Theodore Bikel and Sholom Aleichem share festival’s final spotlight

By Suzi Brozman
sbrozman@atljewishtimes.com

ARTS-Bikel photo

Theodore Bikel

If you love Yiddish, if you love Jewish culture, if you love Sholom Aleichem, if you love Theodore Bikel, you’ll have to find a way to see the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival’s closing film, “Theodore

Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.”

The entire closing-night audience was transfixed by Bikel’s wisdom, his talent, his reminiscences and his beautifully expressive eyes, which twinkled unceasingly as he remembered his parents, his upbringing and his years playing Tevye the milkman on stages everywhere.

The film was narrated by Alan Alda, but Bikel owned the center stage, as he always does. He quoted Sholom Aleichem on Yiddish: “It’s like pastrami — it has a richness and a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.”

Actors, authors, musicians and even Aleichem’s centenarian granddaughter were interviewed in the film. A highlight was the use of old footage, letting us see what the lost world of the European shtetl, the cities in Poland and even New York’s Lower East Side looked like in their heyday. People dancing and klezmer bands performing evoked the world today’s Yiddish authorities want to see revitalized.

“My parents only spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand,” one person said in the film, and the audience laughed in appreciation and agreement.

At age 90, Bikel sees himself nearing his end and wants us to keep this slice of Jewish culture alive.

In a post-film conversation with radio personality Lois Reitzes, Bikel talked about the soul of the Jew, composed of humor, tragedy and social justice. Sholom Aleichem, with his brilliant portrayals of Jews in their native tongue, gave us a taste of the life those generations of Jews brought here.

“Tevye,” Bikel said, “has become Everyman. The better a character is, the more universal he becomes. In Israel when I was young, no one wanted you to speak Yiddish. It was identified with Jews as victims, losers. Ben-Gurion made Yiddish an exile in the land of the Jews.”

After eight years, Bikel moved to London to study at the end of World War II and got involved with Yiddish theater, which has sustained him.

I wish Bikel had brought his guitar to serenade the lucky group who got tickets to see the film and him. But seeing him was enough, a soul-satisfying reminder of the continuity of Jewish culture, theater and life.