Yiddish lovers of all accents—from Litvaks to Galitzianers (that’s I!)—packed Symphony Space on the Upper West Side for the Folksbiene’s recent salute to Theodore Bikel.
Theo, originally from Vienna, will be 90 years old on May 2. Understand, it’s never too soon to celebrate such a milestone.
Bel Kaufman, author of the 1965 bestseller (and film), “Up the Down Staircase,” hobbled on stage to congratulate Theo for his perennial portrayal of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” written by her grandfather Sholom Aleichem.
“In our family,” Bel said, “Theo is our Tevye. He has done Tevye on stage over 2,000 times, more than any other actor.
“As a matter of fact there was a real Tevye who delivered milk to my grandfather. The real Tevye did not have a personality like the one in the movie.”
Bel, born in Berlin, will reach her 103rd birthday on May 19. “I don’t know anyone as old as I am.”
Folksbiene comes close in longevity, as this marks its 99th consecutive season.
“I love you, Theo!” Bel confessed.
Theo was flattered. “There used to be a time when I loved young women,” he said. “Never till tonight did I get a declaration of love from a woman over 100.”
He said it’s not easy to be young. “It’s easier to be old—you can walk around with a cane and this commands respect.”
He congratulated the Folksbiene, with Jeffrey Wiesenfeld as chairman and Zalmen Mlotek as artistic director, for preserving the tradition of Yiddish culture. “It’s your Jewish heritage. You can keep it in the closet or you can keep it alive.”
“We’re celebrating a lot of birthdays here,” Brooklyn’s Fyvush Finkel noted. “Theo will be 90 and I am 91. Of course, with this audience it’s no big deal.”