‘If I had the strength and vigor
I’d find the words and call them.
With a voice big and bigger
Sholem, Sholem, Sholem: peace, peace, peace.’
These were the last words of song I heard from my friend and mentor Theo Bikel – performed live in NYC on June 18 2015, just over a month ago.
This was one of his favorite songs, featuring his own masterful translation of the original Yiddish. That day he sang with strength and vigor, along with all-star musicians who he loved, at a festive luncheon thrown in his honor at the YIVO Institute, where he received the Life Achievement Award: The life of an extraordinary artist, dedicated community leader, fearless peacemaker.
Just two nights earlier, along with his wife – my good friend Aimee – he joined the Lab/Shul community at City Winery to celebrate another peacemaker – his fan and friend David Broza.
Theo made a beautiful speech and ended that night with an incredible sing along led by him, Daivd, Peter Yarrow, and Ali Paris – an emerging Palestinian musician.
It was an electrifying, awesome, deeply moving music jam – the old peace anthems, rousing ballads – which hundreds of us sang together. We felt it then and bitter-sweetly know now how right we were – it was historical.
It was a night that all of us who had the privilege to be part of will never forget.
It was Theo’s last big concert. His last big gift to me – to so many of us.
Today I’m getting on a plane from Tel Aviv to LA – on my way to accompany this beloved bard on his last journey.
My heart is brimming with gratitude for the inspirations and gifts that Theo shared with me in the brief years we’ve known each other: relentless, sharp humor… even when it hurt a lot to laugh, reminders to breathe, that twinkle in his eye, and his flawless timing.
He had the courage to live large and love larger – regardless of age or health or convention. I will forever cherish the honor of officiating his wedding with Aimee – yes his back hurt – but he was glowing. More than all, I will cherish his deep unwavering belief in justice; he was a tireless crusader for human rights and dignity, for peace and co-existence, for hope against all odds.
Many in his generation of Holocaust survivors and refugees adopted ideologies and slogans rooted in suspicious mistrust and fear of the other.
But not Theo. From Vienna to Tel Aviv, London to LA, Broadway to Hollywood he talked spiritual resistance to hatred and he walked that talk – all the way to the end.
Aimee – you are not alone. I am here, and many others, to help you never forget the giant that you helped depart from this earth with so much kindness, to be with you in sorrow and in healing and in life.
Theo – rest in peace, you maker of peace.
Shulem, Shulem, Shulem.
– Amichai Lau-Lavie