Time to open old book, return to ‘Ragtime’ era

Posted on 30 July 2015 by admin

We have recently lost two more Jewish luminaries, one each in two worlds of entertainment — the written, and the theatrical.
Both died on the same day — Tuesday, July 21. E.L. Doctorow, the writer, was 84. Theodore Bikel, the actor/singer, was 91.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read enough of Doctorow. But that’s the good thing about reading, and good books: They’re always waiting for you, whenever you want them.
His obituary said that the boy who became a writer announced his intention at age 9, when he realized that he wanted more from a story than to find out how it would end; he wanted to know how the creator of the story got him, the reader, into that kind of mental involvement: “How is it that these words on the page make me feel the way I’m feeling?”
I wonder if my late husband ever knew Doctorow. They were born in New York in the same year, and both attended Bronx High School of Science at the same time, graduating in the same class. But Fred never mentioned him to me. I guess they were interested in different things and ran in different crowds. I have a lot of diplomas and such that were Fred’s, but unfortunately, not a copy of his Bronx Science yearbook.
Doctorow’s Ragtime made it out from between covers and onto the stage, but I can’t find any evidence that Bikel ever appeared in it. Most of us know him best as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, of course, even though he had important roles in so many other live, film, and televised productions. He was never stereotyped; he took advantage of his size and the accent he never lost (probably never wanted to lose it!) that enabled him to effectively play a range of characters from a Russian submarine captain, to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to the singing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
I was one of his folk song fans, catching every live Bikel concert I could — which was pretty often, since I lived in Chicago at the time the folk music craze was at its height, and he was riding its crest. I don’t know how many languages he could actually speak, but he sang effortlessly in more than 20 of them. And as someone who had lived in Israel while it was still Palestine, he had a stunning repertoire of Hebrew melodies. Plus, of course, a parallel songbook in Yiddish. And with these, a great sense of humor.
Audiences always sang along at Bikel concerts, and sometimes there was even banter between seats and stage. One night, I heard him lisping through a funny song about — what else? — a poor peasant bemoaning his life in some poor shtetl, after which a woman down front called out loudly, “Aha! I can tell from your accent that you are a Litvak, not a Galitzianer!” To which Bikel responded, in beautiful, rolling, gruff, throaty Austrian-English, “Madam, it is not I who am a Litvak. It is your ear which is a Litvak!”
My Boubby the Philosopher never read Doctorow — not as far as I know — but she did love Bikel’s Jewish records, almost as much as she valued those weekly half-hours of TV that were sacred to her. I Remember Mama was one of them: “Just like me,” she would say, “only Norwegian.” And of course, the other was The Goldbergs, starring Molly of the same last name.
Some people think the days of great Jewish writers and entertainers are over, but I don’t agree. There are lots of Jewish comedians today, just a different breed (think Sarah Silverman!); lots of Jewish musicians, though very few of the old folk-singing kind; and lots of Jewish writers of all sorts.
I read many of their current books today, but now I think I’ll go back and read some more of Doctorow as well.

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