Tevye the Milkman, the working stiff Jewish Everyman from the shtetls of Russia, may not be one of Broadway's sexiest characters, but he certainly has been one of its most enduring. And one actor more than any other has embodied the role of the tradition-bound, world-weary, rich-man obsessed song and dance man who has, for better or worse, come to symbolize Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement.
Major League Baseball may have its Cal Ripken, Jr.; but fans of Fiddler on the Roof know of only one Theodore Bikel.
Bikel, the ironman actor who has plaintively lugged Tevye's milk pail around and logged so many performances of Fiddler on the Roof (more than 2,000 over the past 37 years) that he has earned a bronze statue in the town square of the mythical Anatevka, is conjuring the character once more, along with the life of the humorist and fiction writer who created him, in Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, a production of the National Yiddish Theatre (Folksbiene), playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through December 13, 2009. http:// www.folksbiene.org/ or call: 646-312-5073.
This fine, funny and entertaining production in English and Yiddish (with English and Russian supertitles), allows Bikel to demonstrate his extraordinary range of talents as an actor and singer (he wasn't the original Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music for nothing), bringing to life a number of Aleichem's most memorable characters, along with Aleichem himself, in a showcase that is as much a homage to the world's first popular Jewish writer as it is a celebration of Yiddish culture itself -- with all its lively wit and rich pathos.
Sholom Aleichem is known as the Jewish Mark Twain, but Bikel enlarges and ennobles the man in ways that turn the world's greatest Yiddish writer into the living embodiment of Huckleberry Finn -- keenly observing the end of the 19th Century in Europe and Russia, the dawn of Jewish life in America, and the incremental death of Yiddish culture that was foreshadowed in that migration.
And it is for this reason that Bikel's heartfelt performance (he also wrote the play) is a wink and a handshake from one Jewish artist to another, and a personal statement of Bikel's own Jewish journey. Like Sholom Aleichem, who made his way from Russia to Switzerland and then emigrated to America during World War I, Theodore Bikel amassed his own share of frequent flyer Diaspora miles -- starting out in Vienna, escaping the Holocaust by traveling to Israel (then Palestine), then on to London and finally settling in the United States.
Both men epitomized the transcendent leap of Jewish imagination and resourcefulness that could not have been confined to the ghettos of the old world, and yet, at the same time, Aleichem and Bikel channeled and internalized the anguish of all the loss that was left behind. For all of Bikel's forays into film, stage, television, and musical recordings in the English language, he has remained a devoted archivist -- and devout son -- of Yiddish.
Perhaps this impulse to memorialize the language of Sholom Aleichem is another way that Bikel has shown himself to posses the stamina of Tevye, making yet another delivery, this time across the ages.