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Jane Enkin's Review of Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem at 2016 Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival

By Jane Enkin (Music and Story at June 9, 2016

Theodore Bikel and Sholom Aleichem – two Jewish cultural treasures, whose creatives lives bridged the old world and the new.

Theodore Bikel begins this lovely documentary/performance film by describing his family’s hurried departure from Vienna. They could take very little, and had to leave their shelf-full of Sholom Aleichem books behind.  A relative found a way to send the books to the family. “They followed us.  Sholom Aleichem has been following me ever since. I have been walking in his shoes, as a man, as an artist, as a Jew.”


Sholom Aleichem was an intellectual who chose to write, in Yiddish, about simple people.  The pathos and humour of his writing was important to Jews in Europe and North America at the turn of the last century, and his work is still widely read and loved.  His best known character is Tevye the Milkman, famous beyond the Yiddish-speaking world in the musical Fiddler on the Roof.


Theodore Bikel was a boy when his family moved to what was then Palestine, and he later moved to the United States.   From an early age, he enjoyed performing, and he became an actor on stage and screen.  For me and many others, his most significant work was in the great folk song revival of the mid-century. “I love all folk songs,” says Bikel in the film, “I sing in 23 languages, but Jewish songs, I sing them because they are mine and if I don’t cultivate them they’ll die.”


Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem does not give a full biography of either man, but it offers lovely details of both lives.  The strongest source material is a play that Bikel toured for several years, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. “Sholom Aleichem's last will and testament implored that we remember him only with laughter... and laugh you will as Theo Bikel's heartfelt creation touchingly fulfills that wish,” says the online promotional material for the play.

The documentary film also includes some relaxed narration by Bikel, and lots of charming old photos and vintage film clips.  Also included are the usual documentary “talking heads,” including close friends and colleagues of Bikel, and Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem.  (Both she and her mother Lala Kaufman carried on Sholom Aleichem’s legacy – Bel Kaufman is best known for her book Up the Down Staircase.)


The heart of this film is in Bikel’s performances, many drawn from his play. In an unusual move, which I really love, Bikel and his director, John Lollos, chose to include performances of entire songs.  Bikel sings Yiddish songs along with their English translations, sometimes with a musical ensemble (a fairly mild one, especially in contrast to interviewee David Krakauer’s dramatic demonstrations of emotional klezmer style) and sometimes accompanied by Bikel’s own lovely, delicate finger-picked guitar. (As far as I know, Bikel missed the opportunity to present a song by Sholom Aleichem in the film – the one I’m familiar with is Shlof Mayn Kind, but there may be others.)


Bikel also performs excerpts from Sholom Aleichem’s writing. There are some good jokes, savoured to the full.  There are longer scenes and stories, and sometimes the jokes slip easily into bitter irony.  The warm tone of voice, the mild shrug and gentle smile, are what makes these moments work. “In America you are free to do whatever you want -- free to starve; free to die in the street.  Go ahead, no one will bother you.”


 In a wonderful scene, he plays Tevye in full costume, with his milk cart.  This is not a scene from the musical, but from one of the original stories. Tevye talks directly to his visiting friend, Sholom Aleichem, about his troubles.  “You have to survive, even if it kills you.”

Tevye says it makes sense to kvetch to God.  “When he ignores you he has an excuse – he’s busy.”  The theme of kvetching was explored by my favourite of the interviewees, author and scholar Michael Wex. “Judaism as we think of it is defined as exile, and exile without kvetching, without complaining, that’s tourism, not deportation.”


This is an enjoyable film.  It’s also a significant one.  It is a document of Bikel’s play and serves as his cultural autobiography, and his telling of the biography of Sholom Aleichem.  It lets us revel in Bikel’s performance style as a warm, wise old man, sharing his personal stories as well as his interpretations of the stories told in literature and song.  It is a celebration of the richness of Yiddish folk song and literature, affirming both the value of preserving the original language and of sharing the work in translation. It describes and displays lost ways of life, and, through the young musicians, scholars and happy audiences in the film, it celebrates living Jewish creativity.  And in a universal sense true to Bikel, an activist for civil rights, this film recognizes the pain and triumph of any community holding on to traditions while changing with the times, tolerating conditions while striving to change them, all with humour and heart.

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