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In Memory of Theodore Bikel (May 2, 1924 – July 21, 2015)

Theodore Bikel, Inspirational Actor & Yiddish Singer

Theodore Bikel Dies 2015 ObituaryI was saddened to learn today that our friend Aimee's husband, Theodore Bikel passed away. He inspired so many people with his love of being a Jew and with his beautiful, resonant voice. Last year I had the privilege of watching him perform and this interesting story came from it, originally published on the Times of Israel blog.

Tevye and the Tango Dancer 
In Memory of Theodore Bikel

When my friend, Esther offered me a free ticket to a performance of “Tevye,” with Theodore Bikel and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, I accepted. This sort of thing is not really my cup of tea, but I knew if my good friend was inviting me to something so completely out of our usual realm, there were bound to be some Holy Sparks waiting to be revealed, so off we went on this little Soul Adventure to the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood. I pass this theater every day on my way to work at the Jewish day school, but I had never been to it. How beautiful it was!

The sun set over the woods behind the symphony as Theodore Bikel, known as Theo to his friends, stepped out on stage to begin his narration of the “after story” of the characters of Fiddler on the Roof from the stories of Sholem Aleichem. You remember Tevye, right? Tevye represents the quintessential Jew, a simple dairyman, who throughout his day, talks to G-d in the shtetel (village) of Anatevka, just before everything changes for the traditional Jews. One by one, Tevye’s daughters take divergent paths that lead to assimilation in the all-too-common story of the breaking apart of European Jewry.

But, the first act of the evening, surprisingly, was a dance, a steamy tango. This was a little more than I thought was good for me to watch, so I opened my Psalms app on my Iphone and read the day’s portion until the tango was over. Then I made a blessing over my Wasa crackers and quietly crunched away until Tevye appeared. In the Hayom Yom, a book of aphorisms and Soul Tips for each day collected and written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov tells us,  “How does one make G-dliness known? By reciting a blessing and a verse of Tehillim,” so that’s what I did. Isn’t it astounding that in this darkest and lowest of all worlds, the simple, mundane act of eating a dry cracker can reveal light in the world, simply by making a blessing before and after eating it?!

The first thing I noticed about Theodore Bikel, when he came on stage, was his calm and masterful stage presence. Theo has played the role of Tevye more than 2,000 times and has so merged with his character that when he narrated, he appeared to simply be himself. The second thing I noticed about Theo was his hands, so large and expressive; they seemed to glow as they expressed Tevye’s love and dismay at the drama his daughters and the pogroms of Eastern Europe brought into his simple and ordered life.

Theodore Bikel Dead 2015 ObituaryThroughout the performance, interspersed with symphonic interludes, Tevye reveals the fate of his son-in-law, Motel the Tailor, and his feelings about his daughter Hodel who has followed her revolutionary husband into exile in Siberia. These marriages, though not in his traditional plan, Tevye has come to accept, but his beloved daughter Chava has married a Russian who was not Jewish. The ripples in tradition, he can reluctantly navigate, but to go completely against Torah – this he can never accept, and so he has banished his cherished daughter, as if she has died. These stories we remember fondly from Fiddler on the Roof, but this night, Theo revealed a new chapter of Chava’s life, and in doing so,  dramatically demonstrated for us how to open our own pathway to G-d. 

The most powerful moment of Theo’s performance was the very last one. In that single moment, I don’t think even Theo, himself, realized the tremendous message he delivered to the Jewish people shortly before the Days of Awe. Tevye learns from his friend the Constable that they have three days to pack up and leave Anatevka. Those of us who saw “Fiddler,” remember the poignant scene in which Chava appears to the family to say farewell. Although Tevye does not speak directly to Chava, he mutters, “G-d be with you,” but in this new chapter, Chava teaches us how to be with G-d. 

Theodore Bikel Dies 2015 ObituaryAs Tevye prepares his family for exile, his daughter Chava, named for the archetype of woman, appears and pleads with her father. When she learns of the exile of her people from their home, she turns away from her desires and returns from the unacceptable path that has severed her relationship with her father. She begs him to allow her to go into exile with him, to comfort him and make a home for him in exile. In the very last moment of his performance, Theo stretches his large, expressive, glowing hands to their limit and from the innermost part of himself screams, “Tatte!” “Father!”


And this, my friends, is exactly how to do teshuva. This is what we are in this world to do. From the depths of our hearts we cry out to our heavenly Father, “Tatte! I am turning away from the things I know You don’t want me to do, from the things that sever my relationship to You. I want to make a home for You in this exile with my mitzvahs. I want to comfort You by learning Your Torah. Tatte, please, let me return to You! Tatte!”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in the audience; I know I was deeply moved, but as powerful as this moment was, there was one even more extraordinary performance yet to come. As the concert finished up with another dance performance, low and behold, who should sit down next to me, but the beautiful Tango dancer, Miriam Larici, whose performance I had avoided in the beginning of the show.

“Hmmmm…” I thought, “How ironic that out of the hundreds of seats in this theater, she happened to sit down by the only woman in the audience who chose not to watch her. Okay, Hashem, You have my attention. What Holy Sparks are You going to reveal through this lovely lady?”


Theodore Bikel Dies 2015 ObituaryThe show ended and as we walked up the steep aisle of the amphitheater toward the exit, a man stepped out of a row and began to struggle to help his wife into her wheelchair. In the most magnificent performance of the entire evening, the lovely Tango dancer gracefully lowered her talented arms and legs to gently place the disabled woman’s legs into the wheelchair, and with this simple, elegant act of kindness, she comforted and made a home for our heavenly Father in this exile, and in so doing, filled the darkness of the closing theater with a tremendous holy light.

May the neshama of Theodore Bikel have an aliyah, may his soul ascend higher and higher and his music resound in heaven!

Do you have any memories or favorite songs or performances of Theodore Bikel? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!




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        1 comment

        • Mia

          Oh, Rae, this is breathtaking. How I loved to hear Theodore’s voice years ago. His spirit will be with us whenever we hear his recordings, as we move into our own elder years. Thanks SO MUCH for writing this.

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