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Theo Bikel, Prophet of His People

In Deuteronomy 18:18 Moses says that God has told him, “I will raise up a prophet from among your own people. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to the people all that I command him.” Theo Bikel, who passed away July 21, was, I believe, such a prophet in Israel.

My relationship with Theo existed on three levels: personal, professional and political. In the top two leadership positions of our union, Actors’ Equity, we were a team. Beyond our personal relationship, he was my teacher, my mentor and my counselor. But the most significant aspect of our partnership was a deep friendship that spanned over 50 years. Theo and his parents immigrated to Palestine from Vienna six months after the Anschluss. The comparative ease of their escape created survivor’s guilt that, I think, Theo carried with him all his life.

It could be said that his professional debut in 1943 at the Habima Theatre was bashert, meant to be. The production was “Tevye the Milkman” and 24 years later he played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the first of his more than 2000 performances in the role, more than any other actor. And it was my great joy to play Yenta in two of those productions. Theo was a singer and his songs reflected beliefs that were fundamental to his existence. He sang of peace, justice, workers’ rights and freedom. He sang in his native Yiddish, and in more than 20 other languages. He sang of Jewish culture and Jewish values. Theo was the consummate union man and he was always looking for the right path to make peace.

A problem developed during the run of “The Sound of Music” and the resolution was vintage Theo. When his contract had been negotiated, his agent had neglected to include language excusing him from performing on Yom Kippur and management demanded that he play. Then, adding insult to injury, they gave his understudy that week off to go fishing and closed their office to observe the holiday.

Without the appropriate contract clause he knew Equity could do nothing to help him, but he was very angry and wanted management to know it. So he filed suit with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination on the grounds that his rights had been violated. Management was furious, fearing bad publicity, and they pressured him to drop the suit. As it happened, they had recently fired a young woman from the chorus one week before she was due vacation pay. So Theo agreed to drop the suit provided the woman was rehired with vacation pay and without telling her why they’d changed their minds. Quality Theo!

Coincidently, we both became involved in union activity during the 1960 lockout to establish pension benefits. Theo rose through the ranks to be elected president in 1973, when I was also elected to national office. Outstanding among his numerous accomplishments was his leadership in organizing the National Council on the Arts and the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts; in 1976 President Carter appointed both of us to serve as panelists on the National Endowment.

Theo taught me that Jewish silence in the face of injustice is intolerable and his causes became my causes. He was an active supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights and J Street. Just a few weeks before his death, Theo met with Rabbi Arik Ascherman to discuss plans for him to make additional videos to promote the causes espoused by RHR.

As much as anybody I’ve ever known, Theo’s actions were dictated by the mitzvot inscribed in the Holiness Code in Leviticus:

“You shall not oppress the stranger among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“You shall rebuke your kinsman and bear no sin because of him.”

In “The Prophets” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “God is raging in the prophet’s words.” Concerning the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Arab Phalangists who perpetrated a massacre on the refugees at Sabra and Shatila, Theo wrote: “The massacre should have been stopped by the Israeli forces. Many American Jews, myself included, were outraged by what we perceived as Sharon’s apparent lack of concern for the hapless victims.”

The words of the prophet are never temperate or politic. Heschel writes: “The prophet feels fiercely and his words are outbursts of violent emotion.” Theo wrote: “Even before Sabra and Shatila, I had considered Sharon to be a barbarian pig who single-handedly had raised vulgarity to an art form.” The massacre had resulted in a major diminution of support for UJA and Theo was asked to travel the country doing damage control. Although profoundly upset himself, he urged people to stay involved in order to deliver a strong message to the Begin government about moral and ethical conduct in wartime.

Heschel writes: “The prophet’s rebuke is harsh and relentless.” Appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, Meir Kahane once tried to cozy up to Theo, alleging they both supported the same causes: the Jewish people and Israel. Theo would have none of it, and his retort was immediate: “I have no more stomach for Jewish fascists than I have for the gentile kind. If Kahane pretends he’s on my side because we’re both Jews, then he has no idea what my side is. Being a Jew has no meaning at all to me, unless one is governed by moral precepts. I am surprised that I have to tell this to a rabbi but then, what kind of rabbi advocates mass expulsion of Arabs from a country whose Jewish citizens have themselves been victims of ethnic cleansing?”

Heschel writes: “The prophet must speak to the people, whether they hear or refuse to hear.” Theo often lamented that American Jews are “less critical of Israeli policy than we would be of our own government — even when that policy is wrong!”

Heschel writes: “The prophet is an iconoclast. Beliefs cherished as certainties, the prophet exposes as scandalous pretensions.” In 1989, responding to Israeli government plans for the settlement of newly arrived Soviet Jews, Theo protested, “It is unacceptable that Soviet Jews be used as pawns in a political game of creating more Jewish land in the territories.”

Heschel writes: “The essential task of the prophet is to declare the word of God to the here and now; to disclose the future in order to illumine what is involved in the present.” At a meeting of the Emergency World Jewish Leadership Conference in Jerusalem, Theo warned, “Putting Soviet Jews into the territories will permit the government to present the settlements as a fait accompli, thereby removing the ‘land for peace formula’ from the bargaining table. It is also an insidious way of tilting Israeli public opinion away from any notion of compromise, without which no peace process is feasible.” In the last line of his autobiography, Theo wrote how he would like to be remembered: “Der zinger fun zayn folk He was the singer of his people.” To which I respectfully add: Un der novi fun zayn folk — and the prophet of his people!

Barbara Colton’s professional credits include numerous productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Zero Mostel and with Theodore Bikel as well as understudy to Katharine Hepburn in the National Company of “A Matter of Gravity.” She served for 24 years on the council of Actors’ Equity Association, including four terms as National First Vice President, and recently concluded her First year of Graduate School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


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