Theodore Bikel’s Keynote for Congress on Jewish Theatre

Theodore Bikel gave the keynote speach at the World Congress of the Association for Jewish Theatre on March 20, 2007

Jews have been on a journey. To mark the intellectual, emotional and dramatic signposts of that journey is a role the Jewish artist fulfills. It, too, is one whose usefulness the world might acknowledge. How so? The world as we know it faces terrorism, mass murder, mayhem and possible nuclear devastation. These are threats to its very existence. Well, we Jews have been in that street before; we have faced death and devastation at so many turns of history. Yet, in the midst of chaos, we have found ways to believe in a tomorrow, to laugh, to sing to dance and to pray — even when just walking in the street meant mortal danger. I daresay that among its other qualities our theatre, too, is part of our tools of survival. The world might take note.

Read the full speech:

Dear Colleagues:

I am sure most of you will appreciate the mixed feelings I have as I address you in this, the city of my birth. While I can never rid myself of those memories of my childhood that are suffused with pain and grief, I am also acutely aware of the fact that this was the place where I had my first taste of high culture and where youthful inclination turned into a lifelong passion for theatre. It was also the place where I first experienced Jewish theatre, specifically Yiddish theatre and where my father read Yiddish plays aloud at the table after dinner on Tuesday nights.

Since my teens I have spent my life in the theatre; at first, briefly, in the Hebrew theatre; and for the past 60 years on stages in the English-speaking world. In all these years, wearing other hats, I have, in addition, worked to keep Jewish culture alive in all its facets: literature, poetry, music, folklore and language. It is this double commitment to theatre and to Jewish culture that brings me here to address you today.

Like all theatre, Jewish theatre is not one thing alone. Theatre is high art and low art. Theatre is light-hearted laughter and wrenching emotion. Theatre is stark naturalism and highly fanciful stylization. Theatre is political and a-political. But even at its most political, seeking to cure social ills is not the primary purpose of the artist’s work although at times that may be a by-product of it. Art carries its own demands and fashions its own imperatives. The artist is not intended to be the bearer of a message and theatre is not meant to do what a pamphlet would do better. Drama represents a distillation of ideas not of ideologies. We who work in the theatre are neither educators nor preachers nor social workers. We are performers. We dance, we sing, we make grownups laugh and children clap their hands. While we sometimes draw the audience into a heightened awareness of their lives, we just as often make them forget the day and lighten the burden.

So, who are we and what is this Jewish Theatre we are talking about? Before defining what Jewish theatre is, we should take brief note of what Jewish theatre is not. It has often been noted that in Western societies the presence of Jews in the arts, specifically in the theatre, is far greater than their percentage within the general population. That fact is often cited as a source of pride. I suspect that at this Congress, too, we will not be able to entirely avoid the temptation of indulging in self-congratulation; yet decency commands that we keep such expressions to a minimum.

Jewish creativity in the theatre flourishes, especially in the English-speaking world. The theatre in England and North America has been replete with Jews, all representing extraordinary creativity on either side of the footlights: Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Patrick Marber, Deborah Levy, Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Neil Simon, Rodgers&Hammerstein, Bock&Harnick, Wendy Wasserstein, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfus, Alan Arkin, Tovah Feldshuh, Billy Crystal, Larry Gelbart, Bette Midler, David Mamet, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen – the list goes on and on. However, not everything that is created, presented or performed in the theatre is by definition Jewish Theatre merely because the creators, presenters or performers are Jews. A performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is not Jewish theatre even if it happens to have an all-Jewish cast. King Lear performed in Yiddish might be Jewish theatre, not because of the language but because its title is now Der Melekh Lir – fargresert un farbesert fun Moishe Grosbart. Also because it will have become a play about a rich Jewish merchant and the problem of inheritance for his three daughters.

Joking aside, the theatre we are trying to define here has several aspects that characterizes it. Firstly, it has cultural, literary, historical and contemporary indicators that describe it. I am speaking not just of a general aura of Jewishness but of aspects that have far greater specificity. Secondly, there are the audiences we address. These are twofold. On the one hand we seek to present a picture of the Jewish world in its many facets to a general audience. But we also hold a mirror up to ourselves for Jewish audiences to see. To Jews and non-Jews in the audience we must show not just a rosy picture, glossing over blemishes, but a picture as close and sometimes as painful to the truth as we can come. Theatre in the free world is not a propaganda tool. History is background, source, raw material. What we have to avoid is to use our history to either depict Jews as victims or as the shining examples of noble traditions so that we can feel good about ourselves. History is not to be exploited – for good or ill. We owe it to our sense of intellectual honesty to discount the warnings from timid Jews who want us to show nothing unflattering about ourselves because it might be a shande far di goyim.

Yet another manifestation of timidity among some is the fear that creating anything specifically ‘Jewish’ will once again set us apart; more fuel for the accusation that we harbor dual loyalties in every country where Jews reside. That is simple-minded nonsense. Only those who believe in monochromatic culture would buy the proposition that presenting works with a specifically Jewish (or Black or Irish or Turkish or Russian) motif detracts rather than adds to the beauty of a nation. In countries such as the United States that were created by immigrants, each cultural element enhances the flowering of the nation. To believe otherwise is to subscribe to the notion that a meadow with but one kind of flower is preferable to a profusion of flowers. Ours is the Jewish flower and we offer it for all to enjoy.

Moreover, Jews have been on a journey. To mark the intellectual, emotional and dramatic signposts of that journey is a role the Jewish artist fulfills. It, too, is one whose usefulness the world might acknowledge. How so? The world as we know it faces terrorism, mass murder, mayhem and possible nuclear devastation. These are threats to its very existence. Well, we Jews have been in that street before; we have faced death and devastation at so many turns of history. Yet, in the midst of chaos, we have found ways to believe in a tomorrow, to laugh, to sing to dance and to pray — even when just walking in the street meant mortal danger. I daresay that among its other qualities our theatre, too, is part of our tools of survival. The world might take note.

If Jewish existence in the Diaspora has given our lives a constantly underlying – and familiar – sense of danger, that is the stuff that theatre is made of. That sense of tension persists even at times when seemingly there is no danger; and it is likely to turn something that is otherwise unremarkable into something extraordinary. The humdrum daily routine of poverty in the shtetl, the dull days spent in silence in a loft, a sexton looking for a tenth man to form a minyan – all these furnish material for Jewish theatre, along with the more esoteric topics of Dybbuks, Talmudic disputations, Biblical history, holocaust and post-holocaust drama.

Today we are once again in the midst of conflict and strife. We not only live in the shadow of the holocaust, the most horrendous of all memories; but now this is also a time when Jew-hatred has once again been given license to raise its voice. Since drama presents heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, there are pitfalls. Our experience and the times in which we live make it almost impossible for us as Jews to enter into the logic and mindset of an adversary. But as playwrights, directors and actors it is imperative that we do so, seemingly without judgment; for without the ability to portray a credible villain on stage, drama becomes skewed and flawed, possibly even irrelevant. It is not an easy challenge yet one we must meet head on. Audiences must be given the chance to experience changes of empathy, identify with characters in ways positive, negative or neutral. My experience in the early Hebrew theatre taught me something about that; in those days the villains in the plays came invariably from the outside, anti-Semites, Cossacks in pogroms, raping and murdering, Grand Inquisitioners seeking to burn Jews in an auto-da-fé. I knew then that on the day when a Jewish villain makes his appearance on the stage, the Hebrew theatre will have come of age. As indeed it has.

Theatre is both larger and smaller than life. It condenses a lifetime into the span of two and a half hours, it makes battlements of paper-maché into stone, it projects utopian visions alongside the squalor of the ghetto, and in its directness it becomes a powerful antidote to despair. The compression of time and space is not only a measure of economy; it does what Michelangelo called ‘removing the superfluous marble for a figure to emerge’ and what in more recent times moved the playwright Moss Hart to remark that ‘theatre is life with the dull parts cut out.’ It is my contention that what we present on stage is not simply life; it is life with implied comment.

The function of the artist is not only to please, to soothe, to pacify but also to ruffle feathers. We must be able to present plays, films, poems or songs which are critical of society and thus point the way toward a world which is better than the world we have. That surely must resonate with anyone who is serious about Tikkun Olam, the betterment of the world, the motto of this Congress. To be sure, a theatre that presents plays critical of the status quo presumes that artists can be at odds with the society in which they live and can put their eloquence to use in order to further the dream of a better humankind. If that is seen as criticism, then so be it; we know that we are on the right path. Clearly, theatre is not likely to stop wars or influence governments. But we know that theatre does help restore to our world an atmosphere of faith, does remind us that greatness is to be measured not by economic or military might but rather by culture, by music, by poetry and drama. Because the arts may be society’s last best hope for meaningful survival.

They say that Jewish existence is nothing but an exacerbated version of the human condition. Historically, Jewish Theatre was theatre with a ‘kneytsh’, with a twist, that at the lower rung placed it into the realm of sketches, vaudeville, cabaret theatre: light diversions designed to make people forget the troubles of the day. But the twist upward could also propel it into the realms of high art, the kind of theatre that became the envy of classical actors and directors, places of pilgrimage for gentile professionals to London’s East End or New York’s Lower East Side.

The Jewish theatre of today will, of course, be as diverse as theatre is in general. Alongside the classics and the weighty drama of contemporary vintage there must be room for children’s theatre, for lighter fare, for comedy, for satirical and other humorous offerings. Consider comedy – one of the major Jewish contributions to entertainment in America was humor. The rhythm and cadences of humor in America are distinctly Jewish even when the performers are Gentiles. It could be said that Jews have taught America how to laugh and taught performers how to generate laughter.

Our theatres will also need to include musicals in the repertoire, that newer form of stage presentation that was created and perfected in America and found to be portable and translatable, not to mention profitable.

A propos of ‘profitable’ let me add a word of caution. At this historic convocation we will no doubt deal with economic questions of how to create, sustain and broaden the base for Jewish theatre. We should indeed address these issues without, however, getting bogged down, and thus relegating questions of creativity and excellence to the back burner.

As part of my life in the theatre as an actor, a singer, a musician I have also served as the head of performers’ unions. (I still do, in fact.) Thus my devotion has not only been to the art of theatre but also to the well-being of those who toil in it. I mention this last aspect here because it is my hope that in our concern for the viability of Jewish theatre we do not overlook the need to care for the livelihood of those who are its mainstay, the performers. As Shakespeare put it: ‘Will you see the players well bestowed? For they are the abstract and chronicles of our time.’

Returning to the question of what manner of theatre will continue to engage our attention, we acknowledge that most Jewish theatre is being presented in the various tongues of the Diaspora: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, and others. It is in all those languages that we must make our distinctly and uniquely Jewish mark. At this point we have no other choice but to work with essentially borrowed linguistic tools. In the past this was not so. Jewish theatre, in whatever country it existed, was performed chiefly in Yiddish. Miraculously in a few places Yiddish theatre still survives, in New York, London, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Melbourne (Australia) and sporadically in a few other places.

As an ardent proponent and advocate of the Yiddish language let me express the hope that we will continue to make it possible for Yiddish theatre to exist and not be relegated to be a museum piece. Along with six million of our people a language was almost murdered. What threatens the language now is not the savage intent of Jew-haters but our own people’s apathy and unwillingness to cultivate what is their own precious heirloom.

To them I say: LOST NIT TSU AZ UNDZER LOSHN ZOL FARSHVINDN UN UNTERGEYN KELOY HOYO. S’IZ AYERE YERUSHE. FARGEST ES NISHT!
For those who may need a translation, that means:
Do not permit our language to disappear and go under as though it had never existed. This is your heirloom. Never forget it!

Another reason for the neglect of Yiddish was the misguided notion by many that with the advent of Israel and the realization of the Zionist dream Yiddish had to be supplanted by Hebrew, that it was either one or the other. As a lifelong Zionist, a lover of Hebrew, and as one who in his youth helped found a Hebrew theatre, I can tell you that I have always opposed the notion that Yiddish was an unworthy Diaspora tongue that deserved to be relegated to the dustbin. I am glad to note that these days Yiddish has a life among the young at festivals and klezmer events. Even in Israel the view no longer holds sway that Yiddish is Iittle more than l’shon galut, a discarded diaspora tongue. A fully operative Yiddish theatre has been in existence in Israel for a number of years and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has published eight splendid volumes of Yiddish folk music.

Speaking of the Hebrew theatre whose representatives are present at this Congress let me reiterate what I stated earlier. Some, though not all, theatre in Israel can be properly classified as Jewish theatre. It depends entirely upon the subject matter, the playwright’s intent, the cultural and social or religious connotation of the presentation (pro or con!) What does not make the theatre Jewish is language alone. True, Hebrew is a Jewish idiom; so are Yiddish and Ladino. But language is but a tool, it is not a characteristic. Words are merely the bricks with which a house is built. You speak of architecture when you describe the house, not the bricks.

Let me emphasize one important point. We are not, nor do we aim to become, mendicants in the theatrical world. We do not ask audiences, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, to make allowances, to go easy on us, because we are “Jewish Theatre.” We insist that we be looked at as any other theatre is and be judged on professionality, on quality and on excellence– by others and by ourselves.

I hope that some of the discussions in the days to come will also touch upon the problems of theatre in places where freedom of speech, of assembly and of ethnic or religious expression are severely curtailed or entirely suppressed. That was true until recently in countries under Soviet domination. If theatre survived there, it was due to the great fortitude and courage of those who did underground what they could not do openly. While the Soviets are gone and theatre, including Jewish theatre, can once more flourish freely in those countries, let us not forget that there are dictatorships in South and Central America and elsewhere. Jews live in those countries whose cultural freedoms are endangered daily. We need to think of ways to support them, their writers and their theatre professionals.

And so we embark upon this Congress with some trepidation but also with a great deal of hope. Part of our hope is that we might draw many more artists into the ambit of Jewish Theatre than can be found there at present, those at the sidelines or beyond the horizon. It is an enigma why some Jewish artists are reluctant to identify themselves with Jewish culture or Jewish causes as if to avoid wearing a Star of David on their sleeve. When this happens in the so-called free world, one wonders why the freedom to be what we are has not eradicated the trembling fear of ‘otherness’ in some of our brethren who live in a non-Jewish world, the fear of being seen as the stranger in their midst. Perhaps we can imbue them with a renewed sense of pride from which may flow a commitment to their own culture and to our work.

It would be a travesty if Jewish artists who have done so much to raise the level of excellence in the theatre of the non- Jewish world were to fail to do the same in their own, the Jewish Theatre. And it would be equally tragic if Jewish audiences who support all of the arts in society with such enthusiasm would fail to show the same devotion to theatre when it bears a specific Jewish imprimatur. But, ultimately, it is up to us to prove that we can toil with as much diligence in our own garden as we have in other peoples’, that the Jewish flowering is fresh and bright and far from withering away.
Whenever I am asked why I sing Jewish songs, I am moved to reply that I do not believe that the Jewish song is better than the song of my neighbor; I sing it because it is mine. In the world of theatre there are others who from time to time do Jewish-themed plays; they may even do it well. But this is us, our turf, our theatre; we do it because it is we who were entrusted with its guardianship.