Actor and Yiddish-language true believer Theodore Bikel grew up in prewar Europe, with German as his first language and Yiddish a quick second, partly due to his father reading his family Sholom Aleichem stories every Tuesday night.
"He picked the night," said Bikel, now 81 and set to co-star in this weekend's Sholom Aleichem Jubilee at the Emanuel Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. The event coincides with the 89th anniversary of the Yiddish writer's death.
Sponsored by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the California Institute for Yiddish Culture & Language, the jubilee's marquee event is "A Comedy That Honors a Legend/A Komedye Lekoved a Legende" in English and Yiddish, with Bikel and French actor Rafael Goldwaser. Bikel will perform selections from his seminal role as Tevye the milkman in the Aleichem-fueled perennial theater hit, "Fiddler on the Roof."
But "Fiddler" will be performed in Yiddish, for the first time in the United States. ("Fiddler" is an English-language play based on a composite portrait of the Tevye character from Aleichem's Yiddish-language stories. About 20 years ago, an actual Yiddish translation of the English-language "Fiddler on the Roof" was created. That play has been performed in Israel, Australia and Canada but never in the United States.)
"I'm rather looking forward to it," said Bikel, who plans to showcase about 10 to 15 minutes of the play.
Aleichem has sometimes been compared to American humorist Mark Twain.
"There were a lot of similarities not only in their humor and their satire, but also in terms of how their lives developed," said Miriam Koral, director of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture & Language.
"At one point," she continued, "they both married into wealthy families, and then they lost it all with bad investments. So they both had to make a living from their pens, and by going on these reading and speaking engagements all over the world. And they each had a child who died early as an adult. They shared that common tragedy as well."
The famed Yiddish writer was born in Russia in 1859 and died in New York on May 13, 1916. Some 100,000 people reportedly attended his funeral, and Aleichem's will stipulated that his yahrtzeit always be marked not by reading one of his many tragic works, but with an excerpt from his comedies.
This weekend's performance, Koral said, will have a "contemporary spin to it as well. It's all been put together in a modern way."
Bikel is on friendly terms with Aleichem's granddaughter, Bel Kaufman. At Bikel's 80th birthday celebration last June at Brentwood's Wadsworth Theater, Kaufman said the real-life shtetl milkman who inspired Tevye "wasn't at all like this handsome Theo."
There are no plans for a full-length Yiddish-language "Fiddler" to hit Broadway or off-Broadway, the actor said, "because the budget is almost insurmountable," at least $500,000 to $750,000 minimum.
Bikel said he probably will sing the Yiddish version of "If I Were a Rich Man" and "The Sabbath Prayer."
Bikel's Yiddish favorites also include the gritty prose of the late Issac Bashevis Singer. The actor noted that when Singer accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, it was "the only time that Yiddish was ever spoken at the Nobel ceremony."
Koral, the Yiddish institute director, said she chose Goldwaser, because the French actor had done well-regarded Aleichem readings in Belgium, Paris and at Toronto's Ashkenaz festival.
Goldwaser could not in any intellectual way explain why he loves performing Aleichem, only saying, "Can you tell me why do you like -- or not -- chocolate? To do Sholom Aleichem when you deal with Yiddish literature is a must."
Koral said she hopes this month's Aleichem celebration will be an annual event for the writer, whose Yiddish stories inspired one of the most enduring theatrical successes in the English-speaking world. To Koral, a Yiddish lover has not really lived in the language until that person has heard some part of "Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish.
"It has a whole 'nother ta'am, a whole 'nother flavor," she said.
"A Comedy That Honors a Legend/A Komedye Lekoved a Legende" will be performed in English and Yiddish on Saturday, May 14 at 8 p.m. Emanuel Arts Theater, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. For tickets: $20-$8 call (310) 745-1190.
"Theater in Kasrilevke/Teater in Kasrilevke" the first U.S. screening of a Yiddish-language short animation, based on a Sholom Aleichem story screens on Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m. Also, "Word Concert/Vort Kontsert," modern Yiddish poetry performed by Rafael Goldwaser. L.A. Yiddish Culture Club, 8339 W. Third St. (Second Floor), Los Angeles. Tickets $5, members free. To R.S.V.P., call (310)745-1190.
For more information, visit www.yiddishkaytla.org