Fyvush Finkel, star of stage and screen, died Aug. 14 at the age of 93.
It is not easy for me to write these parting words about someone who was at my bris in 1945 and remained a dear friend and colleague ever since. Whenever we got together, Fyvush Finkel would regale his listeners, in his inimitable warm and “Heimishe” style, of how he had attended that occasion while working with my parents, Pesach’ke Burstein and Lillian Lux, in their Yiddish theatre production of Who Is Guilty at the Hopkinson Theatre in Brooklyn.
He also never failed to give my father credit for giving him his first professional job, at the age of 18, in the Yiddish Theatre. (As fate would have it, my dad also gave Fyvush’s son Elliot his first professional job decades later.) The year was 1944, and my dad wanted to hire Fyvush to play a young soldier in his Yiddish musical. The problem was that the Hebrew Actors Union (HAU), the union of all the Yiddish actors in New York, refused to allow it, since Fyvush was not a member. In order to become a member one had to audition for the membership. And the HAU members, mostly middle-aged and senior actors, would routinely reject any young performers who could threaten their jobs. Even Stella Adler fainted at her audition and was initially rejected, as were future greats like Maurice Schwartz.
As Fyvush would tell it, my dad went to bat for him against the membership and leadership of the union, arguing that he needed a young actor and that if they could provide one, he would hire him. Otherwise, they had to allow him to hire Fyvush. And so it was. He was allowed to hire him for one season, which turned into more than one and eventually resulted in a long and successful career for Fyvush on the Yiddish stage.
My parents and I enjoyed a warm and joyous relationship with Fyvush ever since. We were happy when he eventually moved to a successful career on the English stage, and kvelled at his crowning achievements later in life, winning a well-deserved Emmy for his performance on “Picket Fences.”
I cherish three photographs hanging in my home side by side. One is of Fyvush and my dad onstage in 1944. The second is of Fyvush onstage in 1950 with my twin sister Susan and me, at the age of 5, on 2nd Avenue. The third is of Fyvush greeting me in my dressing room in 1993 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after my opening-night performance in Ain’t Broadway Grand. The proud look on his face says it all.
The last time I shared the stage with Fyvush was at the 2014 Town Hall event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof. We practically brought the house down with our rendition of “To Life.” As we say in Yiddish, it was probably “bashert” (meant to be), since it was also the 70th anniversary of his sharing the stage with my dad and almost 70 years since he first set eyes on me on that day in 1945 when I became a “mensch.”
Fyvush, you were a fine mensch. And you can now truly fulfill the goal of that song you so often sang in your inimitable style, “Ich bin a border bei mein veib” (“I Am a Boarder by My Wife”).
Mike Burstyn is an American and Israeli actor and singer.
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