Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Fyvush

There are certain entertainers who are known by their first name, such as Matisyahu, Madonna, Cher, Eminem etc. Others are known by their first name, despite widespread knowledge of their last name, such as Elvis, Oprah, Lebron and Beyonce. ‘Fyvush” would fall under this category.

Philip Finkel, Fyvush in Yiddish, was born in his parents’ home on October 9, 1922 in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Harry, or Tzvi Hersh, was a tailor from Warsaw; his mother, Mary, or Miriam, was a housewife from Minsk. Fyvush began his 35-year career in the Yiddish theater of the Lower East side of Manhattan at age 9. Simultaneously, he performed as a standup comedian in the so-called “Borscht Belt” of the Catskills Mountains, north of New York City.

In the early 1960s, with the Yiddish Theatre standing at the very precipice of its demise, Fyvush “crossed over” to performing uptown on Broadway. His first performance was in the role of “Mordcha” the bartender in the original production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Eventually he assumed the title role of “Tevye” in the traveling company.

While Finkel was naturally cast for Jewish roles, he played all kinds of characters throughout his theater, movie and TV career. In 1994, Fyvush won an Emmy award for his portrayal of Douglas Wambaugh, the public defender, on the CBS drama “Picket Fences” (1992-1996).

But he will always be remembered for his unrelenting love of Yiddish and the Yiddish theater. The New York Times wrote in his obituary: “In winter he traveled to Florida to bring his valise of routines to the beachfront condominiums. Fifteen condos in 10 days, he boasted to an interviewer. In summer, like a monarch butterfly, he fluttered north to the handful of surviving Catskills hotels, sampling the borscht when there was no longer a belt and delighting the hotel denizens with jokes many had heard more than once.”

Finkel was married to Trudi Lieberman from 1947 until her death in 2008 (61 years!). They had two sons: Ian and Elliot, both musicians. He died on August 14, 2016.

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