2014 recipient of the Theodore Bikel Award in Jewish Theatre
from Ari Roth
On December 8, 2014, nine days before my departure from Theater J, I gave a speech at the Embassy of the Czech Republic on behalf of Zelda Fichandler, as she accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award (or the Theodore Bikel Award in Jewish Theatre) from the Association for Jewish Theatre. Being Jewish meant a lot to Zelda, increasingly later in life, as she reflected on her origins and upbringing. Below is the speech she wrote, or dictated to her assistant.
December 8, 2014 talk from Zelda, preceded by a note to her assistant (bearing in mind, this was written by Zelda at age 89):
I told Ari on the phone the other day about the importance of Rabbi Simon in my early life, a man of a gentle wisdom, tenderness and empathy as he taught us of the history of the Jewish people, their displacements, wanderings, reattachments and their unique contribution to the cultures in which they landed. When he died, I was honored to be chosen to speak about him to the congregation.
I was 12, on the eve of basmitzvah, but I dropped away because the new rabbi was a different sort of man and I wasn’t able to transfer my loyalty and belief to him, to the hurt and displeasure of my parents. I recall this episode as my first recognized loss in my Jewish life and my first rebellion against authority.
At the same time, grammar school, starting at 5 or 6, was not easy for me. It was a time when being Jewish set one apart, whether that sense came from my own prediction or from the air of the times I wasn’t able to say. I rebelled at missing school for the Holidays. Being smart, I skipped certain grades and was the smallest and youngest in the class and released early, while others were kept in to complete their work. That system has been abandoned, thank goodness. Other girls had breasts, shoes with long stockings, and tentative flirtations with boys; I was the little left-out Jewish smartie. I never did learn long division, but I learned to be an outsider and to hide my feelings. I deeply longed to be someone else, and that was going to happen very soon. Just then, on a test I wrote that the word “famine” meant a mother and a father and usually two children, and the teachers, meaning no harm, laughed in a little knot in the hall, and I hid in the woods nearby in the cold, huddling against a tree, and the police found me. That feeling has never been purged – I can get there in a second – and I’m glad that’s so. I know how a lot of other people feel who are still smiling.
My grandparents emigrated from the shetles of Eastern Europe, at the turn of the 20th century, poor on arrival and poor thereafter. They settled in a small lower-class area near Chelsea, Mass. Making a living from a two-cow dairy business. My four uncles prayed each morning to my fascination with the shawls and beautiful sounds, before bottling and delivering the milk until time for to school. My zade was a Cohein led the prayers in the synagogue several times a day and so was exempt from labor! He taught me the Hebrew alphabet over the summers and I became quite fluent in Yiddish, which has faded, but I continue to love the language which has become accepted as a literary language. At an early age, a black family moved into the house attached to ours and I had my first recognition in my family of what felt in my stomach like I later learned the word bigotry. There was a special Yiddish word for black and it had a particular sound. Kids of 10 know everything, it just takes a while to learn the words.
I became confused about how people treat each other who are different than they are. I lost my confusion in good times and that changed my life. My uncle Eli, the youngest, who was my favorite, caught on with me.
Mommy and daddy and a Kosher household in D.C. Lovers until the end when he was only 48. A fragile woman, beautiful, a beautiful voice that went unknown, took a kind of shorthand that looked like the sculpted letters of the Hebrew alphabet – not Gregg that I learned in high school, not speed writing, but beautiful. She broke when he died and then recovered in the care of a Catholic priest at the Hartford Home for Living. He came to her welcome home party. “Don’t kiss any boys until you’re engaged.” “Love flies out the door when money goes out the window.” “Who is Pierre Pequin who wrote to you. It’s not a Jewish name!” But when the theatre opened she was so proud – “How nice that you have Negro people on the stage. You’re giving them a chance, that’s good.” Dad was a brilliant scientist and inventor and without teaching me, he taught me how to be a leader, how to hire only people who know more than you about something that’s important, don’t be afraid to risk it all on an idea. He took the first blind instrument flight and landing with instruments he invented and was never home after. I didn’t really know him but now, as older and wiser, I know him. A Right Wing Republican, a prince, a very religious, honest, caring man. We sat shiva when his father died and we covered the mirrors. Four hundred people to the dedication of a government building to him. They wept at my remarks and so did the governor. And mother saved my life. She sent me to the Rose Robison Cohen’s Workshop for children and I came alive at the showings for parents. I got the best monologues to recite and too many lead roles. I was the Pig in Pig and the Emperor and Helga in Helga and the White Peacock. I was ebullient. The piano teacher said I could be a professional if I chose but I didn’t choose that. But there were dark moods of self-doubt and loneliness and still are and I don’t think religion or no religion had anything to do with it. They just came and went. Come and go. Things happen. The world simply is. It’s arrogant to think that one is chosen for a life. I always loved words – iambic pentameter, free verse, plays, speeches, words to popular songs. I loved languages and could imitate the vowels and consonants almost perfectly. My husband said don’t be an actress, you think too much, do something else in the theatre. I believed him, I did that, we did it together. He was Jewish too, but like me respectful, interested but tangled up elsewhere. From a theatre family, his mother was an opera singer and his father a musical conductor. Rosee was very hurt he didn’t pass me by her before he said yes to my proposal after three months. I was 22. We built Arena Stage together; that wouldn’t have happened without him. He was perfect for me though I still missed my lost father.
Before marriage in my late teens, I saw an ad in the Washington Post on enrollment for a sixteen-week study course in contemporary Soviet Civilization and I jumped. Five hundred teachers, politicians, writers, historians were accepted. I was the youngest. I dropped out of George Washington University and borrowed the money and just after surgery, managed to make the Ithaca Hills. It changed my life and opened doorways to another life. Chekov in the original, EJ Simmons, his leading biographer in daily classes, Kazakevich on Marxism and the Soviet State, 4 hour language tutorials five times a week plus classes on Russian history, and Russian arts studies especially the plays and Russian theatre. A small number completed the course, it was so intense. My first important love affair with a German Jew, older than I, and the only letter I ever got from my father pleading with me not to go back to post-war Germany with him, still rife with Nazi-ism. I didn’t go. I chose my own language and the American Theatre. It seemed to be my destiny. I graduated from George Washington University Phi Beta Kappa. My thesis was Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, using only Russian sources slated for publication, I never followed through. And I have never forgotten, Guenteur Borg, a refugee at sixteen and his family murdered. He tempered my Marxism with more mature thinking and we truly loved each other.
I end the personal story with this: when I was 10 I entered a contest sponsored by a local newspaper for young people 10-15 on “what I wanted to be when I grow up.” I entered and won – the prize was $1.00, maybe $5.00. I said I wanted to be an actress, “not for fame or money, but to show the world how people behave and why they behave the way they do” and I never really changed that commitment, though, the idea of acting fell away with no loss to the world.
I am still Jewish in my own way. It is part of my story, but I feel that it is art that carries the old, old, definition of religion of a system of thought by which to enter and commit the world. Art releases the power of both the conscious and the subconscious and endures forever, acquiring new meaning as it ages. It remains the earliest definition of the creativity of man-kind.”