May 2, 1924 — July 21, 2015
by Bennett Muraskin
From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
He grew up in Vienna, but after Nazi Germany took over the country in 1938, his family emigrated to Palestine. Bikel’s father was a socialist and a Zionist (he named his son for Theodor Herzl), fluent in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and he passed to Theo a love for Jewish languages, literature and music. Bikel worked on a kibbutz for a few years, but found his true calling in the theater, first in Palestine, then in London, where he moved in 1946 to enter the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Bikel remained in London during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, while many other Jewish students from Palestine returned to fight. His guilt over this decision may help explain his reluctance to criticize Israel’s policies until after the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 — an event he personally witnessed — when he became a passionate supporter of the peace process.After the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Bikel became especially active with Meretz USA (now Partners for a Progressive Israel), which promotes peace with the Palestinians, Jewish pluralism, and greater democracy within Israel, and in 2003, Bikel endorsed “A Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel,” a campaign sponsored by Brit Tsedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace).
As an actor, his credits include roles in the films The African Queen, My Fair Lady, The Defiant Ones, and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Bikel participated in an actors’ strike in 1960, and from 1973-82 served as president and vice-president of Actor’s Equity, the national actors union. On stage, he starred in The Sound of Music, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and his two favorites, Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played Tevye, and Zorba the Greek, in which he played the title role.
As a folksinger, accompanying himself on the guitar, Bikel recorded many albums and performed in twenty-one languages, but had a special affection for Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Gypsy songs. In 1962, along with Pete Seeger, he help found the Newport Folk Festival. In 1972, he released Silent No More, an album of underground songs from the Soviet Union.
Politically, Bikel has always been on the left, while resolutely opposing Soviet communism. After coming to the U.S. in late 1954, he raised his voice to condemn McCarthyism’s witch-hunts and blacklist as violations of fundamental civil liberties. At a meeting organized by the American Jewish Congress, he stated, “We, as artists, must protest any act that seeks to compel the performer to bargain for his livelihood with other values than his talent.”
WITH THE EMERGENCE of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Bikel was among the first white artists to lend support. He traveled throughout the South, speaking and singing in black churches and even undergoing arrest. He was closely associated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which made enormous sacrifices to register African Americans in the deep south. In 1967, however, when SNCC embraced Black nationalism, questioned non-violence, and began to criticize Israel, Bikel severed his ties in an open letter.
Bikel was active as an opponent of nuclear testing and the Vietnam War. In 1968, he participated in the Democratic convention in Chicago as a delegate for Eugene McCarthy. In response to the police riot against anti-war demonstrators, he joined a protest march, addressing National Guard troops through a bullhorn: “Remember how free Americans who came to an American city to exercise an elected duty were made to face American soldiers pointing guns at them.” Bikel was arrested twice in the 1970s, once for demonstrating against South African apartheid, a second time on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Yiddishkayt was always been central to Bikel’s life and work, and his Jewish identification was primarily cultural. He fell in love with Sholem Aleichem’s stories when he was a boy. When he played Tevye in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, he modeled his portrayal on his “pious but irreverent” grandfather. He has also recorded the Tevye stories and written and starred in the shows, Sholem Aleichem Lives and Laughter Through Tears, the latter as recently as 2009.
One of the proudest moments of Bikel’s life occurred in 1993, when, as the host of a commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at Madison Square Garden in New York City, he sang “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Partisan’s Hymn, and recited Binem Heller’s powerful Yiddish resistance poem, “In Varshaver Ghetto.” Bikel wrote the introduction to the 1989 edition of Mir Trogn a Gezang, the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish songbook, and in 2002 he performed at a celebration of the centennial of the organization.
Bikel’s 1994 autobiography concludes with his translation of a Yiddish poem by I. Papiernikov (1897-1993), which includes this humanistic message:
Could be that I’ll not see the fruit of my yearning,
Could be that I’ll never be rid of my load,
What matters is not the end of the journey,
It’s the journey itself on a bright sunlit road.
In words that should resonate for every secular humanistic Jew, Bikel wrote: “To be Jewish is to be particular and universal at the very same time. It is as if being a Jew exacerbates the human condition. Everything for me is in much sharper focus because I am a Jewish human being. This is not to say that I’m any way better, only that I can see things in a certain perspective because of my Jewish experience.”
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.