Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through TearsBy Theodore Bikel; Derek Goldman, director; Tamara Brooks and Merima Ključo, musicThrough January 18, 2009Theater J, the Washington DC JCC1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washingtonhttp://www.theaterj.org
Generally, sequels are best avoided. It should not have taken three remakes to prove that the first “Planet of the Apes” was more than enough, and the movie-going public would have been far better off without repeats of films like “Legally Blonde” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Therefore, seeing “Fiddler on the Roof Returns” or “Sholom Aleichem Strikes Back” on the shelf at your local movie rental shop should not inspire excitement – but in the capable hands of award-winning actor Theodore Bikel, Tevye’s return is anything but redundant. Bikel’s one-man production at the Washington DC JCC’s Theater J is so successful, because it not only looks back to the Eastern European shtetls but it finds timeless tales and lessons that still apply today.
Bikel’s world premiere of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears,” which seamlessly blends his skills as a storyteller, dancer, singer, and actor, could have been a flop. The actor, 84, has played Tevye the milkman more than 2,000 times, and he could be easily be forgiven for developing a multiple personality disorder and believing he was Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich (1859-1916), who went by the pen name Sholom Aleichem. “In my work I deal in many things: in the memories of yesterday, the realities of today, the dreams of tomorrow,” Bikel notes at the beginning of the play. “My task is not to pretend to be someone else; it is to become that someone else. Harder to do when you portray an actual person, living or dead.”
Growing up, Bikel’s father used to read him Sholom Aleichem stories and plays in Yiddish every Tuesday night after dinner, so playing Tevye when he grew up was like “simply taking an old garment out of the closet, something I had not worn for a long time and, wonder of wonders, it was still a perfect fit.” Not only does the old garment fit Bikel perfectly, but Sholom Aleichem’s writing – however dated the statements are in their cultural and political references, like: “Tevye is not a woman, Tevye can restrain himself”- still rings true.
“I came to America because I thought this is the one place where Jews can have a life. But I was not prepared for what I found,” says Bikel as Sholom Aleichem. Instead of flowing milk and honey and streets paved with gold, Sholom Aleichem found tenements, diseases, and poverty when he arrived in New York. “Not much different from the old country you might think, but there is a big difference. Over there the oppressors were always the ‘Others,’ the nobles, and the Czar’s people. Here in America Jews are scrambling to make a meager living and most of the people who oppress – the landlords, the owners of shirt factories – are Jews, that’s the difference.” As headlines about Bernard Madoff continue to dominate the news, it is clear that a lack of Jewish loyalty in the new world remains a problem, even a century later.
Sholom Aleichem himself, one can imagine, would be thrilled with Bikel’s oscillation between sobering stories and observations and humorous tales. “Believe me, if you spent just one day in kheder, you would never forget,” Bikel declares before launching into a story about the teacher – a rabbi “whose only function is to teach children and whose only educational technique consists of whipping.” To a businessman who has just seen an important deal fall through, Bikel jokes, “What are you so worried about? Relax, G-d will help. And if he doesn’t, you have an uncle in America.” And perhaps the mama of all one-liners: “I guarantee you, go through world music, Russian, French, German, Greek – nowhere except in a Jewish song will you ever hear a mention of hemorrhoids.”
Beyond the jokes and the Yiddish songs, the early part of the play is a tease. The viewer knows Tevye is coming, but he makes a very late appearance, perhaps because of his “miserable excuse for a horse,” a “wretched beast” who moves when Tevye wants to pray and won’t budge when he bids it go. “When troubles descend on Tevye, they never come singly,” Bikel announces as Tevye, as he updates the audience on Tevye’s new troubles – more poverty, an apparent suicide, a profitable shidduch that goes bankrupt. Bikel cannot resist a bit of postmodern humor. “Maybe other people, too, will one day try their hand at giving my milkman a place on the stage. They might even make Tevye sing and dance, G-d forbid. No, they wouldn’t do that, would they?” he asks. “That would reduce Anatevka, paint it smaller, make it less than I intended. I would then become like the man whose leg was cut off and who keeps feeling for it in the place where the leg used to be.”
Theodore Bikel premieres his one-man show at Theater J. All photos by Stan Barouh.
The question whether Broadway versions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” with their distinctly American flavor of nostalgia, trivialize shtetl life, is obviously subject to debate. Tevye has perhaps become the Jewish everyman that Willy Loman always wanted to be; attention has been paid. But the irony of the man who has all but become Tevye, impersonating the man who conceived Tevye, while calling into question the theatrical portrayal of Tevye, makes Bikel’s play is a must-see not only for what the actor has to say about Tevye, but for the mark Tevye has made on the actor.
Bikel tells of Sholom Aleichem’s meeting with Mark Twain – “Neither of us uses his real name; my nom de plume means hello, and his measures the depth of a river” – in which Sholom Aleichem told Twain, “some people have the temerity – our word for it is chutzpah – to call me the Yiddish Mark Twain!” Twain replied, “They are wrong,” he said. “I am the American Sholom Aleichem!” Hopefully Bikel will forgive the chutzpah in the not inappropriate comparison of the poignancy and brilliance of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears” to another actor who is in his 80s and who has become Mark Twain in his own plays, Harold Rowe “Hal” Holbrook, Jr.
For more information about Theodore Bikel, visit his website at http://www.bikel.com/.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.