Actor And Activist Theodore Bikel Dies At 91
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Actor And Activist Theodore Bikel Dies At 91

Known best as Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Broadway singer also played a starring role in progressive politics.

Theodore Bikel, the veteran singer-actor-activist best known for his role as Tevye in a Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” died Tuesday at 91 at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“He passed of natural causes peacefully,” the bikel.com website stated.

Though he earned his fame for starring in a variety of Jewish roles over the decades, playing Tevye more than any actor in history, his roles were wide ranging, including Captain von Trapp in a Broadway production of “The Sound of Music,” a U-boat officer in the movie “The Enemy Below,” and the adoptive father of Worf, a Klingon, in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

He was also a singer. “Theo really was the first person to bring Jewish music to the worldwide public,” said Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of Folksbiene-the National Yiddish Theater. Mlotek cited Mr. Bikel’s series of popular Yiddish folk records in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“These are classics. They became the closest thing to gold records that Jewish music had at that time,” Mlotek said. “He brought it [Yiddish culture] to the widest possible audience,” long before the resurgent interest in Yiddish and klezmer music.

“What moves me is neither ethnocentric pride nor sectarian arrogance. I make no claim that Jewish culture is superior to other cultures,” Mr. Bikel once said. “But it is mine.”

Named for Theodor Herzl, Mr. Bikel’s family fled Vienna for Palestine after the Nazis annexed Austria. In Palestine he performed with the Habimah Theater; he later moved to the U.S., becoming a naturalized citizen in 1961.

Mr. Bikel was multi-lingual, singing and performing in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.

He was also politically and artistically active on the national scene, serving as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention, on the boards of Amnesty International, the National Council of the Arts and Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), co-founding the Newport Folk Festival, and authoring two books, “Folksongs and Footnotes,” and his 1994 autobiography, “Theo.”

He was president emeritus of Actors Equity, and vice president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

“People will remember him as someone who spoke up for his strong sense of Yiddishkeit and social justice,” Mlotek said.

Five years ago Mr. Bikel drew criticism for endorsing performers’ boycott of a theater in Ariel, a city on the West Bank. “Each case has to be judged on its own merits,” Bikel wrote in a letter to Haaretz. “As I said, as a general rule I’m against cultural boycotts, but this is a very, very special case.”

In a 2001 interview he said, “Everything that I’ve done and that I’ve lived through has really informed a commitment I have. … I’m not just somebody who mouths words or sings songs on the stage. I’m also a human being, and that counts for something.”

Oscar- and Tony-nominated, Mr. Bikel received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

“In my world, history comes down to language and art,” he said at the awards ceremony. “No one cares much about what battles are fought, who won them and who lost them — unless there is a painting, a play, a song or a poem that speaks of the event.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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