One of the true riches of the Jewish people — their contribution to a society’s culture — became vastly poorer last week as two titans of Jewish song and drama, and arts and letters, Theodore Bikel, age 91, and E.L. Doctorow, age 84, both died on the same day, July 21.
Coincidences sometimes are not without purpose. They can locate the meaning of random events, grounding them in a symbolism that transcends mere trivia. For instance, the second and third presidents of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Founding Fathers of the first order, also died on the same day, July 4, 1826. They ushered in competing philosophies of American governance, and represented vastly different geographic temperaments, but in death they shared an identical end. The two had been both friends and bitter rivals, and upon their passing a young nation faced a new beginning.
So, too, can Jewish-Americans grasp this moment as weighted in similar significance — not the birth of a nation, but the culmination of its distinctive culture, which is now in need of a second act. What was lost might never be reclaimed, and may, in fact, require a complete overhaul.
Bikel is best known as Captain von Trapp from the original Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.” He also performed Tevye the Milkman, the hapless Jewish everyman from “Fiddler on the Roof,” on Broadway and around the world more times (over 2,000) than any other song and dance man before or since.
He recorded a wide array of folk songs in as many as 21 languages, including Zulu. And, yes, his renditions of Chanukah and Passover songs were more naturally in his key.
His command of accents and repertoire of talents allowed him a journeyman’s career befitting an immigrant European Jew who fled the Nazis from Vienna, was raised in pre-state Israel, and then decamped to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London before moving on to Broadway and Hollywood.
Bikel’s boyhood endowed him with the ideal resume for a chameleon — the nimbly assimilated Jew who knew how to disappear within a role; a character actor who, forged by extreme events, was forced to develop character quickly. Bikel assimilated everything, taking nothing for granted and tossing even less away, like a tailor always on the lookout for suitable patches.
On film he was a Hungarian linguist in “My Fair Lady,” a German officer in “The African Queen,” and a Southern sheriff in “The Defiant Ones,” a role for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. On TV he played a Polish professor on “Charlie’s Angels” and a German butcher in “All in the Family.” Oh, and almost as a sideline, Bikel was a master of Yiddish and the leading interpreter of Sholem Aleichem.
Doctorow inhabited a very different Jewish life altogether. Born in the Bronx, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, his father owned a store in the Theater District that sold musical instruments. Although he grew up during the Depression, he was immersed in New York culture and acquired a refinement that few others of his generation, many of whom were still shaking off the dust from European shtetls and the Pale of Settlement, had the wherewithal to obtain.
Unlike Philip Roth, a contemporary who also possessed the Golden Ticket of an adolescence in the Goldena Medina — shielded from the displacements and death across the Atlantic — Doctorow more keenly embraced the manners of a postwar cultivated, Americanized Jewish intellectual. There is no equivalent to “Portnoy’s Complaint” in the backlist of Doctorow’s body of work. He had little interest in satirizing Jewish life or, as Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow had done, relocating it in America. (Jews suddenly experiencing the American Dream and lamenting what was left behind was the plot line of many postwar novels.) The art of Doctorow was not only the novels, but also his own reinvention.
Curiously, instead of chronicling the Jewish-American journey, Doctorow became the godfather of historical fiction — novels set within epochal time periods and populated by recognizable historical characters he fictionalized in extraordinarily inventive ways.
All things Americana is what Doctorow gave his readers. And for that they made him a bestseller, far eclipsing the other Jewish novelists of his era. Indeed, Doctorow was not especially popular among Jews. He was perceived as an East Coast Wasp and received as Henry James. Virtually every major book award came his way for several of his 12 novels. Yet locating a Yiddish word or a Jewish kvetch in any of them was a lonely task, indeed.
Reading Doctorow is tantamount to a tutorial on revisionist American history: from the Civil War in “The March,” the cowboy western in “Welcome to Hard Times,” the period leading up to World War I in “Ragtime,” the gangster era of the 1930s in “Billy Bathgate,” the trial and execution of the fictionalized Rosenbergs in “The Book of Daniel,” and the new millennial crisis of faith in “City of God.”
With all that, and short stories, a play, literary essays and political writings to his credit, Doctorow somehow managed to go an entire career without having to mention Israel. Theodore Bikel was named for Theodor Herzl; Edgar Doctorow was named for Edgar Allan Poe. Enough said.
And, yet, not unlike Bikel, but less explicitly so, Doctorow found ways of folding himself within the characters he created, throwing his voice that gave away his ethnic bona fides. There was no Tevye, but there was a Tateh from “Ragtime” who rose from Orchard Street peddler to movie mogul. The Isaacsons from “The Book of Daniel” took the red-diaper Jewish route that Doctorow’s own parents, who he fictionalized in “World’s Fair,” would never have considered. The Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz headlines “Billy Bathgate,” while Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini and Sigmund Freud make whimsical cameos in Doctorow’s “Ragtime” as if in search of a minyan.
Now with the deaths of these two seminal figures, the interplay of old and new worlds, and the fusion of native tongues and awkward accents, which once defined the Jewish-American experience, has come to a reflective fork in the road. The melting pot simmers while Jewish culture readies itself for the next flame.
Unlike Adams and Jefferson, Bikel and Doctorow may have never even met, but very much like Founding Fathers, they were the north and south poles of Jewish life. Their work charted the polarity between the cunning escape artists sprinting toward the mainstream, and the sentimental nostalgists who held fast to more humble beginnings.
No wonder Bikel sang “Tradition,” the opening tune from “Fiddler on the Roof,” so many times. He was aiming for an audience far beyond those sitting inside the theater. Show biz wasn’t his sole motivation. There was also the premonitory warning, the geschrei of the town crier, Bikel’s calling of all Jews.
The torches have now been passed, but may never burn brighter.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author, most recently, of “How Sweet It Is!”