December 10, 2018

Crossing borders: A tribute to Theo Bikel z”l

One of the great virtues of Jewish life in Los Angeles, with all its scale and diversity, is that it attracts truly extraordinary people.  I have been privileged to know and befriend three virtuosi of the human experience here in Los Angeles, all of whom have passed from this world in the last three years: Holocaust survivor, electrical engineer, and peace activist Arthur Stern z”l (1925-2012), legendary Rabbi Leonard Beerman (1921-2014), and now the incomparable Theodore Bikel (1924-2015).  What linked these three master-teachers of life was a pair of distinctive qualities.   First, all were deep, passionate, and proud Jews who refused to regard their Jewishness and their humanism in zero sum terms.  On the contrary, Jewish and universal impulses were fully complementary in their worlds.  Or perhaps it was the case for Theo Bikel, as Leon Wieseltier noted in a brilliant tribute to him last month, that the universal was accessed precisely through his sweeping command of the particular features of Jewish culture.

The second quality that linked the three was that they were willing to take controversial stands that drew down upon them hostility, but without surrendering either their principles or their place in the Jewish community.  They understood that asserting their moral voice, as Theo Bikel did when he joined other artists in refusing to perform in West Bank settlements in 2010, was not an abdication of Jewish responsibility, but the full exercise of it.  On many occasions before and after, Theo raised his voice over injustices around him—civil rights abuses, mistreatment of laborers, repression of Soviet Jewry. It was the Jewish moral imperative within him that demanded words and then action.

But it would be a grave mistake to reduce Theo Bikel to just a political activist.  His voice of protest was just one of the many registers in which he spoke and sang.   (Indeed, one cannot cease to be amazed at the quantity and quality of Theo’s linguistic skills, both in acquiring foreign languages and in effecting accents.)  He sang equally passionately of joy, sorrow, irony, surprise, laughter, and, of course, love.  He was, as his political opposite and admirer David Suissa wrote last year, a “man in full.”

What makes such a rich and multifaceted personality?  In addition to immense God-given talent, it was the diversity of his life experience.  The first chapter of Theo’s life unfolded at a tremulous moment in European history—in the intense interwar ambience of gilded Vienna.  The Austrian-born Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 marked the beginning of the end of his relatively charmed family existence.  After the Anschluss in 1938, Theo’s father decided to act on his deep Zionist convictions (the ones that prompted him to name his son after Theodor Herzl) and managed to secure much-desired British certificates for passage to Palestine.  

Upon arrival there in 1938, Theo picked up his studies at the famous Mikve Israel agricultural school, shifting effortlessly from German to Hebrew.  He immersed himself in the vibrant cultural life of his new homeland, spending time on a kibbutz before moving to Tel Aviv to hone his emerging theatrical talents.  There he worked for the Habimah Theater company, the gold standard of Jewish theaters in Palestine before breaking off to found his own Chamber Theater with a number of colleagues.   

Ever restless in his quest to find new creative outlets, Theo came to the conclusion that Palestine was not the ideal venue in which to refine his craft as an actor.  And so in 1946, at the age of 24, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and commence the third chapter in his life story.   As he expanded his professional skills, he faced a difficult choice, especially in 1947.  With the British soon to surrender their Mandate over Palestine, war was likely to break out between Jews and Arabs there.  Theo decided not to return to Palestine, but to remain in London, accompanied by pangs of regret and a profound and abiding connection to what would become Israel.  In making this decision, he arrived at the realization, in paraphrasing the great Pablo Casals, that his guitar was his weapon, which he would choose to play on his own terms.  Indeed, he used this “weapon” to wage battle for peace and justice throughout his life, especially when he came to the United States in 1954, the last and longest chapter in his remarkable life.

Theo’s sixty years in America were marked by a dizzying array of activities and achievement.  His iconic appearances in “The African Queen,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” and, most famously, as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” revealed an actor’s actor who was able to move from role to role, dialect to dialect, with the greatest of ease.  His work in developing the folk music scene in this country together with his friend Pete Seeger, especially at the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan dared to play electric guitar) merits its own historical rendering.  His efforts on behalf of fellow actors, as president of the Actor’s Equity, were tireless and widely admired.  And his support for Jewish, Yiddish, and Hebrew culture came in many forms—performance, advocacy, and organizational labor.  Although renowned as a world-class artist, Theo understood well that in order to effect change in the world, he could not stand above the fray. He never failed to attend the requisite salon gathering or board meeting nor to step to the fore to do his part.  

Although he was a true citizen of the world, it was a great blessing to have Theo with us in Los Angeles.  It was a great blessing to share in the joyful music at his and Aimee’s home.  It was a great blessing to have his conversational genius and peerless musical repertoire at our Shabbes table.  It was a great blessing to have Theo, weakened by illness, muster his strength to come to Ikar to daven and hear Peter Beinart on Friday night, a few short days before his death. 

Perhaps the greatest blessing that Theo bestowed was as a master teacher of life.  He taught us to resist the oppositions that define so many people: Jew vs. human, religious vs. secular, Yiddish vs. Hebrew, Israeli vs. Palestinian, kemach vs. Torah, art vs. life.  With sophistication, intelligence, passion, and love, Theo taught us that the boundary between these categories was porous and open to crossing.  We should all endeavor, as a meaningful tribute to this great human being and Jew, to emulate his daring example of crossing borders in the name of life.  Yehi zikhro barukh!


David N. Myers was a friend of Theo Bikel’s.