Theodore Bikel as
Sholem Aleichem in
the 2008 Folksbeine
production of Sholem
Theoaore Bikel At 90
A conversation with the still-busy actor-singer
reminds us of a worthy resolution for 2014: "Live fully."
Special to the Jewish News
he memory is clear, the fear still
"We looked from behind our
curtains, and in the street we saw the
hardware rumbling past — the cannons,
the machine guns — and the open limou-
sines with Goering and Hitler," Theodore
Bikel says. "We trembled. And within days
the expected and feared happened:'
Three-quarters of a century have passed
but the memory of the Anschluss, of the
Nazi takeover of Bikel's native Austria, is
But, as Bikel told an audience of dig-
nitaries in Vienna in October, "The mass
murderers are gone and I'm still here,
singing the song of freedom and peace!'
He made that statement of defiant tri-
umph as the guest of honor at a commem-
oration of Kristallnacht. "It was important
that I was able to [say that] in a location
no less than the Austrian parliament, in
front of the head of the Austrian govern-
ment and certain ambassadors," he says.
"It was symbolically important:'
Bikel appeared in front of another,
more celebratory crowd on Dec. 2, when
New York's National Yiddish Theatre-
Folksbiene recognized the singer-actor on
his 90th birthday, which he will celebrate
on May 2, 2014.
The choice of Bikel as honoree as the
Folksbiene approaches its own centenary
in 2015 is also symbolically important.
"To my generation, which grew up in
the aftermath of the Holocaust, Theodore
Bikel was the voice of the rebirth of
Yiddish culture," Moishe Rosenfeld, pro-
ducer of the event, wrote in an email. "His
albums of Yiddish songs were played con-
stantly in my home and in thousands like
it around the world, long before there was
a klezmer revival, which he helped inspire.
There isn't anyone more worthy of being
honored by the Yiddish world than Theo:'
Rosenfeld's choice of words is also "sym-
bolically important:' Everyone calls Bikel
"Theo," an affectionate diminutive that
suggests close kinship, a reflection of the
warmth he projects on stage, on screen,
in concert, and of the way that younger
generations of Jews (and non-Jews) have
taken him to their hearts like a kindly, if
occasionally gruff, beloved uncle.
Unsurprisingly, it is his lifelong commit-
ment to Yiddish that Bikel says should be
"I'd like to be remembered for the fact
that I am passionate about the survival
of Yiddish as a language," he affirms,
"as poetry, as literature, as the heimishe,
homebound language of my people:'
Bikel is well aware of the feelings he
evokes in audiences, but he is also cautious
in his assessment of his life.
When the Nazis marched into Vienna,
he was only 13.
"Overnight I turned from a human
being with equal rights into an object of
hatred, of derision and persecution," he
says. "It made me a refugee, which in one
way or another, I still am today. Despite
success, a refugee is one that can never
go home. You can visit, but you can't be
However, he adds quickly, there is a
positive side to that status.
"You're at home nowhere, but you're
also at home everywhere," he says. "And
I've made sure that I was:'
He certainly has been at home every-
As a theater actor, he co-founded the
Cameri Theatre in Israel (Bikel's parents
named him for political Zionism founder
Theodore Herzl), attended London's Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts and has been
nominated for the Tony Award twice.
As a film actor, he has an Academy
Award nomination for Best Supporting
Actor (for The Defiant Ones) and has a
star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; on
the small screen he has won an Emmy and
appeared on everything from Law & Order
to Babylon 5.
He has recorded more than 20 music
albums, co-founded the Newport (R.I.)
Folk Festival and performed with more
than two dozen symphony orchestras.
Bikel also has written several books,
including his autobiography, Theo, in
Looking back from 90, is there anything
he hasn't done in the arts?
After a brief pause, Bikel replies, "I
haven't done ballet, much to the delight of
The other thing Theodore Bikel hasn't
done at 90 is slow down. He is produc-
ing and starring in a new documentary,
Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholem
Aleichem, which is in post-production.
"It's an interplay between my life and
the life of Sholem Aleichem," he explains.
He also has a number of concerts sched-
uled for the new year.
Bikel can honestly say that as a singer
he's never been at a loss for words. After
all, he has sung in 23 different languages.
"I don't play favorites when it comes to
material," he says. "I find Slavic songs eas-
ily mastered. I recently started singing in
Bosnian, and that is a Slavic tongue, so it
came fairly quickly. When I had to learn
a song in Zulu, that wasn't so easy. But I
happen to have the ability to do accents
very well, and it helps:'
He also doesn't play favorites as an actor.
In television and film, Bikel has frequently
been cast as a heavy, whether a comic vil-
lain like Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady,
or something darker like a U-boat officer
in The Enemy Below.
An actor plays what an actor plays," he
says philosophically. "Sometimes they're
heroes, sometimes they're villains; you do
whatever comes down the pike. You try
to do it with as much expertise as you're
capable of, to let your skills as an actor
take over. I don't have to like them or
what they do. But the villains are needed;
conflict is what drama thrives on, and you
help the conflict:'
His favorite roles come from the other
side of the dramatic spectrum: musicals.
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (Detroiters
last saw him in the role in 2001 at the
Fisher Theatre) and the title character
of Zorba in the underrated Kander-Ebb
musical of the same name; both are com-
plex, three-dimensional characters.
Still, like all working actors, he demurs,
"Whatever I happen to be doing at the
time, that's my favorite:'
What Tevye and Zorba have in com-
mon is that they are life-force characters
whose personalities reach the last row of
the highest balcony in the biggest theaters
in the land. Bikel's reaction to reaching 90
suggests that this is what he shares with
those two outsized figures.
"The secret is, don't hold back," he says.
"Live fully. Don't treat yourself with kid
gloves, and don't treat life that way either.
Theodore Bikel's Jewish-themed
recordings are available at
January 2 • 2014