Each of the more than 2,000 times my friend Theodore Bikel rose to the stage as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he reminded Jews and non-Jews alike of the Jewish culture that has thrived so vibrantly across generations in Europe. His work served as a shining symbol of the Judaism that has outlasted pogroms, ghettos, and genocide. Theodore Bikel was laid to rest last month, but Theo’s role as the champion of Yiddishkeit, in every sense of the word, will never cease to exist.
My first encounter with this man proved to me just how special he was – an internationally renowned personality, no doubt, but above all, a warm, kind-hearted man committed to preserving and enriching Jewish culture. It was the summer of 2004, and I had just left the stage of the Tempel Synagogue after greeting the 900 guests at that year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, when a kind-eyed man with a beard and a cap approached me. He complimented me on my Polish and expressed how honored he was to meet me. I always wondered if he knew that the honor could not have been more my own.
Thereafter, we became close friends. We had something significant in common – we were both among a small, at the time, group of Jewish leaders committed to the revival of Jewish life and culture in Poland. It was a bit of an uphill battle changing the conversation from Poland as Jewish graveyard to a new Poland with a vibrant, burgeoning community of Jews of all ages. We sought a story of a Jewish rebirth; many in Poland were learning for the first time they had Jewish roots. We both left Europe at a young age, but what I came to realize as I grew older was that neither of us had truly left at all.
He grew deeply committed to the Jewish Culture Festival, returning every summer to wrap us in his music, often with his late wife, Tamara Brooks, who was a concert pianist/conductor and performed alongside him. The massive growth of the Festival to more than 25,000 patrons from across Europe, Israel and the United States, was certainly due in part to his presence year after year.
A true renaissance man of our time, Theo regaled and enlightened us through music, sharing the breadth and depth of his love for Jewish heritage and its interplay with other folk and cultural traditions. He was, perhaps, best known in mainstream culture for his musical theater and film performances on Broadway and in Hollywood, but he was also active in human rights causes spanning decades. He marched in the U.S. civil rights movement, advocated for freedom for Soviet Jews, and protested South African apartheid. He lobbied Congress on why the federal government should support the arts. Theodore Bikel was wholly Jewish, as Leon Wieseltier so accurately articulated just weeks before we lost Theo: “He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate.” Wieseltier wrote, “The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare.”
In 2010, Theo was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance in “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.” This one-man theater piece on Sholom Aleichem was followed by a documentary film, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” which has been showing at film festivals worldwide. I was so proud to be a part of supporting what would become two of my dear friend’s final projects.
Theo closes his performance in “Laughter Through Tears” imploring the audience to remember the “Fiddler” playwright through laughter. This advice has always resonated with me in terms of how I thought of Theo, too. Nearly 10 years ago, Theo sent me a congratulatory video message for my birthday. Naturally, he presented it through song—to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man.” While I have kept the recording, I have never needed to play it. His soothing voice has never left me, constantly bringing me to tears through laughter. I think this would have made him smile.