April 26, 2019

Theo Bikel: A memorial

How did I meet Theodore Bikel? Me, a country rabbi? Well, Theo met and befriended many country rabbis and he was sort of a country rabbi himself.

The real story, however, is that one Rosh Hashanah, years ago, about midway through the service at UCLA Hillel, a man with a big presence arrived; it was Theo. He was there participating, singing, davening while wearing a thick old woolen tallis like one my father, a”h, wore and holding a worn machzor (holiday prayer book) with ivre teitsch (Yiddish translation). When I called the Kohanim for the priestly blessing, he rose to the front of the congregation and proceeded to chant — he was after all of priestly descent; or as I preferred to refer to him, he was Kohen Gadol (High Priest). It was a memorable, unforgettable chant; more like a roar! As the service drew to a close, I went over to introduce myself, and I asked Theo: “Where did that come from?” (I didn’t yet know about the depth of Theo’s spiritual connection.) He proceeded to explain that his father loved chazanut and that when Theo was young, his father took him to hear many chazanim, whence he learned the classical prayers.

And so it was that the universal peace-seeking folk singer who inspired us in the ’60’s was also ne’im zemirot yisrael, a sweet singer in the Davidic tradition, a modern-day psalmist, singing the traditional prayers of his people so as to celebrate their joyous moments and bemoan their suffering. I loved this image of a Jewish humanist who, in his essence, was intensely Jewish and simultaneously universally human. His being defied simple definition, and his life encompassed it all. He lived rapturously and ravenously. And his capacity to translate from one language or culture to another was unparalleled. He was the complete human with an expansive soul, a grand neshama.

Nothing Jewish was alien to him, nor was anything human! As Leon Wieseltier said so well in his encomium to Theo upon his receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award from YIVO on June 18, 2015: “We live in a golden age of partial Jewishness, … Religious Jews know almost nothing of our secular traditions and secular Jews know almost nothing of our religious traditions. Jews who live in Hebrew know almost no Yiddish and Jews who live in Yiddish — now there is a saving remnant! — know almost no Hebrew, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews anyway live, arrogantly and ignorantly, in no Jewish language at all. Jews who are fluent in the siddur are strangers to Bialik and Amichai. Jews who still sing the old Zionist songs are dead to klezmer, and Jews who are devout about klezmer sometimes act as if their music is all that is required for Jewish continuity. How many students of Jewish film are also students of Talmud, and how many students of Talmud have a shred of an acquaintance with the history of Jewish art? An alarming number of poor souls among our brethren seem to feel that all they require for a genuine Jewishness is Woody Allen and Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld.”

But not our Theo. He not only did it all, but he was as comfortable chanting a Chasidic nigun as he was a modern Hebrew ballad and a Russian or Greek folksong. He was in Wielseltier’s words, “a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and of New York and L.A. — of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion.” He cherished and possessed all the songs and all the cultures. He was diversity personified. And his many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice were always conducted in a Jewish vocabulary. Again, Wielseltier: “He was an ambassador of our ethics to the world.”

Last week we celebrated the festival of Shavout. A glaring puzzle that has drawn commentary through the ages is the absence in the Torah of both a specific date for the holiday and a reference to the revelation that is being commemorated.  The Chasidic master R’ Zri Elimelech of Dinov, with whose work Bnei Yissaschar Theo was certainly familiar, explained famously that since the Torah’s teachings are eternal, Torah cannot be limited or constrained by time. Therefore, no explicit date for the revelation. Torah itself is timeless, beyond the bounds of any moment or community.

So too, I add, was dear Theo. He touched eternity in his lifetime and we were blessed to accompany him on his grand journey. Yehi Zichro Baruch!