Theodore Bikel: Laughter Through Tears

Yesterday, I was privileged to see Theodore Bikel’s performance of his one-person show, SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS, at the Segal Center in Montreal. Bikel channels the life of Sholem Aleichem by combining his own experience of Sholem Aleichem and twenty-two of Sholem Aleichem’s characters from his plays and stories. I was captivated as he brought the Sholem Aleichem characters of European late 19th century to life before my eyes.

Theodore Bikel is, at this point, eighty-eight years young. Nevertheless, he performs a one-hour and forty-five-minute tour-de-force performance without an intermission. He moves swiftly from one part of the stage to another, singing Yiddish standards that enhance the themes. The songs are woven seamlessly into the play’s fabric. It moved me to tears. I believe this play was also made into a documentary.

Addendum: August 10, 2020

“Theodore Meir Bikel sadly passed away on July 21, 2015. He had appeared in films including The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rouge (1952), The Enemy Below (1957), and I Want to Live! (1958), My Fair Lady (1964), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and 200 Motels (1971)  and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Sheriff Max Muller in The Defiant Ones (1958),

In his teens, he made his stage debut in Tevye the Milkman in Tel Aviv, Israel. He created the role of Captain von Trapp in  The Sound of Music. In 1969, Bikel began acting and singing on stage as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, a play based on the Sholem Aleichem stories: a role he performed more often than any other actor. The production won nine Tony Awards and has become a worldwide hit. Recently there was a movie about Fiddler on the Roof, which reported that almost every day of the year, Fiddler is being performed somewhere in the world. My favourite anecdote from the film is of a Japanese person in Japan walking out of the show and asking an American Jew, “Do Americans understand this play?”. Although the story is based on the Yiddish shtetl, the theme of intergenerational conflict amid historical realities is universal. 

Theodore Bikel was also a widely recognized and recorded folk singer and guitarist. In 1959, he co-founded the Newport Folk Festival.” (Source:

I had two other personal connections to Theodore Bikel. One is his recording of Jewish folk songs below introduced me to Yiddish music. I think I learned Yiddish by listening to this record. 

Theodore Bikel – Sings Jewish Folk Songs – Elektra – EKL-141

Second, I once belonged to a New City choir that performed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in honour of Israel’s Independence Day. We rehearsed in Theodore Bikel’s private dressing room! He served in the same program and greeted us backstage after the concert. I remember him fondly. And as I was recently clearing out my apartment, I discovered these photos from that time.

Thank you, Theodore Bikel, for bringing Sholem Aleichem to life for another generation.