City of Light by Theodore and Aimee Bikel

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 TabletThe For­wardThe 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.”

Very nice.

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.