On May 2, Turner Classic Movies celebrated Theodore (Theo) Bikel’s 88th birthday by airing six of his films – by and large, as it happens, not the most memorable among them.
Not counting television roles, Bikel – or Theo, since I write as his friend – has appeared in more than 40 films, performed on stage and in concert, at conventions and in more intimate settings and, of course, in what has become his signature role, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (more than 2000 times). For decades, he has been a unique performer, interpreter, creator of Jewish culture; the giant shadow he has there cast is utterly unique.
Theo’s Tevye, engaging as it surely is, takes on a rare seriousness in the actor’s articulation of one line of dialogue: With regard to his daughters Tzeitel and Hodel, both of whose marriages are in his eyes problematic, Tevye goes back and forth – “on the one hand,” and then “on the other hand” – until finally, true love is the winner. But with regard to Chava, who announces her intention to marry Fyedke, a Russian, not a Jew, Tevye’s back and forth goes this way: “How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, on my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand … No. There is no other hand.”
Bikel knows that the entire gravitas of the play is contained in those last five words, and the great skill he brings their articulation is a perfect match for their importance.
On May 19, Tamara Brooks, the great love of Theo’s life, suffered a fatal heart attack while they were visiting friends in Houston. Tamara was herself a storm of a person, a most distinguished and quite tireless conductor, principally of contemporary choral music. She was a woman whose very strong opinions regarding music and its performers were dwarfed by her tenderness towards Theo, 17 years her senior. Tamara’s immense skills as an artist were widely acclaimed; she was Theo’s peer, decisively not his pygmy; she was very much her own person, with her own dossier of rave reviews and often innovative performances, with her own most venerable record as a music pedagogue.
Yet, for those of us who came to know her through her relationship with Theo – they were married, after years of companionship, just four years ago – she was above all his person. It was how he was with her and she was with him that dwarfed everything else.
My own history with Theo goes all the way back to his performance at the University of Chicago Hillel house, when I was an undergraduate. I have since then known him not only as a stellar performer of Jewish music (he can sing in 22 languages, but Hebrew, Yiddish and English lead the rest) but also as Senior Vice President of the American Jewish Congress; as a leading voice for the freedom of Soviet Jewry; and as an ardent advocate of civil rights and human rights and workers’ rights. What began as a brief acquaintance over the years ripened into a close friendship.