Theodore Bikel, who died on Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 91, was about the closest the Jewish world came to having its own ambassador of goodwill.
A gifted singer and actor for more than six decades, he played the lead role of Tevye in “Fiddler On The Roof” more than anyone else. But as Zalman Mlotek, artistic director of Folksbiene-The National Yiddish Theater, told us, “Theo really was the first person to bring Jewish music to the worldwide public.”
Born in Vienna and named for Theodor Herzl, Bikel and his family fled to Palestine after the Nazis annexed Austria. He performed with the Habimah Theater, and later recorded albums in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English.
After moving to the U.S. he performed on Broadway and in Hollywood movies, and was honored by the National Foundation of Jewish Culture in 1997 with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
A thoughtful man with a wide range of interests, Bikel often said he wanted to be remembered for his “strong sense of Yiddishkeit and social justice.”
He was a board member of the progressive Meretz USA, and in his last years he became a center of controversy when he endorsed a boycott of a theater in Ariel, a city on the West Bank. But even Zionists on the right cut him some slack. In the debates about who is in and who is out of the Big Tent of the pro-Israel community, people would sometimes ask, “So are you saying that Theodore Bikel is not a Zionist?”
He was a lover of Israel, of Jewish life and culture, and he will be missed.