This is the text of a speech delivered in honor of Theodore Bikel, the noted Jewish actor, singer, and activist, when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by YIVO. The ceremony took place at the Center for Jewish History in New York on June 18.
In America, Jewish heritage is a lively and noisy affair. We have correctly understood that we live in a country that does not require anyone to inhibit themselves in the assertion of identity, and we have tossed aside our inhibitions. We celebrate our origins, our characteristics, incessantly. It is a rich era for Jewish expression, for Jewish identification. All the realms of our existence, all our values, all our interests, all our pleasures, all our pains, are given a Jewish gloss or a Jewish source. American Jewish culture, high and low, is a plenitude, a cacophony, of Jewishnesses.
By the standards of Jewish history, then, we are almost unimaginably blessed. Or more precisely, by certain standards of Jewish history. We are free, we are respected, we may formulate our universality in the terms of our particularity without embarrassment and without opprobrium—but there are qualities of Jewish identity, parcels of the Jewish tradition, that are being lost or renounced amid all our good fortune. There are many disappearances and many abandonments, and they are drowned out in the festive din. More of the Jewish tradition is vanishing in present conditions of security and prosperity than ever vanished in past conditions of oppression and poverty. Speaking strictly, what we are celebrating in America is not Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference, but what is left of Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference.
We in this room are among the saving remnants, gathered to honor one of the greatest saving remnants of all. The joy on our lush island of Jewishness is real, but we must soberly recall that it is indeed on an island that we are toiling and flourishing and reveling. We are surrounded by a vast sea of Jews who are not Jewish except ethnically and biologically. Many of them take pride in a tradition that they know almost not at all. Not long ago Theo Bikel came to Washington and performed his magical one-man show about Sholom Aleichem. The theater at the JCC was full, and the men and women in the audience glowed with enchantment, and when he spoke or sang in Yiddish they understood little or nothing. The less they grasped, in fact, the more they glowed. They were enjoying a warm experience of contentless authenticity.
The diversity of Jewishnesses in America today is no doubt some sort of cultural strength; but I want to suggest, as a way of expressing what I admire about my brother Theo, that it is also some sort of cultural weakness. The Jewish tradition in our community has been splintered and customized. Even when we go deep, we do not go wide. We live in a golden age of partial Jewishnesses. The American Jew is, to borrow a term from a scholar of Jewish law, ayehudi l’hatza’in—a partial Jew. Religious Jews know almost nothing of our secular traditions and secular Jews know almost nothing of our religious traditions. Jews who live in Hebrew know almost no Yiddish and Jews who live in Yiddish—now there is a saving remnant!—know almost no Hebrew, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews anyway live, arrogantly and ignorantly, in no Jewish language at all. Jews who are fluent in the siddur are strangers to Bialik and Amichai. Jews who still sing the old Zionist songs are dead to klezmer, and Jews who are devout about klezmer sometimes act as if their music is all that is required for Jewish continuity. How many students of Jewish film are also students of Talmud, and how many students of Talmud have a shred of an acquaintance with the history of Jewish art? An alarming number of poor souls among our brethren seem to feel that all they require for a genuine Jewishness is Woody Allen and Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld.
Everybody, in sum, appropriates only what suits them, what tickles them, what affirms them, without any sense of obligation toward the totality of our resources, without any appetite for the work that would be required by a more comprehensive fidelity, without any sensation of responsibility for the legacies of Jews who are not like themselves. These ardent but truncated commitments amount to a new manner of sectarianism. The only Jewish thing that every American Jew knows about is politics.
I am not against any of these parts and pieces of our culture. I am for all of them—but all of them is precisely what almost none of us any longer commands. There are currents and strains, movements and organizations, but almost nowhere is there a general Jewish cultivation. As we edit and shrink our patrimony to suit our tastes and our moods and our ideologies, we become masters of subtraction; but we must teach ourselves to add. Not Maimonides or Mendele, but Maimonides and Mendele: a universal Jewishness. Philosophically, of course, all the Jewish figures and the Jewish ideas do not go together—indeed, they are sometimes bitterly at odds with each other. Feuding is also one of the great Jewish traditions. But there is an important way in which they emphatically do cohere, and that is as the elements of a civilization.
Everybody appropriates only what suits them, what tickles them, what affirms them, without any sense of obligation toward the totality of our resources. The only Jewish thing that every American Jew knows about is politics.
What is missing from American Jewishness now is a sense of the whole—a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance. We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilization. A great Jewish historian, adapting an ancient Latin adage, famously remarked that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Who can say this now? Who has, or aspires to have, an appreciation and a knowledge and a love of this scope? Who any longer remembers how to be an heir to it all?
I have at least one answer to that question. The answer is, Theo Bikel remembers. He is a man of the whole. The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare: He is immersed in the entirety of Jewish expression. He possesses the languages and he possesses the literatures. He knows all the songs, and the meanings of all the songs. He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate. He is a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and a son of New York and Los Angeles—of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion. He does not choose among them; he represents, and cherishes, and refines, them all. His Jewish cultivation is breathtaking. His many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice have always been conducted in a Jewish vocabulary—he has been an ambassador of our ethics to the world.
Theo is one of the greatest of our culture’s guardians, and of its connoisseurs. His company is an intense—and almost giddily delightful—experience of Jewish cultivation. His laughter is itself a high form of yiddishkeit. A culture’s best shorthand, after all, is its humor; and if one of the measures of the decline of a grander and more synoptic Jewishness is that there are fewer and fewer people to whom one can tell our jokes, then I wish to proclaim, as a summary of Theo’s reach as a Jew, that he is the man who gets all the jokes and tells all the jokes. He relieves a certain Jewish loneliness. So here at YIVO you have chosen brilliantly: I can think of nobody who more richly deserves an award that extols Jewish heritage than this man, this universal Jew. It has been one of the privileges of my own life as a Jew to have been a Jew together with him on this cruel and beautiful earth.
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Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kaddish.