Unlike most entertainers, even the political ones, activism was very much a part of Theodore Bikel’s everyday life. So was his Jewishness and his love of Israel.
He was an activist with a commitment to social justice. Whether it was an insistence that benefit shows be a part of his performance contracts, publicly protesting Chicago police treatment of young demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention or being arrested in 1986 outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington during a Soviet Jewry demonstration, Bikel was a man who acted based upon his political and social conscience.
For Bikel, who passed away July 21 at 91, activism meant liberal activism of the type that agitates on behalf of those most in need of help. As a folk singer, he was a troubadour of the people. As Tevye, he was the personification of the simple Jew. And as the champion of Sholem Aleichem, he carried the voice of the bard of the Yiddish-speaking common folk.
Some would say that Bikel was too committed to his own world view, like when he told Washington Jewish Week arts correspondent Lisa Traiger last fall, “I don’t know any right-wing songs; I don’t know that there are any.” But that was Theodore Bikel — a man who expressed his opinions in brash and certain declarations and practiced exactly what he preached.
We will miss Theodore Bikel. We will miss his clear baritone, his commitment to a better Israel and a better world. We will even miss his schmaltz. “My guitar is the only weapon I care to have,” he would tell audiences. Schmaltzy yes, but you can’t argue with the pure idealism of a man who believed in a personal calling to stand up for the little guy.
You don’t have to agree with the politics of Theodore Bikel to view him as an inspiration.