As a teenager and a budding musician, I listened endlessly to his Elektra recordings of Israeli music, Yiddish folk tunes and Yiddish theater songs — memorizing every lyric, chord change and his unique interpretive nuance of every song. Many households owned the original cast recording of "The Sound of Music," on which Bikel is heard creating the role of Baron von Trapp.
And countless theater-goers have seen his portrayal of Tevye in one of the more than 2,000 performances of "Fiddler on the Roof," and as "Zorba."
Bikel recently presented a solo concert for Theatre Ariel at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall. The event honored Jewish community leader Adena Potok.
So, how does he keep himself fresh performing so many different styles?
Replied Bikel: "You keep yourself fresh precisely by doing a lot of things!"
'Freshness of Approach'
As a stage actor, he explained, you keep "alive" by conceiving of each performance as the only time you'll be reciting those particular lines. As a singer, Bikel always attempts a "freshness of approach."
His Jewish career has paralleled his secular work, and he has always sung Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino songs in his concerts and recordings.
"I consider myself a 'cultural' Jew, and I am a champion for Hebrew and, especially, Yiddish."
In recent years, Bikel has sung at numerous worldwide klezmer festivals, including one this past summer in Krakow, Poland. Yet he has mixed feelings about it all.
"The klezmer revival has become a path for young Jews to reconnect with their Jewish roots. It is an important development as a 'quick fix,' but once one re-enters Jewish life, one has to connect to language and texts. I am not comfortable with things easily acquired," he said.
A longtime champion of Israeli folk music, he has equally strong opinions about the rapid growth of the pop musical styles in Israel that have now made its sounds virtually indistinguishable from the West.
Bikel continues to perform many timeless Israeli classics in his concert programs.
His most recent recording is a collaborative effort with Chazzan Alberto Mizrahi called "Our Song" — a blend of Ashkenazic and Sephardic duets.
Bikel performs together with Tamara Brooks, known to Philadelphia audiences as the former conductor of the Mendelssohn Club, as well as director of choral activities at Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges. Brooks played piano for Bikel at his Theatre Ariel appearance.
I told Bikel that my sons' recollection of him is from his role as the adoptive earth father of the Klingon Worf on "Star Trek, the Next Generation."
He chuckled at that, and gladly accepted the view of the parenting skills of the lonely alien as reflective of his strong European Jewish upbringing.