Theodore Bikel: Actor, Musician, Nurturer of Souls
Theodore Bikel’s death earlier this week sent me straight back to the Sunday afternoons of my childhood.
In those days, my mom, my grandmother (if my grandparents happened to be visiting from Queens), and I would stop whatever we were doing at 4 o’clock to tune in to Charlie Baltin’s “Jewish American Hour,” a weekly broadcast on the local radio station.
Week after week – no matter which scratchy recordings he chose – Mr. Baltin’s selections stirred the Yiddishkeit in my DNA. Jan Peerce’s “Anniversary Waltz,” the Barry Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” (To Me You’re Beautiful), Yaffa Yarkoni’s “Finjan,” Theodore Bikel’s “Di Grine Kuzine” (The Greenhorn Cousin), and Richard Tucker’s “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds), among others, touched my soul in the deepest, primordial way – as though the words and melodies had nurtured me in utero.
During that same era, the Franklin Township Arts Council brought Theodore Bikel to town. On a cold, clear January night, just days after my 13th birthday, hundreds of locals packed the high school auditorium to hear him strum his guitar, tell stories, and sing a seemingly endless mix of ballads, love songs, and folk favorites in many languages –English, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and more. “Tumbalalayka,” “Edelweis,” “Kretchma,” “Dona Dona,” “Mack the Knife,” and a longtime, personal favorite, “Jerusalem of Gold,” overflowed the space otherwise reserved for school plays, band concerts, and award ceremonies.
Today, nearly four decades later, just recalling the wonderful songs and stories Theodore Bikel shared with us on that long ago, enthralling evening still nurtures my soul.
Rest in peace, Theo, and thanks for such sweet memories.
For a taste of Theodore Bikel’s talent, check out his performance at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial convention in 2011.