Aimee Ginsburg Bikel was the wife of the late Theodore Bikel, the renowned actor, folksinger and activist. She reflects on her friendship with actor Ed Asner, best known for playing Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who passed away on August 29.
Sometimes, my beloved friend Ed said things that were so crude and off color, it took my breath away. I wouldn’t know how to respond. Try to play it cool (was this a test)? Try to dish it back (even if doing so felt like a sell out)? Ask him not to use such words in my presence (and seem like a prude)? I tried all of these methods, but I never really found one that felt comfortable. Eventually, I decided that I wasn’t going to change him, and that if I valued our relationship enough (yes, I valued our friendship more than enough), I was just going to accept that.
Which was not always easy.
Like that time at my husband Theo’s funeral. Ed asked if he could speak. Of course he could—what an honor. Theo and Ed were not as personally close as Ed and I were to become, but they had tremendous respect and affection for one another, comrades in more ways than one. Both Ed and Theo never stopped standing up and speaking out, loudly, for what they believed in; what they believed in was an uncompromising, progressive vision of a better, more just world. They were both committed, legendary union leaders (Theo was the long-time president of Actor’s Equity, Ed of the Screen Actors Guild). They both lobbied for a more democratic and socially just Israel and for a swift creation of a free Palestine—and were both criticized bitterly (and even hatefully) for their stand by fellow Jews—and non-Jews—on the other side of the political spectrum. They generously contributed their time, their intelligence, their money (when they had it) to the causes they believed in. From my conversations with each about the other, I know they thought the world of each other, holding each other in something akin to awe.
So when Ed came up to the podium at Theo’s funeral, it wasn’t hard to guess what he might say. It would have been impossible, though, to guess what he actually did say! After a rather long and angry monologue about the heinous current immigration policies and the racist attitudes toward immigrants in this country, Ed had this suggestion: “Let’s cut off Theo’s arms and legs and stuff them down the throats of all the immigrant haters so that they could see just how sweet an immigrant like Theo really tastes.” A hush came over the funeral parlor. As he walked slowly back to his seat, I think our Hazzan broke into song, something to break the tension. A few days later, Ed called and apologized profusely. “What kind of an idiot am I?” he asked. He was speaking with real remorse and vulnerability. I told him that there was nothing to apologize for, and that Theo would have approved of his passion (if not of the suggested dismembering). It was so clear that he was speaking from his heart, and his intense sincerity melted mine. It was after this phone call, and his invitation/insistence that we meet up for lunch (“so I can show you I’m not always such a schmuck”), that our friendship started in earnest.
In the years after Theo died, Ed was there every time I needed him. “What’s wrong?” he would ask, his gruff voice surprisingly gentle, whenever he heard sadness in my voice. He really wanted to know, and he really listened, calling me again the next day to see if I felt any better. He never expected me to put on a happy face, and in turn, never put one on himself. He was often sad in these past years. The cause of our sorrow was complimentary: I was mourning the death of my husband; he was mourning the dawning of his final chapter. We always sat together exactly as we were at any given moment. And this might not sound like much, but for me, struggling with the de rigueur bright sheen of social life in beautiful Los Angeles, with its expectation that you check your grief at the door, and for him, with his desire to keep up his public persona while struggling to come to terms with increasing physical limitations, it was a lot. He loved hearing about my relationship with Theo, and I think that seeing the depth of my love and my grief gave him an odd kind of hope and comfort: the hope to fall in love again himself, despite his age and physical decline; the comfort that when it was his time to leave the stage that one last time, his loved ones would mourn deeply, remember him, and forever long for his company.
Somehow, strangely, I became his “Jewish conscience” (he called me bubale, or toots, depending). I am no rabbi and am not even shomer Shabbat, but somehow I fell into the role. I called or visited every Jewish holiday, sometimes brought over challah and my candlesticks to light on Shabbat, invited him over for Hanukkah and Passover, reminded him it was Yom Kippur, and looked up his parents’ yahrzeits. He indulged me. I think sometimes he wished I would cut it out already; he had made it this far in life without these Jewish trappings and it had suited him fine. But at the same time, he liked it, and we fell into it. It made us family. I loved asking him about his mother’s shtetl, reading to him what I found out about it, and looking it up together on the map. Guess what? It was not 30 kilometers away from my own grandmother’s shtetl, and both places shared the same main town, Belaya Tzerkov! This delighted me to no end: It shrunk our age difference and made us real kin somehow, and we made an obviously never-to-be-fulfilled plan to go see “our” shtetls together someday. I made Ed (Yitzhok) recite his parents’ and siblings’ Hebrew names again and again, and we looked up his bar mitzvah Torah portion. He told me many stories from his blue collar, Orthodox Jewish childhood as the “son of a junkman,” a childhood he was proud of (his autobiography by that name is terrific). He loved trying out his rusty Yiddish (his mama loshen, his mother tongue) on me, and I wished so much I understood it (well, perhaps it’s better I didn’t understand). He missed his parents, and even more so his siblings, terribly, and hated being the last one left. When I showed him Daniel Kahn’s performance of Hallelujah in Yiddish on YouTube, he wept, real tears rolling down his wrinkled cheeks and into his lap. He always had boxes of mandelbrot and rugelach on the table, next to piles of books, bowls of cat food and dog food (Ed was rather indulgent of his animal friends), and a printed sheet with his daily schedule of tasks including interviews, social obligations, favors for friends and fans and meetings with publishers and producers. But where he most wanted to be was on stage. His manager—his wonderful daughter Liza—made this happen for him up until just last month. Isn’t it enough? I would ask him. Don’t you want to take some time to wind down, take a look at your life, live in peace? “I only have peace when I am onstage,” he answered without missing a beat.
Still, in this last year, Ed became more willing to contemplate spiritual thoughts and began to welcome, maybe enjoy, the probing questions. Sure, we spoke plenty about politics, his controversial opinions about most things, his intense fear for the future of our planet (and more specifically the fate of our animal cousins). But increasingly, it became about why we are here, where we are going, and before Whom do we stand (all the while Ed semi-secretly feeding his dog Dudley, an old French bulldog he adored, food from his plate). The mystical realms, which I love most, were not his natural milieu, and we never really reached any earth shattering insights or conclusions. That wasn’t what mattered.
One night, about a year ago—just after his 90th birthday—he phoned me quite late at night and told me he was feeling depressed. “I hear the footsteps,” he said, “and they are too close for comfort.” He started asking me, every time we met, how old Theo was when he died. He had been 91. Ed seemed to be doing the math. “You don’t have to follow in his footsteps!” I would say, willing the bearer of that dreaded message to leave my dear friend alone, leave him here with us a little longer.
I noticed that even while Ed was using his gruff voice to heckle you about really nothing at all, he was looking out at you from behind quiet, probing eyes, taking you in. It took him some time to decide I could be trusted (“I’ve been around the block a few times, toots,” he told me once when I tried to warn him about someone I thought was trying to use him, “I know them all”). I think he was still looking out at the world at large from behind those quiet, probing eyes, trying to make up his mind if it could be trusted. But he always did his darned best to do right by his family, his fans, his friends, his fellow actors and his brothers and sisters around the world. That is what made me love him most. “All Mama wanted from me was to be a mensch,” he said recently. By all measures, here is a man who made his Mama happy. I will mourn him deeply, as will all of his loved ones who will remember him, and forever long for his company.