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Tradition, Tradition

Theodore Bikel, soon to reprise the role of Tevye, reflects on his family's past.

by Beverly Levitt

October 5, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Theodore Bikel, left, blows the shofar to mark the holiday season with Rabbi David Baron, spiritual leader of Temple Shalom for the Arts, and Baron's son, Jonathan.

Theodore Bikel, left, blows the shofar to mark the holiday season with Rabbi David Baron, spiritual leader of Temple Shalom for the Arts, and Baron's son, Jonathan.

On the one hand, the inimitable image of a skinny, mischievous fiddler, furiously making music while precariously perched on a rooftop, makes us sing and dance with joy. On the other hand, the classic story about a humble Jewish milkman, struggling to preserve his people's traditions while his world is crashing down around him, tears at our heartstrings with sorrow.

This month, just a few weeks after the High Holy Days, Theodore Bikel will begin a national tour of the bittersweet musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," reprising his role as Tevye the milkman. "Everyone is a fiddler on the roof," he'll explain in his 1,600th performance of the part, "trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking his neck. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!" Throughout the play, based on some of the short stories in Sholom Aleichem's book "Tevye's Daughters," the dutiful peasant, who wears a prayer shawl under his clothes to show his devotion to God, nevertheless conducts a running debate with him. He rails against his poverty, laments that his daughters are, one by one, breaking the rules of his ancestors, and finally anguishes as his world is torn apart by the czar of Russia, who orders the Jews out of Anatevka. He's given three days to pack a small wagon of all his earthly possessions; his only solace is he can carry his cherished traditions in his heart. Broken, he demands of God, "How can you let this atrocity happen?"

"In many ways, Tevye is like my grandfather," muses Bikel. "He was a religious, pious man who had the same incessant argument with God - 'Why don't you take better care of us?'" And Tevye's enforced exodus from Russia mirrors the teenage Bikel's narrow escape from Austria to avoid Nazi persecution."Of course, we weren't ordered out like Tevye; we were damn lucky to escape," Bikel shudders. "The Nazis were already in Austria - we saw the writing on the wall. But in order to leave we needed an entrance visa somewhere, anywhere. Everyone was scrambling for the few that were available. Finally, the Jewish Community Council of Vienna gave my father an entrance visa to Palestine because he'd been active in the Zionist movement. But he could only get three, so we had to leave my grandmother behind. It took us a long time to get her out, but, thank God, she escaped in 1938 - just in the nick of time. Others in my family were not so fortunate."

Spending his formative years in the Holy Land, which would later become Israel, Bikel learned Yiddish and Hebrew, along with a deep respect for Jewish tradition. Today, he "shul hops" during the High Holy Days. Sometimes he worships with Orthodox Jews, praying as his father and grandfather did. Other times he worships at the synagogue he helped found with Rabbi David Baron, Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles. He feels close to Baron and is stimulated by the intellectual attitude that prevails at the temple."David's services are accessible to a wide range of people," says Bikel. "He's created a bridge from the old ways to the new, using both ancient and contemporary liturgy and literature."

That is largely due to what Baron calls "living sermons."

During the service, the rabbi calls upon temple members, many of whom are in the entertainment field, to come up to the bimah and recite a piece of poetry, sing a beautiful song or play a piece of music.

A few years ago, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Baron again invited Bikel to address the congregation, this time about his recent trip to Eastern Europe. Filled with emotion, his voice frequently breaking, Bikel described the pilgrimage he'd taken to find his grandfather's grave in the Ukraine. After he'd shed his terrible tears, he'd gone to Poland to visit the sites of the concentration camps from World War II.

"It was so horrible, I would rather have been anywhere else in the world," Bikel revealed. "But I couldn't stay away. Seeing these sights gave me tremendous guilt. What right had I to survive? Was there a purpose to my life? What could I do to make my life count for something?"

"All these thoughts are central to our expiation, forcing us to face our frailties and make amends on Yom Kippur," says Baron.

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