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“Mr. Bikel, Have You Put On the
A Conversation with World-Renowned Jewish Actor Theodore Bikel
By Rabbi William Berkowitz
Theodore Bikel performing at the Jewish festival in Krakov, 2004.

In this age of specialization, our Jewish friend Theodore Meir Bikel, who is today 83 years of age (he was born in May 1924 in Vienna), emerges as an amazing and unique personality. He has achieved fame in radio, television, the movies and on Broadway. He is a leading versatile actor and an internationally known artist. Added to this wealth of talent, are other aspects of a career that have made him one of the most respected and beloved figures of our times.

A while ago I had the privilege of enjoying a dialogue with Mr. Bikel. Following are parts of our conversation.

BERKOWITZ: Today we discuss a great deal the themes of survival, acculturation and assimilation. Let me ask you this: In what way is your life different from that of your parents and grandchild?

BIKEL: That is a loaded question right from the start. You already know the difference. We are trapped by our times. We would like to think that we shape our time, but this is a lie. We do not. We are fashioned by the mores surrounding us much more than were our fathers and grandfathers. First, they were shut out of the environment around them. They were ghettoized, not only government control, but by personal choice and by the very rejection they experienced in the diaspora.

Now this is no longer true. The environment around us is quite ready to accept us – well not accept us because that would make us equals – but let us say, ready to absorb us. And, indeed, we are being absorbed by the culture around us. This is quite true and not insignificant. We must remember that we live in a predominantly Christian culture, and we keep falling into the trap of molding ourselves to be like our neighbors.

I do not know the difference between a church bingo and a synagogue bingo game, or between a Christian martini and a Jewish one. To me they are the same kind of living and basically an un-Jewish way of life. It may be called an American way of life; I call it a vastly underrated danger. Those who will tell you that the American way of life means adapting to the melting pot are either lying or hypocritical.

To begin with, America is not a melting pot but a kaleidoscope. A melting pot is a no-color color, a no-shape mishmash. In a kaleidoscope, on the other hand, each element has its own distinct personality and beauty, and that is what is meant by man being different from fellow man – his differences not making him less qualified or less entitled to the benefits of the society around us.

Equality means equal access, equal opportunity. It does not mean a sort of general steam-rolling process. That is why the word acculturation really is in itself a misnomer. It is a euphemism for assimilation in itself. I think it is to be condemned.

Life now is much different from what it was in the days of my father. I am not saying that much good has not happened, naturally, but I do not count acculturation or assimilation among the blessings. There are good things that have happened to us and I hope we will come to them later, but the acculturation or assimilation part of it is definitely a minus.

BERKOWITZ: You have said that your upbringing as a Jew has always been vitally interlinked with your upbringing as a human being and as a person. There was no one time of the day when it was said, “Now we concentrate on being a Jew.”  Against this background we hear so much today about Jewish heritage, Jewish ideals, questions of survival. What, in your opinion, are the values in the Jewish heritage that justify Jewish distinctiveness, Jewish Survival?

BIKEL: First of all, it is almost a commandment to survive, and I do not mean to survive physically. That is too easy. I mean creative survival. I mean meaningful survival so that tomorrow’s Jew will not merely say, “I am here,” but “I am here and I am a Jew.”

And what does it mean to be a Jew, and what is in this vessel – this vessel filled with Jewish content? Does it only have that nomenclature attached to it as a hollow ringing of the past? That is really the crux of the question. Why should we, indeed, survive? One might ask, why should any people survive?

BERKOWITZ: You have expounded magnificently in the written and spoken word the specific values that you see in the Jewish heritage that make for this kind of Jewish survival. Looking back across four thousand years, what has been handed down to you from the past? What is meaningful to you as a human being?

BIKEL: The first of these is the Jewish ethic itself, which is very often misunderstood or misquoted. At times other people want to claim for themselves, and then they call it the Judeo-Christian ethic. Yes, the Jewish ethic contains something which I fail to find in others. Obviously, to be a good human being is the basis of any religion or any culture that looks to divide good from evil, right from wrong. Any such culture does that, and we are no different from the others in this. But where we are unique is in our insistence on the openness of the human being.

Religion with Jews is an everyday matter. No other religion really insisted on linking everyday living with observance. The washing of hands, the eating of food, the breaking of bread – all of these are tied to our thoughts of ancestry, of group existence and, if you are religious and are not ashamed of it, to God. Other people do not have that. Other people maintain that Sunday morning is for God; the rest of the week is for man. In the Jewish ethic, I believe we are not even entitled to reach for God unless we reach for man. In this respect we are vitally different and for that alone we must seek to survive.

Another day-to-day thing that other people also do not have is the concept of tzedakah, for which other people have two words. Charity is one of them, but charity is not a thing that a Jew can choose to do or not to do. Good deeds are something that you cannot elect to do or not to do. These are deeds that you must do. These are what makes a Jew.

BERKOWITZ: What you are saying is that the Jewish faith is a way of life. The centrality of Jewish theology is rooted in two relationships, the relationship between man and his Maker, and between man and his fellow man.

I remember as a child two people at Yom Kippur running back and forth and up and down the aisle. I asked my parents and grandparents what they were doing, and I was told they were running to ask forgiveness from their fellow man, because the principle is that God, on the Day of Atonement, does not grant atonement of sins unless we seek forgiveness from our fellow man.

What steps do you think should be taken to assure the survival of American Jewry?

BIKEL: If you want survival, in one succinct phrase – it is learning. Usually when people say Torah what they mean is to pay reverence to that Scroll we call the Torah. But Torah is something altogether different.

Also, the rabbi is not a priest; he is not even the equivalent of a priest. His function is instructive, not ritualistic. Rabbi Berkowitz is a rabbi.  I am a Kohen. My point is that the rabbi is a teacher and the Torah is learning.   

You are not born a good Jew. You are not born any kind of a Jew. You have to work at being a Jew, and that means investing time, investing energy and investing concentration. And there is one place only where you can get it and that is the bookshelf. It is vital and indispensable. There are no shortcuts.

BERKOWITZ: With regard to the cultural productivity of American Jewry, some literary critics maintain that all creative writers should write frankly and honestly from their personal experience. Some Jewish leaders feel, however, that Jewish writers, when writing for the general community have a prior responsibility to the Jewish community and should not reflect adversely on it. An obvious example was Portnoy’s Complaint. What is your opinion?  

BIKEL: Well, I have always been amused at those of my elders who say “Nisht far Di Goyim,” Don’t talk in front of he Gentile. Any writer worth his salt, any writer who professes to be truthful, must seek the truth, and when he sees it around him, he must write it as he sees it. That is not to say that Portnoy’s Complaint, to follow up your example, should either be liked or revered or called – and this is what I find ridiculous – a masterpiece. It may be a masterpiece of descriptiveness, but that is another discussion. It is typical to some extent; there must be kids like that around and lots of mothers like that.

Art is not supposed to be photography. If you take twenty types you have known in your life, and you crystallize them into one, this is also valid. It is valid in literature. But the point is that the outside world then tends to take this as fact, the prototype of Jewish literature, Jewish writing and Jewish and Jewish sensitivity.

There is no way we can stop them from doing it. They have always done that to us. They have taken the fact that we eat matzos on Pesach and have called us matzo fressers, and that was it. They notice little else. I cannot stop non-Jews from noticing only Portnoy’s Complaint and his masturbation complex and his mother. All I can do is to draw their attention to the fact that there are other books and other images, for example: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, or My Name is Asher Lev which describe something entirely different, with truth and insight. You draw their attention to the fact that there are other things; that Jews are this and that. Man is good and man is evil; man is base and man is noble–both at the same time – sometimes one at a time, and the other at another time. That’s what you tell people. But no one has any right to tell a writer, don’t write that.

BERKOWITZ: What is Jewish culture? Can Judaism exist in a secularist, nationalist – what we might call a cultural mold? Or is religion a necessary component of Jewish civilization and Jewish culture?

BIKEL: I can answer both questions as one, really. Again, it is easier to define what is not Jewish culture than what is. You can consider the various manifestations of Jewish culture, and you can tell yourself that the culinary is certainly not Jewish culture, that everybody these days eats and enjoys lox, bagels and kosher-style food. We are told on television that you don’t have to be Jewish to drink Manischewitz wine on any occasion, secular or religious. And you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish humor or to dispense it, and you don’t have to be Jewish to adore Fiddler on the Roof.

If this is so, then the question inexorably poses itself, what do you have to do to be Jewish? Because as America seems to have become more Jewish or Jew-conscious, Jews have become less so.

I believe the Jewish culture has several aspects: ethnic and religious as well as sociological. It is obviously Jewish culture to enjoy and read Yiddish literature in he original rather than in translation. In translation I can read Dutch or Bulgarian; I can read anything in translation. But since Yiddish happens to be one of two of our national languages, its cultivation is in itself Jewish culture.

The second aspect is Hebrew. It is both ancient and modern, with an ancient literature and a modern literature, growing by leaps and bounds. This, too, is Jewish. The musical aspects of both of these, the music with Yiddish text, and the music with Hebrew text, liturgical or secular, are Jewish culture.

The way the Talmud has evolved over many, many centuries of our sages talking with each other and with their disciples, is another facet. The pilpul is a way of looking at things, a way of arguing, a way of making counterstatements to statements, of doing battle with each other and emerging with several plausible answers, and then, out of several plausible ones, four good ones; out of the four good ones two excellent ones, and out of the two excellent ones, one extraordinary one. This, too, is Jewish culture.

Of course, the religious aspect, the aspect of worship, is also Jewish culture. I am the last to say that one who practices only one of these features, let us say one who only cultivates Yiddish, should be excluded from the definition of Jewishness. As a matter of fact, the greatest rabbis have said that he has as much right to enter the synagogue as anyone, when and if he chooses, and he has as much right to be buried in the Jewish cemetery as anyone else. He has as much right to have kaddish said for him, and certainly as much right to form part of a minyan as only a Jew can, even if he has never before walked through the doors of a synagogue.

I must tell you that one of my greatest experiences was in Mexico City where the Jewish community is a phenomenon in Jewish survival; whether by necessity or choice is a moot point. But 70 percent of all Jewish children in Mexico receive a full-time Jewish education. It starts from kindergarten and goes right through the university age. They have a faculty of sixty teachers who teach subjects, and twenty five teachers who teach only Jewish subjects, both in Hebrew and Yiddish.

When I went to Mexico, they called an assembly of all the kids in a large hall, and a little girl, aged eight, who, I later learned, was fourth generation Mexican born, greeted me in perfect Yiddish. Later, an older child made another welcoming speech in Hebrew, without reading it from a paper. This was an extraordinary experience.

In Argentina, I understand the percentage of Jewish children who receive full-time Jewish education is 17 percent. In the United Sates, if figures were available, we would be lucky if we could point to 4 percent of all Jewish youth who have a Jewish education.

BERKOWITZ: You have traveled a great deal in Israel. What meaning does the State of Israel have for you personally, and what meaning do you think the State has for the American Jewish community?

BIKEL: To me, personally, it has extraordinary connotations. For one thing, I spent part of my formative years in what was then Palestine – which, of course, is Israel now – and it is extremely important to me to know that that center of my people not only exists but also thrives. Apart from anything else, my parents lived there. I have so many personal ties that I could not even begin to enumerate or analyze them.

For the Jewish community, what is vitally important is this: We have always had a Jerusalem, a Jerusalem of the spirit, of heaven, and we have always fixed our eyes on the spot in the synagogue on he eastern wall and called it for ourselves Jerusalem. Later, any center of great learning was a kind of Jerusalem. Now, in addition to this spiritual Jerusalem, we have an actual geographic center whose soil is just as important to us as its soul was and is.

A while ago, I overheard a conversation between a renowned rabbi and a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. The question was asked of the Rabbi: “How would you explain in your wisdom the fact that in our lifetime, Jews went to their death practically without fighting, yet years later they were fighting like devils? What happened during those years?

The rabbi gave an extraordinary explanation which had never occurred to me, and I was startled. He said, “When they attack our faith, even when they attack our bodies, we do not have to fight. We can die and know that the faith survives. During the Spanish Inquisition they attacked our faith. No question, one had to die there. In the case of the Nazis, they were not interested in our faith, they were interested in doing away with our bodies. There, one could either fight or not fight. But when it is a matter of the soil of Erertz Yisrael, the holy earth, then we must fight. The holy soil has been attacked; we have to fight.

BERKOWITZ: Let us focus a moment on the Hasidism. I had the privilege of visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe that day when they celebrated the emergence of the founder of the Chabad Movement from St. Petersburg Prison. It was really something to behold; the rabbi giving brilliant Torah, and the Hasidim dancing and singing.

BIKEL: Let me also tell you a story about the Hasidim. Not all Hasidim are adverse to going into the Jewish community and making converts. While we discourage making converts in general, there is no law in the book that says you cannot proselytize your own. I was on a boat to the Statue of Liberty. We had two boatloads of Jewish kids going there to have a protest meeting about Soviet Jewry. It seemed a good place to do it, and it was a Sunday morning. Two Hasidim approached me, and said, “You are Mr. Bikel.” And I said, “Yes, and you are Lubavitcher Hasidim.”  They asked, “How do you know?” And I said, “If you weren’t you would not be here. Other Hasidim don’t go around among other Jews.”

They said, “Mr. Bikel, have you put on tefillin this morning? I replied that I had not. They asked me to put on tefillin so the kids could see me doing it. I said, “I don’t mind putting on tefillin. I have not done it for some time, but would it not be dishonest?” In your book I am probably not what you call a kosher Jew. I am not as strict as you. The theater has not stopped performances on Friday night. I go on airlines, and who knows what kind of food they serve. For all these reasons, would it not be dishonest if I put on the tefillin out of the blue?”

They said, “Not really,” and when I asked why, they answered, “The rabbi [the Lubavitcher Rebbe] has evolved the theory of the partial mitzvah.”  They explained it this way: There are 613 mitzvahs in the book. Tefillin is just one of them, but if you start with putting on tefillin, and you do it regularly, eventually you are going to end up praying. Their answer amused me, but it also made sense. So I took off my coat and put on tefillin.

And now comes the American part. They brought out a big, yellow button, like a champaign button, but twice the size, and pinned it on me. The button said, I put on tefillin this morning. Did you?          

BERKOWITZ: In what way, aside from the usual philanthropic ones can American Jews be of assistance to Jews in other lands? What can we do, as important as it is, in addition to writing checks?

BIKEL: First of all, the Israeli leadership and intelligentsia are not cognizant of the fact that world Jewry and Israel need to have a partnership. I do not mean this in the sense that we keep giving money and they keep giving their bodies and bones. But a partnership, in the sense of a two-way street, of exchange of information, of examining what unites us and what divides us, for there are feelings that divide us also. Israel, too, has a Jewish problem. Not all things that world Jewry does and thinks are consonant with what Israel does or thinks. In some instances what Israel does is even inimical to some aspects of world Jewry.

I am not suggesting, nor is Israel, I am sure, that everyone should go to live in Israel. But I am asking people to go as pilgrims, to learn and observe – not merely on bus tours, but to go out among the people. This must be done far more than it is being done now. One must go. It is an essential experience. It is going to be made less expensive and therefore more possible. It is really most important.

BERKOWITZ: How can American Jewry learn from their brethren in other countries? Is there anything to learn from other Jewry that would contribute to our own way of life?

BIKEL: First of all, I believe that Jewish survival in this country depends, as I have said before, on study. Also, analyzing the meaning of the Holocaust may furnish some clues. Germany has a fantastic parallel to America. The Jewish community there was rich, affluent, and considered itself more German than Jewish, or at least as German as Jewish. They were a community that came to grieve because of their failure to comprehend the Jewish content of their lives. We consider ourselves as much American as Jewish. Now many segments of the Jewish population in America are secure in the knowledge that, at the moment, nobody, at least in appreciable numbers wanders the streets of Manhattan or Los Angeles yelling for Jewish blood. That’s gone. It’s not our time; it’s not here in America.

But if your Jewishness, or the extent to which you declare yourself a Jew, or have decided to live as a Jew, is to be determined by the presence or absence of anti-Semites in the streets yelling for Jewish blood, then that in itself is an evil, because you are giving them the key to your soul. There should be a positive determinant of your Jewishness without the necessity of anti- Semitism.

We learn from the experience of Germany, of Argentina, of all other countries. But we have very little contact with other communities, and very little knowledge of them. What do we know of other Jewish communities? Despite a constant preoccupation with Jewish affairs, I can, with difficulty, name six French Jewish leaders. The average Jew in the streets of New York probably cannot name even a few.

BERKOWITZ: What are the reasons for the Black anti-Semitism that emerged in our country in the 60’s?

BIKEL: This is a complex question. The man in the street, Black or white, reacts to simplistic stimuli as psychologists can testify. The Black man who is emerging now, either gaining or grabbing for his freedom, is a man in the street. He also wants shortcuts to that freedom. The villain that is painted for him – that he knows to be his oppressor – is “Whitey.”  Whitey has oppressed him for four hundred years. He has brought him to the state in which he is less than a citizen. But Whitey is a very unmanageable villain numbering about two hundred million. But if you boil him down to a more manageable size, it becomes easier.

Then we have to realize that, especially in the ghetto, four out of five white people that the average Black dweller meets are Jews –the shopkeeper, the landlord, the teacher, the social worker and the cop. The others, more often than not, are Jews. Thus, the villain who was once was all the white people and the white power structure, which always has been and still is the WASP structure, has now been boiled down by the ghetto dweller to the much more manageable villain in his mind – the Jew.

The point is, group libel is something that we cannot afford any more than the Blacks can. Now, any responsible Black leader will tell you that there are many individual Jews who have committed wrongs against many Blacks, but they will never in a hundred years allow themselves an anti-Semitic word because they believe anti-Semitism to be as wrong as racism is against Blacks. There are others who seek to cash in on the prevailing mood. They look to what is called confrontation, and that is usually done with clubs, not with words, and sometimes with incendiary bombs and other kinds of weapons.

Anti-Semitism exists in the Black community. We can work against it, we can fight against it, but not with the same weapons which it uses. If we were to reply with indiscriminate racism against the Blacks, rather than act against those who are hoodlums, we would be guilty of the same irrational unintelligent behavior as racists always have been through the ages.

I once drove with a cab driver who had a concentration number on his arm. He came to this country after he had lost his entire family in Germany. He had just come out of the hospital because he had been mugged by three Black hoodlums, and he said to me, “Do you think I go around hating all Black people? If I did that, would I be better than the worst Nazi in the world? I hate those three punks that hit me; I hate them, no question about it. But I am not going to take it out on the first Black person that I see in the street, and run him over because he is Black. I’m a Jew; I can’t do that.”

I remember when I was a little child in Vienna the Nazis pulled our people out into the streets, many of them never to return. I remember very well that there were some very nice, well-meaning Gentile people next door. They were well meaning and decent because they were not Nazis, and never became Nazis. They never joined, never were members. But they never called a halt, either. And today, neither you nor I, nor history, absolves those nice, decent people of duplicity and guilt.

So if we see racism against black people, we cannot afford to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are nice, decent people. Silence is guilt, and no action is, in itself, an act.

BERKOWITZ: A while ago a man came up to me after services on Saturday morning when I spoke about the JDL. He said we needed more Jewish Defense Leagues throughout the country. What is your opinion?

BIKEL: We have always maintained that we are law-abiding citizens, that the law here is sufficient. One does not take the law into one’s own hands. I think that since the days of the Wild West, people who walk around armed, whether it be with guns, bicycle chains or clubs must be called what they are – vigilantes. Vigilantes, by tradition and attitude, hit first or shoot first and ask questions afterwards, if they ask them at all. Therefore, I cannot subscribe to the notion of Jewish vigilantes any more than I can subscribe to the KKK, whose vigilantism is directed against Catholics and Jews, and Blacks. I cannot abide, as a Jew, as a citizen, as a human to the notion of people roaming the streets with weapons in their hands, bicycle chains or guns. I cannot do it.

The law of the land is the law. The JDL activity is an extralegal activity. If you tell me that the people who attack us are also extralegal, I grant you that. But do we fight fire with fire? murder with murder? Do we become murderers? No! Never! A thousand times no!

Let me hasten to add, I do not entirely disbelieve in self defense. Don’t mistake me. But self defense is being conducted entirely differently by intelligent people. Take, for example, a biracial patrol: Jewish and Black, four people in a car. They drive through the streets, a radio patrol. When they see trouble, they radio and let the law take over. They detect trouble in order to shut it off. That is permissible. They are allowed to do that. And if it is biracial, it makes more sense than if it is only Jewish.

BERKOWITZ: Mr. Bikel has given generously of his talent and energy to help the cause of the poor and the oppressed, so that he has become one of the most respected performers of our country as social-justice activist. He has, through song, and through the written and spoken word, expressed his devotion and commitment to the ideals of Judaism. By taking part in the many movements, Mr. Bikel has given added meaning to the word performer–that of the artist who actively performs with people, as well as entertaining them.


Posted on May 31, 2007
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