While Theodore Bikel may be best known for his defining portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof--a role he has played over 2,000 times--the list of his accomplishments is remarkably long. Born in Vienna in 1924 and forced to flee the Nazis, he studied theater at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his West End debut in the premiere of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. He broke into film in the 1951 classic The African Queen, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the beleagured Southern sheriff in Stanley Kramer's 1958 The Defiant Ones.
The man with the trademark booming bass, however, is more than an actor who speaks five languages fluently and has perfected accents in 23. After moving to New York in 1954, Bikel became a prominent folk singer and co-founded the renowned Newport Folk Festival. In 1963, he traveled with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to register black voters in the South. Later, he would go on to protest apartheid and more recently, the genocide in Darfur. At 84--he will celebrate his 85th birthday at Carnegie Hall in June--he continues to tirelessly campaign for a negotiated land-for-peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as chairman of Meretz USA.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the New York Times bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, sat down with Bikel on a day off from his most recent endeavor, the one-man show, Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.
Deborah Tannen: I have always admired your activism, from the civil rights movement to labor unions. How did you become an activist?
Thedore Bikel: I was a 13-year-old boy when the Nazis marched into Austria. Within days, I saw people that I knew dragged into the street and subjected to great indignities. And even if I didn't know them, I knew they were Jewish. The "J" was written in red paint on storefronts. There were warnings not to buy from Jews. Jews were forbidden to go into a park and sit on the bench. Jewish men were forced to clean the sidewalk with their toothbrushes; Jewish women were forced to mop it up with their fur coats. Later on, I saw people being put in a truck and shipped off.
When I saw injustices, I always felt the grief of it hitting my people and puzzlement that people who I thought were decent were doing nothing to prevent it. It became clear to me later that non-action is an act and that silence speaks, sometimes louder than words. I was determined I would not allow myself to engage in that kind of non-action. When I see victims of acts of savagery, barbarism and discrimination--no matter who they are--there's a little switch that gets thrown in my head and they become Jews.
You lived in Vienna until you were 14, when you escaped with your family to Palestine. How were you able to get out?
The British gave out a very low number of visas--they called them "certificates of entry"--into Palestine. Those were turned over to the Jewish community in Vienna and they in turn distributed the visas to Palestine to people who had been active Zionists according to seniority. My father was high on the list of the Labor Zionist movement, so our being Zionists saved our lives.
How did this early experience influence you?
I keep asking myself, is it just an accident that I was spared? For what purpose was I spared? I think I'm around for various purposes: I'm here to look out for my fellow worker, for my fellow human beings. I'm around to preserve the Yiddish language and the Jewish song.
Your play Laughter Through Tears is very much about Sholem Aleichem's love of Yiddish and his fears that it would not survive as a language. You revived Yiddish folk songs in the United States. Who will keep the Yiddish language alive for future generations?
Hasidim still speak it, but if Yiddish were to survive only thanks to Hasidim, we would be poorer. …