Jul 21, 2015
When 'Tevye' Came to the Rebbe

When the late Theodore Bikel, star of Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof, came to the Rebbe he was asked something unusual.

By COLlive reporter

Theodore Bikel, the legendary Jewish actor and folk singer who passed away on Monday at the age of 91, was deeply impacted and intrigued by the Chabad movement, despite his difference of opinion and lifestyle.

"Chabad is unique among all the Chassidic sects," he once said. "It holds to an attitude few have ever had before - and it is plainly that of loving Jews, of every stripe and reaching out to touch them without asking questions. All they ask is for open eyes and ears and an open mind. People are reacting to them because they are realizing that their sole purpose is to widen the circle of Jews."

Famous for playing the role of Tevye the Milkman during more than 2,200 performances of "Fiddler on the Roof" on Broadway, Bikel also featured Hebrew and Yiddish folk music in his 27 albums. Among them is the song "Az Der Rebbe Zingt" (when the Rebbe sings, so do the chassidim).

Bikel was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria and named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. His family fled to Mandatory Palestine after the German union with Austria in 1938. Bikel started acting while in his teens, studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1954, he moved to the United States.

While he was known for activism with many left-wing causes, Bikel was fascinated by the Chabad approach as inspired by the Rebbe. Speaking at the Chabad House in Buffalo in the 1970's, he said "Chabad has the most immediate impact on the young" and explored the evolution of Chabad on American campuses and his experience with the movement.

"Why am I saying all of this?" he paused and contemplated aloud. "I am after all a secular Jew. What appeals to me about Chabad? It is that I and others like me have not been written off because we are hung up on other things. Chassidim don't intend to convert others but there is nothing in the Book that says you can't make Jews out of Jews."


In "Theo: An Autobiography," first published in 1994, Bikel recalls a memorable encounter with Chabad while his 6-year-old son Rob was going to Sunday school at a reform temple in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

One time his son came home holding a small candlestick. Asked where he had gotten it, the boy said, "A rabbi with a beard came and gave me this for my sister." Bikel didn't have a daughter then, but he said "I was amazed that the arm of the Lubavitchers had reached out as far as southwestern Connecticut, and even into a reform temple."

Another encounter he recalled was during a rally for Soviet Jewry at the foot of the Statue of Liberty when 2 "fairly young" Lubavitchers came over to him wearing "hats that were one size too small for their heads."

"You're Theodore Bikel, aren't you?" they asked.

"Yes," he replied. "And you are Lubavitch Chassidim."

Astonished, they asked: "How did you know?"

He explained: "That you are Chassidim is obvious from the way you are dressed. That you are Lubavitcher Chassidim is obvious to me also because if you were any other kind, you would not be mixing with 'goyim' like us."

The bochurim ignored the last reference and cut to the chase: "We were wondering if you already put on tefillin today."

Bikel said he hadn't that day or any other day in a long while. He said he would be willing but asked if it wouldn't be considered hypocrisy on his part. "Would it not be hypocritical if, for the sake of showing off, I were to publicly perform this religious ritual?"

They said no, the Rebbe believed that performing one Mitzvah will surely lead to another. And that's what happened. Once Bikel rolled up his left sleeve and put on Tefillin, he said, "I thought, I might as well daven the morning prayer -- this partial thing was already working."


Theodore Bikel's most public encounter with the Rebbe was 11 Nissan 5742 (1981) at a large farbrengen marking the Rebbe's 80th birthday at the main shul at Lubavitch Headquarters - 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY.

Bikel was brought by his friend, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, Head Shliach of Philadelphia and Washington, DC, who brought many dignitaries to the Rebbe.

Acknowledging Bikel's unique status as a cohen, the Rebbe made an unusual special request which Mr. Bikel enthusiastically obliged. Following which the Rebbe gave him a motivating instruction.

VIDEO: Courtesy of JEM

Bikel died on July 21, 2015, at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles as a result of natural causes. He once said in an interview that he had planned the inscription for his tombstone – "He Was the Singer of His People" – in Yiddish.

Most Read Most Comments
Theodore Bikel as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"
Theodore Bikel as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"
Bikel speaks at the Chabad House of Buffalo. Rabbi Nosson Gurary watches
Bikel speaks at the Chabad House of Buffalo. Rabbi Nosson Gurary watches
Theodore Bikel at a Chabad event in Washington, DC with Head Shliach Rabbi Avraham Shemtov
Theodore Bikel at a Chabad event in Washington, DC with Head Shliach Rabbi Avraham Shemtov
Theodore Bikel rallying for Soviet Jewry
Theodore Bikel rallying for Soviet Jewry
Theodore Bikel playing the Rabbi in the play The Chosen
Theodore Bikel playing the Rabbi in the play The Chosen
Theodore Bikel lighting the Menorah with a L'chaim
Theodore Bikel lighting the Menorah with a L'chaim

Opinions and Comments
wow vary inspiring . he described chabad shittah vary well.. its emazing how the rebbe touched every from every corner
(7/21/2015 9:36:40 PM)
יהודי מיוחד ומוכשר. מאוד.
כנר. על הגג. וטוביה. החולב.סרטים מיוחדים
מהילדות.טוב לדעת שהשחקן. המפורסם ביקר
אצל הרבי .יהודי מיוחד. ויקר.ברוך דין אמת....
(7/21/2015 10:38:02 PM)
very special - wow
How the Rebbe taps in directly into his soul as a kohen for him to channel his energy in the most positive way and obliges him to bless him on the spot and answers amen! and further counsels him to do so in shul! all in a couple of seconds.
(7/21/2015 11:16:39 PM)
Love that clip!
When the Rebbe showers a Jew with love and a smile, how can he not want to be a better Jew.
So special.
Ashreinu for the Rebbe.
(7/21/2015 11:22:39 PM)
Blessing for long life.
Listen closely the rebbe gave him a brocho for a long life.
(7/21/2015 11:40:01 PM)
He also spoke at a chabad dinner in Cincinnati by the kalmansons.
(7/22/2015 9:14:24 AM)
Probably the only authentic Yiddisher nachas Theodore Herzl ever received.
(7/22/2015 9:19:56 AM)
Rabbi & Mrs. Yosel Torenheim
Are the shluchim that he was referring to - that bring mivtza Neshek (and all mivtzoim) to ALL hebrew schools in southwestern CT!

AMAZING shluchim! Keep up the good work!
(7/22/2015 12:40:28 PM)
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