Theodore Bikel Remembers Sholom Aleichem

theodore bikel
It’s so interesting to see a performer come onstage in Toronto who is such a gigantic star the entire audience greets his entrance with a warm round of applause. That’s exactly what welcomed Theodore Bikel to the Winter Garden Theatre in the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears which opened last evening.
This play is an interesting dichotomy because it seems to me that of Sholom Aleichem and Theodore Bikel, it is Bikel, who originated the role of Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway and played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times in 37 years, who has been directed by Laurence Olivier, and performed with Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Poitier, who keeps contemporary audiences continually captivated. How much is Sholom Aleichem remembered and revered? Is it his story that audiences want to see dramatized on the stage, or would they prefer to hear about Bikel’s own life and to see him sing and dance his own retrospective?
Yet, I think that may be the point. At the beginning of the play, Theodore Bikel, as Sholom Aleichem, speaks about the idea of legacy and asks the audience what they will remember most from this evening, what images will linger with them as they grow? Shalom Aleichem was a Jewish writer (1959-1916) who complied about 40 volumes of stories, novels and plays written in Yiddish, that were meant to “capture the soul of his people.” He moved to America during the First World War and in his works the traditional life of the shtetl was preserved “before it disappeared into the tragic abyss of history.” Bikel speaks about the Anglicization of Yiddish and how obsolete the language has become for contemporary Jews living in North America. How do we keep ourselves from becoming obsolete? How do we instill in the future generations the importance of understanding the past, the importance of holding on to tradition, and when does all of that become stifling and begin to thwart progress and change and the revitalization of the spirit?
Theodore Bikel puts on his white gloves and slips into the world of Sholom Aleichem. He speaks in the most captivating voice, straight from the heart, and sings in a language that I do not understand, but that I can feel very deeply. Indeed, there were many moments where the Jewish audience laughed with a far richer understanding than I did, but when Bikel speaks, you feel the connection with him, whether you ‘get’ the specifics of what he is saying or not, he is a master at communicating with his audience and drawing them into the story.
I was greatly interested in the story of Sholom Aleichem, the man who created the indomitable Tevye whose story was later adapted and turned into Fiddler on the Roof. I sat enthralled with the set, which was gloriously made up of perfectly chosen photographs to help create the world Bikel inhabited. I got lost in the eyes of the most adorable child whose innocence radiated from the stage as though he were really there. I was fascinated when Bikel transformed into Tevye, indeed as though he were slipping into an old, familiar set of clothes. Yet, as much as I was interested, as much as I wanted to learn and reflect, there was a part of me that just wanted this iconic, legendary performer to tell me about his experience working with Humphrey Bogart and to sing “If I Were a Rich Man.” Yet, I know, in that, that’s me wanting the Anglicization of this story, something which needs no translation or wisdom beyond my ears. Aleichem’s story is far richer and represents the tears and the laughter of generations of people who faced sorrow, pain and fear and whose poverty spawned the tradition of the shtetl.
Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears plays at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company until October 18th, 20089 at the Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre Box Office or by calling ticketmaster at 416.872.5555 or visiting http://www.ticketmaster.ca/

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