This is from the text of a speech delivered by the very erudite public intellectual, Leon Wieseltier, in honor of Theodore Bikel, the internationally celebrated singer and actor, at the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award by YIVO, at the Center for Jewish History in New York on June 18. After eloquently lamenting what in his view is the shallowness and fragmented quality of American-Jewish life today, Wieseltier concludes with this tribute to PPI’s board chair:
. . . What is missing from American Jewishness now is a sense of the whole—a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance. We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilization. A great Jewish historian, adapting an ancient Latin adage, famously remarked that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Who can say this now? Who has, or aspires to have, an appreciation and a knowledge and a love of this scope? Who any longer remembers how to be an heir to it all?
I have at least one answer to that question. The answer is, Theo Bikel remembers. He is a man of the whole. The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare: He is immersed in the entirety of Jewish expression. He possesses the languages and he possesses the literatures. He knows all the songs, and the meanings of all the songs. He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate. He is a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and a son of New York and Los Angeles—of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion. He does not choose among them; he represents, and cherishes, and refines, them all. His Jewish cultivation is breathtaking. His many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice have always been conducted in a Jewish vocabulary—he has been an ambassador of our ethics to the world.
Theo is one of the greatest of our culture’s guardians, and of its connoisseurs. His company is an intense—and almost giddily delightful—experience of Jewish cultivation. His laughter is itself a high form of yiddishkeit. A culture’s best shorthand, after all, is its humor; and if one of the measures of the decline of a grander and more synoptic Jewishness is that there are fewer and fewer people to whom one can tell our jokes, then I wish to proclaim, as a summary of Theo’s reach as a Jew, that he is the man who gets all the jokes and tells all the jokes. He relieves a certain Jewish loneliness. So here at YIVO you have chosen brilliantly: I can think of nobody who more richly deserves an award that extols Jewish heritage than this man, this universal Jew. It has been one of the privileges of my own life as a Jew to have been a Jew together with him on this cruel and beautiful earth.
Click here for Wieseltier’s entire speech, published online for Tablet magazine.