Jewish Journal

Bikel plays ‘Jewgrass’

by Tom Teicholz

Posted on Jan. 31, 2014 at 9:56 am

Theodore Bikel

Theodore Bikel

Although I know it will disappoint some readers to learn that “A Jewgrass Revival,” at American Jewish University on Feb. 1, will not be a presentation of the latest Israeli hydroponic farming techniques for marijuana, I can say with confidence that this evening of Jewish Bluegrass music featuring Theodore Bikel and hazzan Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills will produce feelings of elation and wonder without any attendant paranoia or munchies. No less a source than Bikel himself guarantees, “It’ll be fun.”

Moreover, it offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate and enjoy Bikel who, at 89 years young , is also a newlywed, having married journalist Aimee Ginsburg on Dec. 29. Asked about his decision to marry at this stage of life, Bikel answered: “I found this most wonderful woman who is in every way my soul mate. … I found in her something that I thought I would have to do without for the rest of my days. I was resigned to live out my life as half a person, but it turns out that I didn’t have to.”

Bikel’s wedding followed his return, a few days before, to his native Vienna, where he performed in the Austrian Parliament, having fled the country 75 years earlier for the crime of being a Jew.

Bikel, whose Zionist parents named him for Theodore Herzl, recently recalled how much Vienna has meant to him. Vienna was, Bikel said, “where I learned to be a human being — I learned to love literature, theater, art and music. It was also a place that allowed me to develop as a Jew until that fateful day when everything changed.” As Bikel recalled, “A young boy of 14 overnight became an object of derision and of hatred and of persecution and eventually became a refugee — that was me.”

The family fled to Palestine in 1938, earning British passports, and there Bikel began his acting career, co-founding the Cameri Theatre. In 1945, he won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and, a few years later, Bikel found himself in a West End production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” appearing with Vivien Leigh in a cast directed by her then-husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. He also had a small part in John Huston’s film “The African Queen,” which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Bikel immigrated to the United States in 1954, becoming a citizen in 1961. He starred in countless one-hour dramas during the golden age of television, including several written by Rod Serling. In 1959, he originated the role of Captain Von Trapp in the Broadway production of “The Sound of Music,” and he appeared as the dialect coach in the film version of “My Fair Lady.” His performance as Tevye in the original Broadway run of “Fiddler on the Roof” has, according to Wikipedia, led to his performing the role more than 2,000 times during the course of his career.

However, as Bikel looks back at his long history, what matters most to him are those moments “where I can say that a difference was made.” Bikel has been a tireless advocate for human rights and for providing forums where others might speak out for their rights. Bikel founded Los Angeles’ first folk club, the Unicorn, as well as the club Cosmo Alley, where Lenny Bruce performed and Maya Angelou read her poetry.

In the late 1950s, Bikel released several albums of Jewish folk songs, and, in 1959, he founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, George Wein and Albert Grossman. The festival provided the soundtrack for the social justice movements of the 1960s. He also performed at voter registration drives in Greenville, Miss., in 1963, and later that year at the March on Washington. 

“People did not draw the parallel between what happened to Jews in Germany and what happened to blacks in the United States,” Bikel said. “I drew the parallel immediately. To me, when a person or a group is being disadvantaged because of who they are, what they are or what they believe in, or the color of their skin — immediately in my mind they become Jews.”

He has been involved with issues large and small, from the struggle to free Soviet Jewry to serving on the board of Actors’ Equity. And throughout it all he has continued to play music. 

Stein, who conceived the idea for the Jewgrass concert, first met Bikel in the 1990s at a Chicago Jewish festival. Raised in Queens, N.Y., Stein’s first career was on Broadway, where he played Peter in the original Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Several years later, looking for some stability, he auditioned for the United States Navy Band and got a position as a fiddler in one of its bluegrass and country-and-western bands. Shortly after he retired from what became a 17-year career in the Navy, he received a call from musical impresario Craig Taubman, whom he had played with, about an opening for a cantor in Woodland Hills. 

Stein took the position in 2000. After moving to California, he reconnected with Bikel. “I started getting invited to these music soirées — and he [Bikel] got to know my family; my sons are all musicians and my wife is a singer. I invited Theo over to my house for a jam session with a bunch of bluegrass guys, and he had the greatest time.” So, Stein thought: “Why don’t we get some of my bluegrass guys and do a gig with him? That’s how it came into being.”

The Feb. 1 concert will be the first time Bikel and Stein have performed together in public. Bikel will play many songs from his folk music days. Stein will perform a bluegrass version of Friday night Shabbat services, concluding with a Yiddish song set to a country beat, during which Stein’s sons, Jared and Justin, and Bikel will all join in. Cathy Fink will play banjo and fiddle and Marcy Marxner will play mandolin.

Performing his folk tunes and bluegrass music brings Bikel full circle, much like his recent return to Austria. In Vienna, Bikel sang for 90 minutes, mostly in Yiddish, and addressed the audience in German. “I ended with the anthem of the survivors, ‘Never say you are walking the last road’ (Zog Nit keynmol). I told them that this song is sung and listened to while standing, and they all stood. 

“Seventy-five years later in Vienna at the Parliament,” Bikel said, with no small amount of satisfaction, “I could make a statement — saying that the murderers, the mass murderers, the criminals are gone and I’m still here, singing a song of freedom and of peace.” Long may he sing his song!

“A Jewgrass Revival” takes place at American Jewish University on Feb.1,  at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 440-1246 or visit http://wcce.aju.edu/

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