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Theodore Bikel Remembered: Fiddler on the Roof Actor and Activist Speaks Out on Israel and Palestine

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We spend the hour remembering the renowned actor, musician, composer and activist Theodore Bikel, who died Tuesday at the age of 91. Bikel was known for creating the role of Baron von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" on Broadway and for the role of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," which he played more than 2,000 times. He was also a beloved folk singer who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and could accompany himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica. He made more than 20 albums, many of them in Hebrew and Yiddish. But Theodore Bikel, a man so closely identified with Israel and with Jewish life, was also an outspoken critic of Israeli policy, especially a pending measure to forcibly relocate some 40,000 Bedouin Arabs from their ancestral lands. "One thing that is absolutely clear in my mind is that human beings cannot be treated like cattle," Bikel says in a 2014 extended interview. "Human beings must be given the dignity and the respect that all human beings deserve, especially by a people who themselves—Jews—have experienced such deprivation in the past."

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AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour remembering the renowned actor, musician, composer and activist Theodore Bikel. He died Tuesday at the age of 91. Bikel was known for creating the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway and for the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which he played more than 2,000 times. One of his earliest film roles came alongside Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Defiant Ones.

Theodore Bikel was also a beloved folk singer who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and could accompany himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica. He made more than 20 albums, many of them in Hebrew and Yiddish.

But it may surprise you to learn that Theodore Bikel, a man so closely identified with Israel and with Jewish life, was also an outspoken critic of Israeli policy, especially a pending measure known as the Prawer Plan, which would forcibly relocate some 40,000 Bedouins from their ancestral lands. Just last week, Israel’s agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, withdrew a request that the cabinet discuss continuing the legislation, pending more input from Bedouin leaders. In May, Israeli Arabs protested a two-to-one Supreme Court decision to allow the destruction of an unrecognized Bedouin village to make way for a Jewish town, ruling its Bedouin residents had no legal rights to it. Well, in late 2013, Bikel wrote an editorial in The Forward headlined "Israel Must Work with Bedouin to Develop Negev for All: Forced Removals and Hostility to Ancient People Must End." He also produced a widely watched video for Rabbis for Human Rights that opens with the title, "Fiddler with No Roof," and his own introduction.

THEODORE BIKEL: My name is Theodore Bikel, and I want to ask you to help prevent a terrible moral tragedy. I’ve spent much of my life playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I see parallel with what is happening today. Forty thousand Bedouins in the Negev desert are being told to get out of their homes. Remember the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when the Russians arrive and tell them they have three days to get out. Tevye says, "Why should I get out?" They said, "Not just you. All of you." They said, "Why? Why should we leave?" "I don’t know why. I have an order here." It’s a piece of paper, and "Get thee out." "What if we refuse to leave?" We know the consequences of refusal.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that is actor, singer, activist Theodore Bikel, famous for playing, among other characters, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Theodore Bikel died on Tuesday at the age of 91. I interviewed him last year, and today we spend the hour featuring our conversation. I began by asking Theodore Bikel why this issue of Bedouin displacement was so important to him.

THEODORE BIKEL: There is a human equation here, and it has to do with the basic humanity of human beings who are nominally free to pursue whatever it is that their faith tells them to do, people who lived on the land for centuries, long before there was even a state of Israel, who all of a sudden are being told to get out, to be relocated, an agrarian society that is forced into sometimes urban ghettos. It seems less than just.

The point is that these are not simple questions, and complicated questions very often ask for complicated answers. But one thing that is absolutely clear in my mind is that human beings cannot be treated like cattle. Human beings must be given the dignity and the respect that all human beings deserve, especially by a people who themselves—Jews—have experienced such deprivation in the past. So when I say that the very people who were told to get out of Anatevka in the fictional village of Fiddler on the Roof, the descendants of those very people are now telling others, strangers in their midst, that they must get out of their homes, seems fundamentally wrong. And a wrong cannot be allowed to stand.

Now, I’m not a naive person. I know—and I’ve said this before—this is a complicated question, and the Bedouin themselves don’t always agree among themselves about what the solution is. I also know that the commissions that have been in place never consulted them, never had them as part of the solution. And that is wrong also. You cannot tell people to get out of their homes without their having a say in it.

There was a commission headed by former Justice Goldberg of the Supreme Court of Israel that had recommendation powers, but no implementation powers. Later, there was another commission by Prawer and Benny Begin, the son of Prime Minister Begin, and that came to naught because people on the right objected to the plan, saying that it gave away too much, and people on the left objected, saying that it gave too little.

Again, it’s not a simple question, but what is simple to me is the fact that we’re talking here about human beings, citizens of a state, whether or not you want it, whether or not it is true. But the basic law of Israel speaks of all its inhabitants regardless of their providence, regardless of their faith, regardless of the color of their skin. And that, we surely—we, as Americans—must understand.

AMY GOODMAN: Many might be surprised to hear this coming from your voice, a voice that is familiar to so many as Tevye and also just as a remarkable singer and musician. Theodore Bikel, named for Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, what kind of response have you gotten from all sectors of the Jewish community?

THEODORE BIKEL: Well, the right wing of the Jewish community has never been particularly in my corner. The right portion of the—of the political spectrum and I do not see eye to eye. Never have. I am a—for want of a better definition, I am a liberal. I’m proud of it. I grew up in a home. My father was a socialist and a Zionist. I cling to both. I am a Zionist. I do not believe in boycotting the state of Israel. I do believe in a boycott that is targeted. In other words, I will not buy produce from the territories, because the territories are the single obstacle to peace that I can see in the—on the map of Israel. But I will not side with those who want to boycott all of Israel—all of Israeli institutions, all of Israeli economic and academic institutions. I do not side with them, and I believe that it is wrong to call for a boycott of the Habima Theater, for example, as was recently done by Emma Thompson. You have to be careful whom you attack and whom you defend.

AMY GOODMAN: Hadima Theater being one that you actually helped to found many decades ago in Tel Aviv.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes, indeed. And I was in favor of those who—those actors who said they will not perform in the territories, in the town of Ariel, for example, which is part of the disputed territory of the Occupied Territories of Israel. I’m in favor of their refusal to appear, and I call—I recall what Pablo Casals said. "My cello," he said, "is my weapon. I decide where I play, what I play, and before whom I play." So we make a statement by our presence and by our absence.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel, talk about where you were born and how you came to live in Israel as a child.

THEODORE BIKEL: I was born in Vienna, Austria, a lovely place, a place that allowed me to be—to develop as a human being, to love theater, literature, to love music, and allowed me to develop as a Jew. I was 13 years old when the Nazis marched in. And overnight, I became, from a human being of equal rights, an object of derision and of hatred and of persecution, and I became, ultimately, a refugee, which in one way or another I remained all my life. I had to flee. I had to flee a place that I used to call home, and I have not returned to that place until fairly recently. I returned to it with honors, and they’ve asked me to observe the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht in a very solemn—a solemn occasion in the Parliament of Austria. But all these years, I smarted under the notion that a human being was told to get out. And that was me—not only to get out, but to leave behind everything that was precious to him, especially the books.

AMY GOODMAN: The books of Sholem Aleichem—

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —you point out in the video.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes, yes. And those were our friends. They were not just books. They were our friends. They were dear to us. They were our relatives. We grew up with them. These were our songs. These were—this was our background. This harked back to the place that I came from, the place that I never lived in, except in my memories and in my songs and in the language that I still cultivate to this day, Yiddish.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were forced to leave Austria when Germany occupied during the Anschluss. You left with your parents.

THEODORE BIKEL: That is correct, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get to Palestine?

THEODORE BIKEL: The British gave out some very limited number of entry permits into Palestine. They called them certificates. And frankly, they didn’t know what to do with them, so they turned them over to the Jewish community in Austria. And in turn, these visas were given to people who had seniority in the Zionist movement. And my father was one of them. He had been a labor Zionist all his life. And we were lucky enough to be able to receive one of those coveted entry permits, that covered only my father, my mother and me. And we could take one suitcase each and flee. My grandmother had to stay behind. And it was she who actually rescued all our stuff, all our books. She sat in the anteroom of a warehouse that was lorded over by a Nazi gauleiter, and she cried from morning 'til night. Finally, this big man said, "Get this old woman out of my sight. I'm going to sign off on anything she wants. Just get her out of here." And he did. And she shipped—actually shipped our stuff from Nazi Germany to Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how long did you live in Palestine? You were—you moved there at the age of?

THEODORE BIKEL: Fourteen. I was 14 years old when I got there. I left there when I was 22. I lived there for eight years. When I left, there wasn’t even a state yet. It was still called Palestine at the time. And I went to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and I stayed in England for eight years and finally ended up in New York in 1954. And I’ve been an American ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: Actor, singer, activist Theodore Bikel, famous for playing, among other characters, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He died Tuesday at the age of 91. We’re spending the hour with him from an interview I did from January 2014.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel singing "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour featuring a conversation I had with the renowned actor, folk singer, musician and composer in January of 2014. Theodore Bikel died Tuesday at the age of 91. He performed the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times. As we continue with the interview, I asked Theodore Bikel to describe how he brought to life the stories of Sholem Aleichem and, for the generation that’s not familiar with his writings, to talk about why Aleichem was so important to him.

THEODORE BIKEL: Sholem Aleichem is the quintessential Jewish writer, Yiddish writer. He also insisted not only to write what he did and about what he wrote, but to write in the language of his people, to write in Yiddish. In those days, respectable Jewish writers actually wrote in Hebrew. That was the language of the intellectuals. And he insisted that you could only express yourself if you used the language of the people, where the people lived, how they lived, how they spoke, how they had a twinkle in their eye with their humor, how there was a tear every time there was laughter, and how there was laughter every time there was grief. And that was the greatness of Sholem Aleichem. We had 35 volumes of the collected works of Sholem Aleichem sitting on our shelves when the Nazis confiscated them, and every single one of them expressed something that I hold dear to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the video, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem. This is a clip of you performing part of Tevye the Dairyman.

THEODORE BIKEL: Ah, Reb Sholem Aleichem, how nice to see you! Lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the last time. And what haven’t we been through since then? Riots, floods, big troubles, small troubles. Ay, and what we go through with our children, that’s no laughing matter. But as the saying goes, you have to survive, even if it kills you. So, let’s talk about cheerful things. What do you hear about the cholera epidemic in Odessa?

AMY GOODMAN: And in this clip, Theodore Bikel reads from Progress in Kasrilevke by Sholem Aleichem.

THEODORE BIKEL: Kasrilevke, they have a streetcar now. Fellow with a yellow cab calls to me, "Five kopecks! All rides are five kopecks! Come on, mister. Get aboard." Must be the conductor. And next to him stands a man with a long, ragged coat, with a whip—the driver, no doubt. The conductor points to a lopsided shack on wheels, the streetcar. An emaciated horse that used to be white is hitched to it. "Conductor? Are we going to move?" "God willing," he says, and rolls a cigarette. I ask again, "When do we start?" "Today," he says, and lights up. I wait.

More passengers straggle in, first a Jew in a ratty fur coat. One couldn’t tell what animal it used to be. Then another man climbs in, this one without a coat, and he looks sick and frozen. Then, a basket of apples appears, followed by a panting woman wrapped in three tattered shawls. She grabs the apples and gives us a look of suspicion, as though we might have stolen any while she was not looking.

"Tickets!" says the conductor. I pay the five kopecks. Then he steps over to the ratty fur coat. "Ticket!" he says. The man shrugs his shoulders. "What do you want, Yossel? I haven’t got one single kopeck to my name." He said, "Listen, this is the third time this week you’ve been on this streetcar without a ticket." "So? Do you want me to walk? Or should I rob somebody so you can get your lousy five kopecks?"

The conductor looks chastened, moves on to the coatless passenger. This one pretends he’s sleeping. "Ticket! Ticket!" "Wha-wha-what? What?" "Ticket!" "I heard you the first time." "Never mind hearing me. Hand over five kopecks for your ticket." "Listen, five kopecks, that’s a very steep price. Could you bring it down a bit?" "I’ll bring down hard luck on your head. That’s what I’ll bring down." "No, don’t bother. Hard luck, I’ve got enough on my own. What I haven’t got is five kopecks." "In that case, get off!"

Suddenly the apple woman speaks up. "There’s no justice in the world! What makes this man different from the other one? I’d like to know. You’re letting the other fellow go without a ticket, though. Is it because that one’s wearing a fur coat, and this one is not wearing a fur coat?" "Who’s asking you to butt in? The other man, I know him. I know his family. This one, who the devil knows who he is?" "Is that any reason for throwing him off the streetcar? What do you care if there’s one more Jew on it?" "Look, nobody’s asking for your opinion. And while we’re at it, you better pay your own fare. Come along! Five kopecks." "I knew it! I knew it! Something told me you was going to pick on me next. I knew it!"

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel, reading from the stories of Sholem Aleichem. It’s from the forthcoming documentary, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem. Theo Bikel, if it wouldn’t be presumptuous to ask, how you think Sholem Aleichem would respond to the occupation, Israel’s occupation of the Occupied Territories, that you’ve been very critical of?

THEODORE BIKEL: Well, he had this notion that people survive. As I said in the documentary, you have to survive, even if it kills you. And survival is the prime command, the first thing that we are always commanded to look upon as the be-all and end-all of what we’re about. You can break all the laws as long as you can save lives. And if you don’t save lives, it’s not worth staying alive for. You know, this may be very naive, and it has made me—it sounds like a do-gooder. And I am not only a do-gooder, I am also a pragmatist. I know that it takes a lot of hard work to do the right thing and to believe in the right thing and to defend what you believe in. But that’s what I do, and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. And I’ve got to keep doing it until I no longer can.

AMY GOODMAN: What you are saying is so important. It might shock Jews not only in the United States, but around the world, because you’ve been so identified with Israel, as well as, you know, Yiddishkeit, with the stories of Sholem Aleichem. How often are you asked in interviews, for example, about your artistry, about your work, about your feelings about the Israeli occupation right now?

THEODORE BIKEL: Look, when I criticize Israel—and I do—I love Israel more, not less, because I want it to be a better place than it is. I want it to be nobler. I want it to be more in keeping with—with what Jews are about. We are about human dignity, always have been, and we must never forget that. And we cannot say that now that there is a state, that things have turned, and things have changed, and all of a sudden there’s a pragmatic consideration that forces us to become like all the other nations in the world. No, we always insisted that we’re not like the other nations, that we are better, that we are capable of better. And that’s what I want to keep.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, you’ve criticized the United States, where you’ve been a citizen for many years.

THEODORE BIKEL: Same thing. Same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of you speaking about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where you were a delegate. In this interview, you’re sitting next to singer Judy Collins.

THEODORE BIKEL: Mm-hmm.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes, I was an elected delegate, and also sort of unofficially in charge of demonstrations on the floor. So when—after the memorial for Bobby Kennedy, we sang. We sang for fully half an hour and couldn’t be gaveled into silence. And after we lost what was known as the peace plank at the convention, I started to sing "Study War No More," and that went on for quite a while. And John Chancellor, who was working the floor then, like a Martian with the antenna coming out it, covered his mic and said, "We’re not supposed to take sides, but keep it up. This is great."

And then, on the fourth day—on the Wednesday of the convention, a couple of hundred of us went down Michigan Avenue and—because we wanted to show solidarity with the kids who were being beaten up in the park. And I sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." And then I thought—I had a loudspeaker thing in my hand, and I sang "Tell Richard Daley he shall be removed. Tell Richard Daley he shall be removed. Just like a pail of garbage in the alley, he shall be removed." I was expecting to be arrested any minute, but there were too many witnesses around. And there were National Guardsmen with bayonets pointing at us. And I said, "Now look at this carefully, because we’re American citizens discharging our lawful duty, and we are being threatened by guns and bayonnets. Don’t forget it. Remember it always."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Theodore Bikel talking about the 1968 Democratic National Convention. How did you become a delegate, Theo?

THEODORE BIKEL: I was elected. I was elected from the state of New York. Some people put it down to the fact that I was known for other things, namely performing. And I put it down to my political acumen, that people knew that I was a good guy and that I would be able to defend the right points of view when I got to the convention in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about political activism, why you feel that’s important, next to your art.

THEODORE BIKEL: I am an artist, but I do not stand apart from the world. I am a part of the world. And I keep on insisting, when I speak to students, for example, always, always, always be part of your surroundings. I do not trust theater students who only read the theater pages. I do not trust the financial people who read only financial pages. A financial wizard needs to read the arts pages, and an artist needs to read the political pages, in order to live in the world in which he or she functions. And that’s an adage that has not changed. I am an activist because I’m a human being. And I am, as the Greeks have said, a political animal. I live in the fabric of a society that forces me to partake in whatever it is that the society presents me with. And I cannot divorce myself from it. I am not—I cannot say to myself I’m a lofty person engaged in some mythical remove, and I’m not, because I’m part and parcel of everything that there is.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to you singing "If I Were a Rich Man"—well, many will recognize it, but also to talk about the issue of inequality today. This is Theodore Bikel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

TEVYE: [played by Theodore Bikel] If I were a rich man
Yava deeba deeba, yubba bubba deeda deeda dum
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum
If I were a wealthy man
I wouldn’t have to work hard
Yava deeba deeba, yubba bubba beeba beeba bum
If I were a biddy biddy rich
Yidle-diddle-diddle-didle man

I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen
Right in the middle of the town
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below
There would be one long staircase just going up
And one even longer coming down
And one more leading nowhere, just for show

I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear
_Squawking just as noisily as they can.
And each loud "gleeb," "glaab," "gleeb," "glaab"
Would land like a trumpet on the ear
As if to say, "Here lives a wealthy man"

Oy.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, Theodore Bikel as Tevye, singing "If I Were a Rich Man." You know, it could be a theme song of many today in the United States, with the growing inequality between rich and poor. Your thoughts, Theo Bikel?

THEODORE BIKEL: Poverty is a scourge. Poverty is a curse. And the spread between rich and poor is getting larger and larger and larger, much to the detriment of human dignity in the society in which we live. It cannot be allowed that billionaires fill their pockets while hungry babies cry.

AMY GOODMAN: So what can be done about it?

THEODORE BIKEL: Protest, yell, occupy, if you must. But do not be silent. Do not be quiet. And do not think that somebody else is going to fight your fight for you. You have to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel, renowned actor, folk singer, musician and composer. He performed the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times and is known for creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the musical, The Sound of Music. That’s a play about the von Trapp family, an Austrian family who fled Austria when the Nazis annexed it. The Broadway play was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who reportedly wrote the song "Edelweiss" to feature Theodore Bikel’s guitar-playing and folk-singing talents. We’ll come back to it in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel singing "Edelweiss" with Mary Martin, from the original Broadway cast of The Sound of Music. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my 2014 interview with the renowned actor, folk singer, musician and composer. Theodore Bikel died Tuesday at the age of 91. He was known for playing the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times. I asked him to talk about his work in Yiddish theater and Fiddler on the Roof, and also how he created the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

THEODORE BIKEL: Actually, The Sound of Music was the very first musical I ever did in my life. And to me, it was just another play, and a play, moreover, that had a theme that I was familiar with—an Austrian family that is forced to get out of Austria because they could not stand the barbarity of the Nazis. That was being played down in the original production of Sound of Music because in those days a musical was known as a musical comedy, was meant to be light and fluffy, and serious topics were not really dealt with by the musical theater at that time, as they were later on in the history of Broadway theater. But even then, I felt that there was something important that needed to be said, even by The Sound of Music and even as lightly as they did say it. It was a story that needed to be told, and it wasn’t quite told the way I would have liked to have told it, but it was good enough.

AMY GOODMAN: That was—what years were you playing Baron von Trapp?

THEODORE BIKEL: 1968, ’68, ’69. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And then they made a movie, and the movie certainly conveyed the occupation of Austria, the Nazis moving in, and the fear of the von Trapps.

THEODORE BIKEL: The movie—by the time the movie got to be made, there was far more of that to be found in the story and in the movie itself. But on stage, for example, the Nazi swastikas, we had them in Boston when we tried out before coming to New York, but there were no swastikas at the opening on Broadway, and no "Heil Hitlers." That came much later and was added back into the play when they found that they needed it for a sort of extra bite, as it were. But it was, as I said, a light story lightly told.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of you performing "Edelweiss" on the soundtrack to that 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. It’s named after the white edelweiss flower, the national flower of Austria found high in the Alps. Sung by the character you played, Baron von Trapp.

BARON VON TRAPP: [played by Theodore Bikel] Edelweiss, edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

Edelweiss, edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel singing with Mary Martin in the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. Theo, the musical that many may have learned about World War II through, and that’s the amazing part about art and theater and politics.

THEODORE BIKEL: I’m glad that they learned, those who did. And those who did not, there’s still time for them to learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking about art, politics and resistance, can you talk about the founding of the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger?

THEODORE BIKEL: Well, we always felt that we owed to the folk field so much, and we were never able to repay the debt that we owed. We learned from these people. We learned from old singers with beaten-up guitars. We learned from them as they sang in the field. We learned the songs that they brought to us. And we had no way of repaying them. And so, we said, one fine day, Pete Seeger and George Wein and I, "Let’s have a festival, and let’s make a lot of money and give it back to the people to whom it belongs. Let’s create mini festivals of fiddlers, and let’s buy instruments for people who cannot afford them. Let us buy tape recorders for folklorists who collect the music." That’s what we did with the money that was generated at Newport. We plowed it all back into the field. And as far as payment is concerned, everybody got $54. Whether your name was Joan Baez or Bob Dylan, or whether you were a blind blues singer from Mississippi, everybody got $54 for performing at Newport. And all the rest of the money that was generated by the festival was used in order to help the folk field.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of you, Theodore Bikel, singing with Pete Seeger and Rashid Hussein on a 1956 episode of Rainbow Quest. You sing a traditional Hebrew folk song derived from a passage of the Old Testament.

THEODORE BIKEL: [singing] Hineh ma tov uma na’im
Shevet achim gam yachad
Hineh ma tov uma na’im
Shevet achim gam yachad

Hineh ma tov
Shevet achim gam yachad.
Hineh ma tov
Shevet achim gam yachad.

Hineh ma tov uma na’im
Shevet achim gam yachad
Hineh ma tov
Shevet achim gam yachad

Hineh ma tov
Shevet achim gam yachad.
Hineh ma tov
Shevet achim gam yachad.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember, Theodore Bikel, singing with Pete Seeger and Rashid Hussein? And who is Rashid Hussein?

THEODORE BIKEL: I no longer remember. [Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) was a well-known Palestinian poet who grew up in what became Israel, and moved to New York shortly after the Six-Day War of June 1967. The World of Rashid Hussein: A Palestinian Poet in Exile, edited by Kamal Boullata and Mirène Ghossein, was published in 1979 by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Detroit, Michigan.]

AMY GOODMAN: But the song lives on.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes, but it’s wonderful. And the song says, "How good it is for brethren to dwell together in peace and unity." That’s what the song says.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have performed Tevye more than 2,000 times. Do you plan to continue?

THEODORE BIKEL: I think I’ve hung up my milk pail by now. I’m about to turn 90 years old in May of this coming year—of this year. And I think enough—enough milkman, possibly. I mean, I may be persuaded to sing a song or two from it, but to do a full production of Fiddler, I don’t think I will anymore. Not that I can’t, but it’s just—you know, I used to have to dye streaks into my beard to make me either look older or younger, as the case may be. I no longer have to do that now.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you like still to accomplish?

THEODORE BIKEL: Teach; tell people of the things that I know about; try and get the performers to perform a little better, a little fuller than they do; teach people the ways of peace rather than teach them the ways of war.

AMY GOODMAN: You played a key role in the civil rights movement in the United States when you moved here.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why that was important to you?

THEODORE BIKEL: Ah! Well, that related directly to my experience as a boy. When the Nazis marched into Austria, not everybody participated in the terrible deeds that were being perpetrated upon my people. I saw people dragged out into the street and subjected to unspeakable indignities, and some of them just shipped off on trucks. And there were some who did not participate in any of this, but they also did not open their doors and windows, either, to call a halt. And today, neither I nor you nor history itself can absolve these nice people next door of guilt and complicity, because silence speaks very loudly, and non-action is also an act.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end where we began, with the issue of Israel and the Occupied Territories. One of those who was very critical of Israel’s occupation was Nelson Mandela, who just recently died, the president of South Africa. And there have been parallels made between Israel and South Africa when it comes to the occupation. And I was wondering your thoughts about this and how you see, ultimately, the situation can be resolved.

THEODORE BIKEL: There are certain parallels, but they do not have to do with apartheid per se. They have to do with discrimination. They have to do with treating segments of the population differently than other segments are treated as. Nobody, for example, in their right mind would say to a Jewish settler, a Jewish settlement, that they have to be displaced to make room for a water project. It’s simply not in the cards. They don’t do that. But they do it to Bedouins simply because they can. And that’s not right. And when things are not right, you have to put them right. You know, over a hundred years ago, that slogan that people used to yell at other people, "My country, right or wrong!" was answered by a former general and senator, Carl Schurz, who said, indeed, "When right to be kept right, and when wrong to be put right." I believe that to be true of America. I believe that to be true of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: And what message do you have for Prime Minister Netanyahu?

THEODORE BIKEL: Get out of office.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel, I want to thank you for being with us. What is the favorite song of the thousands and thousands of songs you have sung?

THEODORE BIKEL: Depends when you ask me?

AMY GOODMAN: Asking you now.

THEODORE BIKEL: Usually it’s a Yiddish song, and it’s usually the song about my childhood.

AMY GOODMAN: What song is that?

THEODORE BIKEL: "Kinderyorn," "Childhood Years." "And the tears that I cry are old man’s tears."

AMY GOODMAN: Could you end by singing it for us?

THEODORE BIKEL: [singing] Kinderyorn, size kinderyorn
Eybik blaybt ir vakh in mayn zikorn;
Ven ikh trakht fun ayer tzayt,
Vert mir azoy bang un layd.
Oy, vi shnel bin ikh shoyn alt gevorn.

AMY GOODMAN: And in English, why is this song so important to you?

THEODORE BIKEL: "How quickly have I aged! How quickly have I grown old! And I still see the room where I grew up, and I see my mother in front of my eyes. And I remember her chastising me and chasing me to go to school and learn. But nothing remained. Nothing remained. And now she’s gone, as well, and I’m old."

AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you’d like to add, Theodore Bikel?

THEODORE BIKEL: Yes. I’d like to survive a little longer. And when we say that, we usually mean forever.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Theodore Bikel, we thank you so much for spending this time and look forward to seeing you when you’re in New York.

THEODORE BIKEL: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Theodore Bikel, renowned actor, folk singer, musician and composer. He died at the age of 91 on Tuesday, July 21st, 2015. He was born in 1924. Theodore Bikel performed the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times. He’s known for creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the musical The Sound of Music. Bikel was also a beloved folk singer who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and could accompany himself on guitar, mandolin, balalaika and harmonica. He made more than 20 albums, many of them in Hebrew and Yiddish.

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