“I hope to inspire quite a lot of people, because I have not only one but a number of legacies that need to be preserved. One of them of course is the Jewish/Yiddish one; one is that of a labor activist and a political activist; one of them is that of a performer, an actor; one of them is a singer, an interpreter of songs; one of them is a translator of poetry and lyrics. And I have all of these and in the end somewhere they will be preserved, not in one place — it can’t work that way. Each one of these things can inspire, I hope will inspire people; and most of them, I hope, young.”
—Theodore Bikel (in conversation with James David Jacobs, 2/1/2015)
//Listen on PRX to the radio program of our 90th birthday celebration for Theodore Bikel //
Theodore Bikel was born on May 2, 1924, in Vienna. When he was 13 he witnessed the Nazi invasion of Austria from his living room window, including Hitler riding in an open limousine; his family soon fled to Palestine. By the time he was 35 he was escaping the Nazi invasion of Austria with the help of crafty nuns eight times a week on a Broadway stage, originating the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, singing the song written especially for him, “Edelweiss.” While he managed to escape both the real and fictionalized situations unscathed, he did — in real life — spend time in American jails for protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews and for participating in civil rights marches in Alabama. He later became even more well known for portraying another patriarch of a family escaping persecution when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a role he has played over 2,100 times. But his exploration and promotion of Jewish culture went far beyond that iconic role; he introduced Yiddish music to American audiences through many performances and recordings, and published his own translations and editions of Jewish songs and poetry. He performed American folk music as well; he was a frequent presence in the Greenwich Village coffee houses of the late 1950s, and he served alongside Pete Seeger on the original board of the Newport Folk Festival.
Nadine Epstein, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Theo Bikel on November 16, 2014
That barely begins to describe the full extent of Theo’s remarkable life, which is still going strong; in recent years he has been performing his one-man show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears, which was nominated for a Drama Desk award in 2010; in that same year the then-86-year-old played Tevye in several performances of a North American tour. In 2013 he sang at the Austrian Parliament, in the presence of the chancellor, as part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The song he sang on that occasion, “S’Brent” by Mordecai Gebirtig, a powerful testimony through song of a pogrom in Krakow that ominously foreshadowed the Holocaust, was one of six songs he also sang at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C. on November 16, 2014, as part of a celebration of his own 90th birthday. Moment used this milestone as an occasion to celebrate Bikel’s legacy and present him with the magazine’s International Humanitarian Award. Before his own set he was treated to live testimonials and tributes from some of his many friends, admirers, and colleagues: Deborah Tannen (author of the NY Times best seller You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation); Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of the arts organizations Lab/Shul and Storahtelling; Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal (former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General); folksinger Tom Paxton, who performed his song “Peace”; and composer David Amram, who performed his own inimitable version of “What a Wonderful World.” Kirk Douglas, Leon Wieseltier, Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow and the late Leonard Nimoy sent video tributes which were presented at the event along with clips from Bikel’s many movie and television appearances, including The African Queen, The Defiant Ones (the movie for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), My Fair Lady, and episodes of The Twilight Zone and All in the Family. Among the many distinguished guests in the audience that night were Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Master of Ceremonies for the event was Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered.
Zalmen Mlotek, director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, accompanied Bikel at the piano during his set, which touched upon many different aspects of his remarkable career; in addition to two Yiddish songs by Mordecai Gebirtig, there was also a Russian song of the Soviet Jewish underground that he was arrested for singing in front of the Soviet Embassy; the two Broadway songs he made famous, “Edelweiss” and “If I Were a Rich Man”; and “When I’m Gone,” a touching song by the late Phil Ochs which Bikel says is “perfectly tailored for his present mood.”
Moment‘s editor and publisher Nadine Epstein describes Theodore Bikel as a “life force — you can feel that energy when you’re in a room with him.” That energy was certainly felt by everyone fortunate enough to be in that room with him that night, and can also be felt in this hour-long document of this celebration, hosted and produced for radio by WETA’s James David Jacobs. As Theodore Bikel celebrates his 91st birthday in 2015, Moment is proud to release this program as one more place where the legacy of this remarkable man is preserved.
Click here to listen to the radio program of the event.