Fyvush Finkel, the bright-eyed and rubber-faced actor whose name, upon popping up on any list of credits, would make my grandfather say to his own great amusement, “Hmmm, I wonder if he’s Jewish,” died at his New York City home Sunday. He was 93.
Over the course of an astonishing 85-year-career, Finkel became best known to mainstream audiences for his periodic appearances in the television work of Ally McBeal superproducer David E. Kelley. Kelley cast Finkel as Douglas Wambaugh, the eccentric defense attorney on his show Picket Fences (a portrayal that garnered Finkel a best supporting actor Emmy in 1994), then on his follow-up show, Boston Legal, on which the actor played a history teacher.
But perhaps Finkel’s most important role, at least for this past 20-odd years, has been something else: as a cultural institution, a kind of last living link to the lost world of the Yiddish theater, where he began his career at the age of 9. He was a reminder of a time when you could see a touring production of King Lear or A Doll’s House in Yiddish at your local theater in Hartford or Pittsburgh; when Second Avenue on the Lower East Side was known as the “Jewish Rialto”; when people still actually recognized the names sunk into the pavement on the Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame outside the old Second Avenue Deli—which is now, at least the last time I was there, a Chase Bank, like everything else in Manhattan. (Finkel himself said receiving his star there, in 1997, added 25 years to his life.) It was a New York before the glimpses in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, before cupcake bakeries and artisanal dog biscuits; a New York where haunted Holocaust survivors were served plates of cheese blintzes by surly waiters and people’s grandmothers still read The Forward in Yiddish while meddling in their children’s love lives.
Fyvush Finkel, by nature of his extraordinary career and more extraordinary longevity, was the bridge to all this, unseen by most of us, now gone the way of the spirits. It’s a role he embodied literally in what has always been my favorite of his performances, the prologue to the Coen Brothers paean to suburban Midwestern Jewish alienation (a subject near and dear to my heart, as you might imagine), A Serious Man. As a ghost, visiting a home from beyond the grave, Finkel was a literal messenger from the other side, a reminder of what has been left behind. His memory will be a blessing, but it will also, most importantly, be a memory.