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On Theodore Bikel’s Bukovinian Roots

A factual error—and subsequent correction—in the folk singer’s New York Times obituary raises questions about the far-too-often lumped together identities of Jewish immigrants

Lara Rabinovitch
July 30, 2015

When Theodore Bikel passed away last week, the New York Times ran an obituary that stated Bikel’s family was from Bukovina, a region described as part of “Romania and Russia.” The Times subsequently corrected this factual mistake about the entertainment giant’s origins after I reached out to them.

In fact, over the twentieth century, Bukovina changed hands several times. From 1775 to 1918 the region was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and prior to that, Bukovina was part of the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, Greater Romania annexed the region until World War II, when Bukovina was variously occupied by the Soviets and the Romanians/Axis Powers. In the postwar period, Bukovina was divided into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and Romania. It’s so complex a region that the Times even corrected its own correction. On July 23, the correction read “[Bukovina] has at different times been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania and Ukraine—not of Romania and Russia.” Yet by July 25 the correction read, “One of the countries of which [Bukovina] has historically been a part is Ukraine, not Russia.” While the significance of the difference between Ukraine and Russia is obvious—especially in today’s climate—the error about Bukovina (and its corrections) is also cause for further discussion.

Bikel was born in Vienna, however his parents were from Bukovina and he identified his roots as much. In a January interview on Bikel said: “People ask me: ‘Where are your people from?’ And I say: ‘Bukovina.’ And they say: ‘Where is that?’ And I say: ‘Okay, used to be Russia. When my parents were born, it was Greater Austria. In 1919, it became Romania. In 1946, it became Russia again. And now it’s Ukraine.” And they say: ‘Oh, you moved a lot.’”

Of course, Bikel played one of the most famous Russian Jews of all time. It’s even possible The Times made the error in part because of Bikel’s acting virtuosity. But I believe the mistake is owing to a wider cultural conflation of “Russian” with all central and eastern European Jews.

Far too often Jewish immigrants and their descendants are lumped into a vague “Russian/Polish” mass, but the millions of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who arrived in the New World at the turn of the 20th century came from a vast geographical stretch, a land mass far larger than the United States, for example. They were Austrians, Germans, Czechoslovakians, Hungarians, Romanians, Polish, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Galicians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and many other emerging nationalisms both within the Russian Pale of Settlement and beyond. And yet, though we feel comfortable generalizing about our ancestors’ origins, we are also quick to point out not just the cultural differences between the northern and southern regions of this country, America, but even the specific neighborhood in Brooklyn in which we live.

All of which is to say, this issue of Bukovina isn’t just a question of “tomato” or “tomata.” Where Jewish immigrants came from affected who they were, where the settled, how they ate, dressed, worked, built families, and approached life in general. Mike Gold, the child of Romanian immigrants who wrote the 1930 book Jews Without Money, summarized New York’s immigrant population pithily: “Each block [on the Lower East Side] was a separate nation….”

It’s hard to say exactly how Bikel’s Bukovinian roots affected his life, however; But Russian he was not. Even when parts of the province were taken over by the Soviets in the 1940s, with the rest going to greater Romania and later Ukraine, Bikel’s family had long since left not just Bukovina, but the entire continent. But more than that, Bukovina was a crossroads of Europe—Jews from Bukovina often spoke multiple languages (Bikel spoke twenty-one of them). And likely because those Jews lived among ethnic Ukrainians, Germans, Gypsies, Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians, they frequently spoke of having multiple national affinities or at least complex awareness of that multiplicity. Let’s just say that in Bukovina it wasn’t just two Jews, three opinions; it was two Jews, five countries.

In other words, Bikel may have played a Russian Jew and a multitude of other roles so convincing precisely because he was not Russian. On some level we might even attribute his acting versatility to his diverse Bukovinian background. Given how much Tevye alone has influenced our historical perception of Russian Jewish life, it’s a point worth fighting for.

Lara Rabinovitch received her PhD from New York University in 2012 and is a specialist in food culture and history. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is a writer and producer.