THE BLOG

Long Live the Weird and Wonderful Theo Bikel, Role Model, Mentor and Renaissance Mench!

06/18/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

What's weird about Theo Bikel?

Being so exceptional in a world flooded with the commonplace.

Bikel is truly a Renaissance mench -- intelligent, candid, honest and engaging, and that's just for starters. A creative whirlwind, Theo sings, dances, writes, performs, lectures, etc. His autobiography is written with such clarity, candor and wit, that it's impossible to put down. Theo's as involved in life and art today in his hard-to-believe 91st year as he was as a boy of 19. And still optimistic! He's a newlywed, having married journalist Aimee Ginsburg in December of 2013. Mazel Tov! Mazel Tov!

And he's hardly resting on past laurels when new ones keep on arriving. So far in 2015 he's received a Tony Artistic Achievement Award and The Inaugural Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at the Phoenix Jewish Film Festival.

On Sunday night, June 21st Bikel will be hosting the premiere of a new documentary, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem - an enchanting dual portrait of two beloved Jewish icons, Bikel and Aleichem, who had much in common, like wit, wisdom, talent and a deep respect for Jewish Culture. After the screening, Bikel and the delicious film's writer-director, John Lollos, will host a Q&A that I'm sure will not end without Bikel singing a song or two. His Yiddish song CD's (all 20 of them) were best sellers. Bikel combines Sir Laurence Olivier's intellect with Hugh Jackman's endless joy. It doesn't get any better than that. Take advantage of the opportunity to see him in person. At 91, Bikel admits to feeling 70, but his fingers strum guitar stings like they're not yet eligible for Social Security. There gotta be a way to clone his DNA!

Theo was born under a lucky star in pre-WWII Vienna and thanks to his father's Zionism, the family miraculously secured precious visas to Palestine a few days after Hitler annexed Austria. Only permitted to take with them whatever they could put in one suitcase, they were unhappily forced to leave behind their 36-volume set of Sholem Aleichem's writings, but God helped, and Bikel's grandmother brought the books with her when she miraculously followed them later.

Bikel enjoys Sholem Aleichem so much and so intimately. He's particularly appreciative of the names Aleichem gives his imaginary Russian shtetls: Kasrilevke, Boiberik, Yehupetz. Even the sounds of the town names make you smile. In the film, Bikel tells a story about a poor man who is permitted to speak to Rothschild, the world's richest Jew, because he promises to give the millionaire the secret of eternal life.

Which is?

To move immediately to Yehupetz, because no rich man has ever died there.

In Israel, Theo lived and worked on a kibbutz for several years where he displayed a greater affinity for culture than for agriculture. He sang while others sewed and reaped. Then fate led the 19-year-old to a Tel Aviv theatre where he played, what else but the village clerk in Tevye the Milkman. Since them, he's played the lead of Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, 2000 plus times.

In London to study acting, his portrayal of a madly eccentric Russian Ballet-master got him an audition with Sir Laurence Olivier. From a bit part, Theo soon snared the schizophrenic acting plum of the year -- understudying both the brutish Stanley Kowalski and the vulnerable suitor, Mitch, in A Streetcar Named Desire. Talk about winning the Naches Olympics - The Gold Medal for Parental Pride! On the night Theo's parents saw the show, the actor playing Kowalski had sprained his ankle, and their son, the actor, was the leading man opposite Vivien Leigh.

But Bikel the actor was always connected to Bikel the Jew. When he was invited to perform for the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Theo included Yiddish and Modern Hebrew songs in his program. It was probably the first time Yiddish was ever sung at the Palace.

By 1959 he was starring on Broadway as Captain von Trapp to Mary Martin's Maria, but he was uncomfortable with the way the writers glossed over the adversities his contemporaries had endured. "It's essential to always remember who you are and where you came from. That's where you get your sense of self. " And Theo not only remembers, but celebrates his history. He also cares deeply about the welfare of others, raises funds for charities and has provided potent humanitarian leadership for many organizations.

God bless Theodore Bikel, May he live, perform and inspire until the age of 120. I know, I know, I sound like my grandmother, but there are worse people to sound like.

On Sunday Night June 21 at 6 pm come to the closing event of KulturfestNYC 2015- The First International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. See the film about Bikel and Aleichem and enjoy the man himself for only $10, but for a meer $36 you can join in the post screening toast.