Singer, musician, actor and humanitarian Theodore Bikel has been fighting the good fight for more than 60 years. He has given voice to the speechless, raised up the downtrodden and served his fellow human beings, not only as an artist but as a man.
On Sunday, November 16 at Washington Hebrew Congregation in the District, Bikel receives the Moment magazine International Humanitarian Award for his longstanding career, built on a commitment to promoting justice and equality for all. You may know Bikel from his stage and screen roles. He created the role of Baron von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and he took a number of turns as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
On screen he has more than 35 films to his credit, including “The African Queen,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Defiant Ones,” among others. His career as a folk musician and singer spans decades and he shared the stage with Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and many, many more on the folk music circuit.
The event, which also celebrates Bikel’s 90th birthday, will feature many of his colleagues and friends telling stories and anecdotes and sharing songs, among them Tom Paxton, Zalmen Mlotek, David Amram, Deborah Tannen and Amichai Lau-Lavi. Tributes will be offered by Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, David Krakauer, Leon Wieseltier and Peter Yarrow. NPR’s “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel will serve as master of ceremonies.
How do you define a humanitarian?
Bikel: A humanitarian is someone who at the end of the day has cared more about others than he has about himself. It’s a good formula to live by. From that grows a lot of commitment to causes: to feed the hungry, to make sure that the powerless are empowered and that the voiceless are given a voice.
You spent your childhood in Vienna and moved to Palestine at the age of 14. Was there anything in your upbringing that influenced you to live your daily life with the intention of doing something for someone else?
I had a father who was a socialist and a Zionist. A father who believed in causes and he worked hard at it. Even when I was a child, he would schlep me to people who had something to offer, who came and made speeches about the world. I started to care about the world rather early in my life. I started to look at the world, look at my surroundings, look at my neighbors. When I was still in Austria looking at the neighbors didn’t yield much because we lived in a gentile environment. We didn’t live with them but we lived side by side. Later on they turned out to be hostile to us. We didn’t learn much about being humane from them, but you learn about how to maintain your own humanity. I learned, for example, that some people whom we knew started to participate in very cruel and barbaric behavior toward Jews. And others did not. I had to make a reckoning: Can I absolve these people who were silent of their guilt and complicity, even though they didn’t do anything? But silence speaks loudly and non-action, too, is an act. I was far too young to articulate that.
But later, when I moved to the United States and became very involved in the Civil Rights movement, sometimes Jews would take me to task. They’d say: ‘Why are you so involved in Civil Rights? When they hit upon Jews, that’s when you get involved.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ I said, ‘when I see injustice, the victims invariably become Jews in my mind.’ They could be black, they could be women, but as victims I can see them in my mind as Jews. For me staying silent is simply not a course that is permitted.
You moved to the United States at the height of the Civil Rights movement and have continued to advocate for equality throughout your career. Tell me what other causes are close to your heart?
Yes, I moved here in 1954 and took up Civil Rights. I’m also a union person, specifically performers’ unions. [Bikel was vice president and president of Actors’ Equity Association for nearly a decade.] And that has added wrinkles to it because performers love what they do so much that they have to be protected not only from being exploited by unscrupulous employers, but also from themselves because they love what they do so they’d rather do it for nothing or next to nothing. And they neglect themselves, their own need to feed the family and the dignity of having to be compensated for what they do. I believe that no shame attaches to the fact that you should expect a paycheck for what you do.
Can you speak about how music and other art forms can make us more humane as individuals and as a society?
Yes. When Bob Dylan sang his songs about concerns about the world, he was making an important statement. His contemporary, Phil Ochs, had a dream of America that was so much better than what he saw every time he opened his eyes. In the end Ochs lost his faith, and his vision in the dream and took his own life, because he despaired of being able to do much about it. I think he was wrong in despairing; he was right in feeling so strongly about needing to do something. The body of work he left behind is witness to the fact that he did do a lot.
I have spoken out and sung out against injustice. I don’t know any right-wing songs; I don’t know that there are any.
Can you name some of your favorite songs for activism?
Well Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which I believe is a much better [national] anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner.” For years, Joan Baez and I have tried to have “The Star Spangled Banner” replaced because it speaks of an obscure fight over a hill that nobody remembers: “rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air…” We have a beautiful song: “This land is your land, this land is my land from California to the New York islands…” speaking of the glory of America and its beauty, its grandeur, its democracy.
Songs are important. Sure it sounds so simple and I’m not naïve enough to believe that by singing a few innocent songs you can alter the course of human history, but, frankly, until I see other people making better beginnings, I’m going to have to continue to sing.
I’m glad that Moment magazine is giving me this award because they are very much involved in causes and it’s a good marriage in a sense. It’s going to be an evening of music, of talk and of conviviality. I’m looking forward to this.
Comments Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of the Washington, DC-based national independent Jewish magazine, Moment, co-founded by Elie Wiesel and the late Leonard Fein: “Moment bestows three awards each year-our Creativity Award, Changemaker Award and International Humanitarian Award-and our committee had a difficult time deciding which one to give Theo since he is the rare person who deserves all three. We decided on the humanitarian award in recognition of the powerful and positive influence his music, acting and activism has had on both Jews and non-Jews.”