Theodore Bikel: Laughter Through Tears

Yesterday, I was honoured to attend Theodore Bikel‘s compelling one-person show, “SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHTER THROUGH TEARS,” at the Segal Center in Montreal. Bikel skillfully brought Sholem Aleichem’s essence to the stage, portraying twenty-two characters from Aleichem’s plays and stories. Witnessing Bikel breathe life into Sholem Aleichem’s characters from the late 19th century was a mesmerizing experience.

Despite being eighty-eight years old, Bikel delivered a seamless one-hour and forty-five-minute performance without intermission. His agility on stage, effortlessly transitioning from one part to another, was enhanced by his poignant rendition of Yiddish songs seamlessly integrated into the play’s themes. The emotional impact of the performance, coupled with the musical interludes, left me moved to tears. I believe this extraordinary play was also adapted into a documentary.

Addendum: August 10, 2020

Theodore Meir Bikel, a multifaceted talent, sadly passed away on July 21, 2015. His cinematic contributions include notable roles in films such as “The African Queen” (1951), “Moulin Rouge” (1952), “The Enemy Below” (1957), “I Want to Live!” (1958), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), and “200 Motels” (1971). Bikel’s portrayal of Sheriff Max Muller in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In his teens, he started his acting career with “Tevye the Milkman” in Tel Aviv, Israel, and later played Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” In 1969, he impressed audiences with his role as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories. Bikel’s performance set a record, making the play a huge success with nine Tony Awards and global acclaim.

A recent film about “Fiddler on the Roof” emphasized its ongoing popularity, revealing that the play is performed almost daily worldwide. In a funny incident from the documentary, a Japanese person asked an American Jew if Americans truly understood the play. Despite its Yiddish shtetl roots, the universal theme of intergenerational conflict resonates with audiences worldwide.

Beyond his acting prowess, Bikel was a renowned folk singer and guitarist, co-founding the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Two personal connections with Bikel enriched my appreciation for him—his recording of Jewish folk songs introduced me to Yiddish music and a memorable choir experience at the Hollywood Bowl, where we rehearsed in Bikel’s private dressing room. His warm greeting after the concert remains etched in my memory.

In clearing out my apartment, I rediscovered photos from that time, a poignant reminder of Theodore Bikel’s lasting impact on bringing Sholem Aleichem’s legacy to a new generation.

Thank you, Theodore Bikel, for your artistry and for bridging cultural gaps through your timeless performances.