A profile of Theo Bikel

A profile of Theo Bikel

A fortunate few have been able to get to work with Theo Bikel. This includes a number of us associated with Meretz USA (Theo, a committed progressive Zionist, is currently the Chairman of our Board) … and, more to the point, it includes … me. It has been my privilege to be with him in delegations to — and hear his presentations at the 33rd and 35th World Zionist Congresses, in Jerusalem. (Go ahead, try the links – they’re to the text of his presentations.)

Many millions have watched him perform, from the world stage before hundreds of people to small performances, from the large screen to the small, and have heard his recorded music as well. Two nights ago, I learned of another way people are, even now, after decades of visibility in the “public eye,” learning more about our good friend.

Rahel Musleah has written an engaging profile / interview / portrait of the man, which is in the November 2007 issue of the widely-read Hadassah magazine — not only in the hands of that organization’s many members and other subscribers, but also, thankfully, online. It is really worth reading. She is an excellent writer and journalist.

Noting that he played Tevye – the leading character in Fiddler on the Roof, the musical {music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, based on characters created by Sholom Aleichem in the late 1890s} – in over 2,000 stage performances for 40 years, Musleah succinctly states that:

Bikel’s talents add up to no less than an embarrassment of riches. His versatility spans stage, screen and television. He is an actor, folk singer, lecturer, raconteur and political activist. …

Though he asserts that the arts don’t have to have an agenda, for Bikel, art and activism will forever be intertwined. Born in Vienna in 1924, he recalls that, as a boy of 13, he fearfully watched neighbors cheering Hitler and Goering as they rode by in open limousines. Some of his neighbors were silent, but they did nothing. Later, he says, “it became clear that I would never ever put myself in the place of the nice people next door who said ‘It’s not my fight.’ It’s always my fight. Whenever I see an individual or group singled out for persecution, there’s a switch thrown in my mind-and they become Jews.” To that end, Bikel has fought on behalf of civil rights (he once sang a Yiddish socialist song at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama) and has been arrested several times: with civil rights marchers; protesting apartheid in South Africa; and demanding an end to repression in the Soviet Union. Today, he lends his voice against genocide in Darfur and is chairman of the progressive Zionist organization Meretz USA.

At a time when the streetlights of Manhattan’s Broadway theater district illuminate picket lines of theatrical stagehands http://www.playbill.com/news/article/112725.html , it was worth reading Musleah’s description of some of Theo’s early involvement with the trade union movement:

Throughout his career, Bikel has protected the interests of his peers. The actors’ strike of 1960 and a personal incident – not being given time off for
Yom Kippur while performing in The Sound of Music – prompted him to become
active in Actors Equity. He has served Actors Equity as both vice president and
president and was vice president of the International Federation of Actors from
1981 to 1991. He is currently president of the Associated Actors and Artists of

Two personal flashbacks:
First, Theo leading those present in a rousing singing of “Solidarity Forever,” at the conclusion of his receiving a John Commerford Award from the
New York Labor History Association a few years back. [Disclaimer: I am a member of the Executive of the NYLHA.]

Second, years earlier, Theo giving a spirited presentation, on the challenges presented by the specter of “boycott Israel” resolutions within the international trade union movement, at a breakfast meeting, sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee, at a breakfast meeting at a biennial convention of the American Federation of Teachers.

[Second disclaimer: I am Communications Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, and, some 23 years back, when Americans for Progressive Israel (one of the ancestors of Meretz USA) first became an affiliate of the JLC, I was selected to be one of API’s representatives to its National Executive Board. One thing led to another, and I’ve been a member of the JLC executive staff for some two decades now.]

Most people don’t know of Theo’s relationship to “Israel Ha’Ovedet,” that is, Israel’s labor sector. Musleah notes that he was “imbued with the pioneer spirit,” and:

attended the Mikve Israel agricultural school and joined Kibbutz Kfar Maccabi,“neglecting to observe I had neither talent nor inclination for agriculture,” he recalls. “I stood on heaps of manure singing about work I wasn’t doing.” He found an abandoned guitar and taught himself to play, but never learned to read music properly. The kibbutz sent him to a cultural seminar – and the rest is


He joined the Habimah Theater in 1943 as an apprentice actor; a year later, he cofounded the Cameri, the Israeli chamber theater in Tel Aviv. At 22, he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Impressed with his work at small London theaters, Olivier cast him in Streetcar. In 1954, Bikel appeared on Broadway in Tonight in Samarkand; he fell in love with New York and made the United States his home. …

Theo sings works of many cultures, and indeed is famous for among other things the diversity of his range. At the same time, he is not a denatured internationalist by any means. The Hadassah interview quotes from his autobiography, Theo:

“I make no claim that the Jewish song is better than the song of my neighbor,” he writes in Theo. “But it is mine. And since it is the song of my people, it is up to me to cultivate it lest the blooms wither and the garden becomes bare and desolate.” …

“I’m a Jew who loves and knows the tradition, who has studied a lot and speaks the languages of my people,” he says. Urging Jews to study their own tradition instead of turning to others, he says, “We all have an attic. Our grandfather’s attic is full of wonderful heirlooms, most of them dusty and dull. A little dust on an old heirloom is not so terrible. We can brush it off and make it shine again.” …

“I keep slugging away at things of importance,” he says. “The Yiddish language, which was almost murdered along with the six million; a sense of Jewish community that believes justice to be more important than politics; a Zionism true to its origins and not to a pragmatic accommodation of circumstance ….”

I mentioned his autobiography, Theo, yes? Good. It’s a great read, and … a great gift. (And should be on the shelf of your local community / congregation / high school / college bookshelf.) [Note: Rather than order the book at the largest place one can purchase books online, what about a smaller, unionized one? (“Solidarity forever” is not just a song, ya know).

Again, you can link to the entire Hadassah Magazine article by clicking here.

By | 2007-11-14T13:02:00-05:00 November 14th, 2007|Blog|0 Comments

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