I was in the home of Theodore Bikel and Tamara Brooks in Los Angeles. We had just realized that Theo could not attend the upcoming 2012 Association for Jewish Theatre Conference we were planning to hold right down the street. As usual, Theo was constantly working, and he had been engaged to play in Visiting Mr. Green in Toronto at that time. Nevertheless we still planned the conference and told stories. The Bikels made me feel welcomed, giving me their opinions—of course there were many—with much volume, laughter, and amazing coffee.
My sadness over the death of Theodore Bikel, one of the world’s great theatre and performing artists, is very deep for many reasons. I am blessed to have known Theo (as he preferred to be known by all) when he served as an honorary board member of the Association for Jewish Theatre, of which I am president.
Theo came to us with history, heritage, and identity. As the Holocaust loomed, he actually saw Hitler in a parade when Austria was annexed by Germany, hearing the Austrian people welcoming him with “Sieg Heils.” As Theo told it to us, we felt the visceral fear and trembling that he must have felt as a 13-year-old boy. Luckily for him, and for us, Theo’s family was able to flee Austria on some of the few legal visas issued before war was declared, which brought them to British-mandated Palestine.
This experience never left him. For Theo doing great art was intrinsically tied to being a Jew and a mensch. The notion of “being a mensch” can be traced back to the Talmud more than 2,000 years ago, wherein the great Rabbi Hillel says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” For Theo this meant more than just having values and pithy sayings. It meant standing up for what is right when no one else will.
So Theo stood up to be a mensch. As a founder of the iconic Newport Folk Festival in 1959—with other activists like Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and George Wein—he helped create a platform where words, music, and social protest could come together. He stood up to be a mensch when he performed with other freedom fighters at Civil Rights demonstrations in the Deep South. And Theo personally paid for Bob Dylan’s plane ticket so he could go down to Greenwood, Miss., in 1963 and see firsthand what Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and Oxford Town (about the riots in Oxford, Miss.) really meant.
And Theo stood up to be a mensch when he performed the works of Sholem Aleichem as the wise schlemiel Tevye, bringing the Jews of the shtetl to life and performing the great Yiddish culture that was nearly wiped out. He believed that people who are powerless should be given power, that people who are voiceless should be given a voice.
Theodore Bikel had not been back to Austria since his family left before the war, and he would say that he wasn’t an Austrian Jew but a Jew who was born in Austria, rightfully continuing to feel the pain and injustice of the Holocaust. But in 2007 the Association for Jewish Theatre held its annual conference in Europe with the Jewish Theatre of Austria, and he came back.
It wasn’t easy. But for him it was a vindication of survival despite hate and prejudice. As a group of us gathered in a Viennese beer cellar, Theo led us in singing “To Life/L’Chaim.” By so doing, we were proclaiming that our art, and the art of all who fight hate and prejudice, has an important message for the world. A few days later we enacted that maxim even further by meeting in a kosher restaurant next to the only remaining synagogue from before the war. Theo led us in the prayers for Shabbat dinner, his great mellifluous voice booming, sanctifying time in the creation of the universe, and sanctifying our time in Vienna by taking the shards from destruction and gathering them together into sparks of holy light.
Theo’s last AJT conference was in the spring of 2013 with the Minnesota Jewish Theatre as the host. We had to bring him back, since Tamara, his lovely and talented wife, had died in 2012.
And it was another homecoming. We honored him with the Association for Jewish Theatre Award for Distinguished Achievement, and despite his sadness he sang, told stories, and enchanted us all—from those so young they had never heard of Theodore Bikel, to those who grew up singing along to his records of Jewish and other wonderful folk songs, to those who remembered him in The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The African Queen, The Defiant Ones, The Twilight Zone, Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, and other indelibly crafted performances in theatre, film, television, and music.
One of the folk songs he sang will forever stand out for me. It is the Yiddish song “Dem Milners Trern/The Miller’s Tears.” (This song is also in the Coen brothers film A Serious Man.) It speaks to me now with such poignancy and urgency:
Since I’ve been a miller here?
The wheels turn; the years pass
I’m growing old and grey.
I remain without it
Without wife or child—myself alone
The wheels turn; the years pass
I am lonely as a stone
They want to drive me out
Away from here and from the mill
The wheels turn; the years pass
Who will care for me?
I’m already old, I’m already tired
The wheel turns; the years pass
And with them too, goes the Jew
Seemingly despairing, “The Miller’s Tears” is a cri de coeur, a longing to end injustice and exile. And the legacy you leave us, dear Theo—your mentschlichkeit—is that we must continue to fight against hate and prejudice and to use the tools we know best: our performing art. And as long as we do, you will always be with us. May your memory be a blessing forever.
David Y. Chack is a professor in theatre arts at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, artistic director of ShPIeL-Performing Identity, and artistic director of the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival.
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