Reviews | City of Light
Jewish Book Council, February 3, 2020
by Emily Schneider
Theodore Bikel (1924−2015) embodied twentieth-century Jewish history to such a degree that Aimee Ginsburg Bikel’s introduction to her late husband in the book’s foreword seems a moving understatement, “If you ask your grandparents or maybe even your parents about him, they’ll probably say they saw him on TV, in the movies, or in the theater, and maybe they heard some of his records.” Ginsburg Bikel has transformed a short story which Bikel had written about his childhood in pre-war Vienna, originally published in Moment Magazine, into a children’s picture book. The result is an unusual combination of memory, history, and psychological query which transcends the divide between books for young readers and those for adults. With delicate cartoon-like drawings by Noah Phillips, as well as extensive back matter which adds historical context, The City of Light illuminates Bikel and his pivotal generation. The book encases the Jewish experiences of persecution and survival and the title reflects the message of Jewish self-determination commemorated by the festival of Chanukah.
Ginsburg Bikel’s text alternates between registers of language. Some words seem intended to translate her husband’s childhood into accessible words while others retain the perspective of an adult. For example, she refers to “the boy” as he “watched intellectuals debate,” a phrase more consistent with a man looking back on his past. The narrative also relates moments of unbearable horror, as when the young Bikel is beaten by antisemitic thugs, “When he came home from school, bruised and bloody, his papa wept.” Few things could be more terrifying to a child than the sight of a father reduced to powerlessness in the face of a child’s victimization. Nostalgic evocations of Vienna’s beauty and vibrant diverse Jewish community also reflect both the boy’s immediate impressions and his later reflections. He details the physical beauty of the grand synagogue but also records his sense that the ner tamid (eternal light) “must be the secret source of power illuminating his beloved city.” The pictures capture the essence of the text through simple lines and facial expressions, including one of a young boy looking up in wonder at this powerful lamp.
Bikel would become a noted actor, singer, and social activist, renowned for his work on the stage, in movies, and in the concert hall, including his interpretations of Yiddish folk and theater songs. As a Jewish child living under utterly degrading conditions, Bikel looked to the heroic message of Chanukah for salvation. Having endured another beating at the hands of children transformed into monsters by the Nazi régime, he dreams of Judah Maccabee, “tall and golden with great locks of long black hair.” This vision of an identifiably Jewish figure with the power to redeem the Jewish people disappears when he wakes to realize that “there had been no Maccabean liberation.” Again, the text operates on two levels. A little boy’s desperate dream ends while his adult self analyzes the loss of a national vision.
Ultimately, the war ends and Bikel’s hopes are realized. Toward the end of his life, he returns to Vienna and performs his songs to a grateful audience. In her “Afterword,” Ginsburg Bikel relates this event and affirms the optimism that characterized her husband’s life. Yet The City of Light does not easily resolve questions about how he made sense of his childhood or reconciled his progress from suffering to liberation. Instead, this ambivalent memoir immerses the reader in a past world and only suggests how a young boy who lived its contradictions became Theodore Bikel.
The book includes a Yiddish glossary, a recipe for honey cake, and the lyrics and music to the song “Little Candle Fires,” as well as an audio link.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.
The Jerusalem Post, December 26, 2019
by Aaron Leibel
Introducing children to the HolocaustBikel’s story seeks to inspire emerging from the darkest of places
If in the past I have ever called a book beautiful, I realize after reading City of Lights that I may have been too profligate with my praise. This work for children may be the realization of that often overused word; it is a very moving story, an excellent way to introduce youngsters to the Holocaust.
It tells the story of the childhood of Theodore Bikel, a prominent actor – known especially for his portrayal of Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof.
Bikel’s “City of Lights” was prewar Vienna, awash in intellectual ferment, in which young Theodore longed to take part; brimming with the good life (a city “of waltzes, of sweet confections”); and home to a prosperous Jewish community of businessmen, doctors and lawyers, and writers, playwrights and artists, to paraphrase author Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, his widow and an Israeli journalist.
His mother and father were assimilated Jews who nonetheless tried to preserve their Jewish identity. His father spoke to him in Yiddish, his mother and Oma (grandmother) often prepared Jewish foods and on the holidays, his father would pray with a voice “as beautiful as Zayde’s [Bikel’s grandfather].”
They also were socialists and Zionists, and his father “would speak about the coming time when they would have their own country, and when all men and women of the world would live in peace, equality and safety, like real brothers and sisters.”
But Vienna also was a cesspool of antisemitism. Bikel sometimes suffered antisemitic taunts from fellow students. He understood that the Viennese “admired the city’s Jews in many ways,” but that “with the admiration there also was envy, and that sometimes envy turned to hate.”
Then, the Nazis invaded Austria, absorbing that country into Germany. Suddenly, the excesses of the hatred of Jews were liberated and let loose on the city’s Jewish community
Almost immediately, the Jews became targets for humiliation and violence.
At his school, a group of older boys came into his classroom and asked the students to point out the Jews among them. When the students betrayed their classmates, the boys dragged Bikel and the others out and beat them.
Their once-friendly neighbors became cold and did nothing to help them.
Then, came Kristallnacht, and the beautiful main synagogue in the city, Stadttempel, where Theodore had often visited, was desecrated and badly damaged.
Finally, the “tyrant,” in the words of the author, was defeated.
Many years later, the boy, now a grandfather, returned to the city of his birth. Once again, there was a Jewish community. He visited his old home and imagined “Papa singing the Sabbath prayers, and smelled Oma’s honey cake fresh from the oven.”
Then, he went to the Stadttempel, the great synagogue of Vienna that he had visited as a youngster. It had been restored, but the replica of the ner tamid, the eternal flame that he remembered from his childhood, was not giving off much light. Suddenly, he realized that the “eternal flame was in his own heart.”
However, despite my praise for the book, which is an elaboration of a story written by Theodore Bikel in 2014 and published in Moment Magazine, there is one glaring omission – the fact that the Bikel family received refuge from the Nazis in the soon-to-be Jewish state, then British Mandatory Palestine (the book’s forward does state that the family made it to Tel Aviv).
This is a story about Vienna, but surely there should have been room for a few sentences about the family’s new home.
I must say that the failure to mention the place whose existence saved Bikel and his family and many other Jews, as well, pushes my Zionist buttons and annoys me greatly.
Nevertheless, my irritation must be limited, for Theodore Bikel’s The City of Lights will be a Hanukkah present for two of my grandsons – the ultimate compliment as far as I am concerned.
Q&A with Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, December 21, 2019
by Deborah Kalb
Aimee Ginsburg Bikel is the author of the new children’s book Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light. The book is based on a story her late husband, the actor, told about his childhood. She worked for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth for 16 years, and is the director of the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project.
Q: A version of this book was first published in Moment magazine in 2014–how did this new book come to be?
A: I had thought about bringing out this story as a book for a long time–then, in January, Nadine Epstein, who originally published the story in Moment, and had started a new publishing imprint, Moment Books, asked me if I would like to publish it through Moment Books. It was the easiest and quickest decision I ever made.
Q: What do you think your husband would think of this new version of his story?
A: He would be absolutely smitten with it: tickled pink to have a children’s book, moved by the additions I made folding in more of his story, and proud of the work I have done on it. He loved it when we worked on projects together, as did I.
Q: What impact did his childhood experiences have on him as an adult?
A: Theo took the trauma of his childhood experience, of becoming a refugee when only a young boy, and knew that he never wanted any other person to experience the horrors of bigotry and discrimination. So he devoted his life to Tikkun Olam, making our world a better place. But, at the same time, underneath his bountiful joy there was an abiding sorrow and the guilt of a survivor. It was hard for him to accept easily that he was saved while so many others never got out. He tried to live his life in a way that would justify the fact that he survived. This is a beautiful thing but also a very difficult thing.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: That instead of letting difficult experiences make them bitter, instead they can use what they learned personally in order to be a force of goodness and light in our world. That we all have an incorruptible light inside of us, that can banish meanness, hatred, and injustice. Theodore Bikel That our grandparents’ world was rich and beautiful in many ways and it feels good to learn about it. That while not everything that has been broken can be fixed, we can do our best and try.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A memoir from my own childhood, a historical novel, and a collection of my writings from India.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have been astonished by the response of young people to the book: they care so much about our world and are committed to finding ways to make it better. They will lead the way with light. I am proud of them.