The City of Light

Theodore Bikel, Aimee Gins­burg Bikel, Noah Phillips (illus.)

  • Review
By – February 3, 2020

Theodore Bikel (19242015) embod­ied twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ry to such a degree that Aimee Gins­burg Bikel’s intro­duc­tion to her late hus­band in the book’s fore­word seems a mov­ing under­state­ment, If you ask your grand­par­ents or maybe even your par­ents about him, they’ll prob­a­bly say they saw him on TV, in the movies, or in the the­ater, and maybe they heard some of his records.” Gins­burg Bikel has trans­formed a short sto­ry which Bikel had writ­ten about his child­hood in pre-war Vien­na, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Moment Mag­a­zine, into a children’s pic­ture book. The result is an unusu­al com­bi­na­tion of mem­o­ry, his­to­ry, and psy­cho­log­i­cal query which tran­scends the divide between books for young read­ers and those for adults. With del­i­cate car­toon-like draw­ings by Noah Phillips, as well as exten­sive back mat­ter which adds his­tor­i­cal con­text, The City of Light illu­mi­nates Bikel and his piv­otal gen­er­a­tion. The book encas­es the Jew­ish expe­ri­ences of per­se­cu­tion and sur­vival and the title reflects the mes­sage of Jew­ish self-deter­mi­na­tion com­mem­o­rat­ed by the fes­ti­val of Chanukah.

Gins­burg Bikel’s text alter­nates between reg­is­ters of lan­guage. Some words seem intend­ed to trans­late her husband’s child­hood into acces­si­ble words while oth­ers retain the per­spec­tive of an adult. For exam­ple, she refers to the boy” as he watched intel­lec­tu­als debate,” a phrase more con­sis­tent with a man look­ing back on his past. The nar­ra­tive also relates moments of unbear­able hor­ror, as when the young Bikel is beat­en by anti­se­mit­ic thugs, When he came home from school, bruised and bloody, his papa wept.” Few things could be more ter­ri­fy­ing to a child than the sight of a father reduced to pow­er­less­ness in the face of a child’s vic­tim­iza­tion. Nos­tal­gic evo­ca­tions of Vienna’s beau­ty and vibrant diverse Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty also reflect both the boy’s imme­di­ate impres­sions and his lat­er reflec­tions. He details the phys­i­cal beau­ty of the grand syn­a­gogue but also records his sense that the ner tamid (eter­nal light) must be the secret source of pow­er illu­mi­nat­ing his beloved city.” The pic­tures cap­ture the essence of the text through sim­ple lines and facial expres­sions, includ­ing one of a young boy look­ing up in won­der at this pow­er­ful lamp.

Bikel would become a not­ed actor, singer, and social activist, renowned for his work on the stage, in movies, and in the con­cert hall, includ­ing his inter­pre­ta­tions of Yid­dish folk and the­ater songs. As a Jew­ish child liv­ing under utter­ly degrad­ing con­di­tions, Bikel looked to the hero­ic mes­sage of Chanukah for sal­va­tion. Hav­ing endured anoth­er beat­ing at the hands of chil­dren trans­formed into mon­sters by the Nazi regime, he dreams of Judah Mac­cabee, tall and gold­en with great locks of long black hair.” This vision of an iden­ti­fi­ably Jew­ish fig­ure with the pow­er to redeem the Jew­ish peo­ple dis­ap­pears when he wakes to real­ize that there had been no Mac­cabean lib­er­a­tion.” Again, the text oper­ates on two lev­els. A lit­tle boy’s des­per­ate dream ends while his adult self ana­lyzes the loss of a nation­al vision.

Ulti­mate­ly, the war ends and Bikel’s hopes are real­ized. Toward the end of his life, he returns to Vien­na and per­forms his songs to a grate­ful audi­ence. In her After­word,” Gins­burg Bikel relates this event and affirms the opti­mism that char­ac­ter­ized her husband’s life. Yet The City of Light does not eas­i­ly resolve ques­tions about how he made sense of his child­hood or rec­on­ciled his progress from suf­fer­ing to lib­er­a­tion. Instead, this ambiva­lent mem­oir immers­es the read­er in a past world and only sug­gests how a young boy who lived its con­tra­dic­tions became Theodore Bikel.

The book includes a Yid­dish glos­sary, a recipe for hon­ey cake, and the lyrics and music to the song Lit­tle Can­dle Fires,” as well as an audio link.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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