neighbors were silent, but they did nothing. Later, he said, “it became clear that I would never ever put myself in the place of the nice people next door who said ‘It’s not my fight.’ It’s always my fight. Whenever I see an individual or group singled out for persecution, there’s a switch thrown in my mind–and they become Jews.”

Mr. Bikel’s father, an ardent Zionist who named his son for Theodor Herzl, obtained a visa for Palestine; the family landed in Tel Aviv on Rosh Hashanah 1938. “I always carry the specter of the Holocaust with me,” Mr. Bikel said. “Why was I saved? Maybe I was meant to use my voice as a warning that history must not repeat itself.”

Mr. Bikel fought on behalf of civil rights (he once sang a Yiddish socialist song at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama) and was arrested several times. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.. He was senior vice president of the American Jewish Congress, a board member of Amnesty International, and chaired the progressive Zionist organization Meretz USA.

Mr. Bikel performed with an orchestra whose members are Christian and Muslim survivors of the Bosnian war in a series of concerts called Bridge to Peace. On their 2005 tour of Poland, a Bosnian Muslim woman cellist played “Kol Nidrei” in a Krakow synagogue. “I’m an idealist with occasional forays into reality checks,” Mr. Bikel said. “I dream of better worlds — and then I try to do something about it.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Bikel protected his peers’ interests. Along with the “genetic knapsack” he inherited from his socialist father, the actors’ strike of 1960 and a personal incident prompted him to become active in Actors Equity. During his stint in “The Sound of Music” with Mary Martin, the Jewish producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, refused to let him off for Yom Kippur. He was both vice president and president of Actors Equity, was vice president of the International Federation of Actors, and was president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. He acknowledged his “midwifely role” in the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on the Arts, on which he served for five years by presidential appointment. He even joined the picket line in front of NBC in 1967, minutes after he married his second wife, a television producer. “Horizons are not meant to be shrunk,” Mr. Bikel said.

Mr. Bikel said he learned from every role, but playing Zorba the Greek has had an extraordinary impact on his character and outlook. He started out envying Zorba, then attempted to emulate his individualism, disregard for material possessions and joie de vivre — but finds that is “clearly not possible in this materialistic world.”

His talent for performing started early. He sang before he talked. He had his mother’s good voice and her ability to be funny. (“My parents’ names were Joseph and Miriam. My name should be Jesus,” he deadpanned.) His father, too, was a “fountain of song,” an intellectual and amateur actor who worked as a clerk and insurance salesman.

Imbued with the pioneer spirit in Palestine, Mr. Bikel attended the Mikve Israel agricultural school and joined a kibbutz, K’far Maccabi, near Haifa, “neglecting to observe I had neither talent nor inclination for agriculture. I stood on heaps of manure singing about work I wasn’t doing.” He found an abandoned guitar on the kibbutz and taught himself to play, but never learned to read music properly. The kibbutz sent him to a cultural seminar and the rest, as they say, is history.

He left the kibbutz and joined the Habimah Theater in 1943 as an apprentice actor; a year later he co-founded the Cameri, the Israeli Chamber Theater. At 22, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Impressed with his work at small London theaters, Olivier cast him in “Streetcar.” In 1954, he was brought to New York to appear on Broadway in “Tonight in Samarkand,” fell in love with the city, and made the United States his permanent home.

Mr. Bikel has performed solo recitals as well as with symphony orchestras and opera companies. Many of his 22 recordings feature Jewish, Israeli and Yiddish folk songs; “Silent No More” introduced songs of the Russian Jewish underground. More recently recorded CDs include “In My Own Lifetime: 12 Musical Theater Classics,” and “Our Song,” duets in Hebrew, Ladino, Greek, Yiddish, Serbian and more, with Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. “I make no claim that the Jewish song is better than the song of my neighbor. But it is mine,” he writes. “And since it is the song of my people, it is up to me to cultivate it lest the blooms wither and the garden becomes bare and desolate.”

Despite his impressive general accomplishments, Mr. Bikel often was seen as a Jewish performer, a label he disputed only when he toiled in non-Jewish arenas. “I’m a Jew who loves and knows the tradition, who has studied a lot and speaks the languages of my people,” he said. “I’m a cultural Jew, universalist passionately committed to equality for all people precisely because of the Jew in me.” He dismissed the “ridiculous notion of a melting pot where everyone is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Society is meant to be a kaleidoscope, every part clearly delineated and contributing to the beauty of the whole.” Urging Jews to study their own tradition instead of turning to others, he says, “We all have an attic. Our grandfather’s attic is full of wonderful heirlooms, most of them dusty and dull. A little dust on an old heirloom is not so terrible. We can brush it off and make it shine again.”

As Tevye, he did just that. “I played my own grandfather, Reb Shimon Bikel,” he said. Sholom Aleichem’s 26-volume works lined the shelves of the Bikel home in Vienna; when the family fled his grandmother had the books sent to Israel. At 13, he played a bar mitzvah boy in Sholom Aleichem’s “It’s Hard to Be a Jew.” His first paid role at Habimah was as the constable in “Tevye the Milkman,” on which “Fiddler is based.” He had 29 words.

There are some things Mr. Bikel did not do well. He claimed to be a clumsy and reluctant dancer, was not good at sports, and didn’t understand baseball. He was an avid chess player and became a Scrabble fiend, playing it on planes and trains.

“I keep slugging away at things of importance: the Yiddish language, which was almost murdered along with the six million; a sense of Jewish community that believes justice to be more important than politics; a Zionism true to its origins and not to a pragmatic accommodation of circumstance; a sense that the things that are precious cannot be won and stored away,” he said. “Freedom and justice have to be fought for over and over again because they are in danger over and over again.”

As he traveled to “places of stress in times of stress,” he took his guitar with him. That, he says, “is the only weapon I have — or care to have.”

read more: