Tevye the Dairyman, Sholem Aleichem

Most people think they know Tevye the Dairyman from Sholem Aleichem’s stories. But they probably don’t. What most of us remember is the character Tevye from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and we probably remember either Zero Mostel of Chaim Topol in the starring role. But this is not actually the Tevye of Aleichem’s stories.

In the musical, and in the movie, we get to know a pleasant, if worn down fellow, one who’s trying to make a living, to support his wife and five daughters. He’s warm and friendly, and generous and kind. However, the character we see on stage is actually an amalgam of Tevye’s better points. A softening and an improving of the character that Sholom Aleichem actually wrote about.

I highly recommend a good translation of the collected stories about Tevye the Dairyman, from whithersoever you can obtain one. I recommend the volume Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son, translated by Aliza Shevrin and published by Penguin.

Tevye, as written by his author, is not the same pleasant person we know from popular culture. While he does embody the same mixture of comedy and tragedy, he is far less friendly, and far more self-important. Tevye thinks very highly of his own scholarship, which, one sees over time, is the kind of intellectual pride that a child, or a fool who has learnt a few things and now thinks of himself as a Great Thinker. Whenever someone tries to engage Tevye in conversation, he responds with partial quotes from the Torah and the commentaries, as he thinks apropos to the situation. He evades queries with queries of his own, and often tries to build himself up in the eyes of his interlocutors, that they, too, might come to see how clever and learned Tevye is. This attitude just as often frustrates and angers those trying to talk to him. Even a simple “Hello!” can be an occasion for Tevye to show off his “scholarship.”

He is almost misogynistic, and he is also inordinately proud of his seven daughters, taking opportunity to boast of their beauty, their intelligence, and their boldness of spirit. Yet because of his own intellectual vanity, he seems unable to really connect intimately with his family as he might like. It’s as if he is so busy pretending to be what he is not, that he never understands how to simply be who he is. He has an unshakable confidence in himself, and although he is hard working, he does not believe that he can ever really improve his lot in life. For Tevye, success is not influenced by one’s own efforts, but all is left in the hands of HaShem.

In the books, Tevye has seven daughters, as opposed to the five mentioned in the play. And their stories, though similar, are not nearly so happy. While Tzeitl does get to marry Motl Kamzoyl, and has several children with him, he dies of tuberculosis, leaving Tzeitl a widow who returns to live with Tevye. Hodl does run off with Fefferl—Perchik—but the books do not fully tell what Perchik has been up to. While the movie, especially, portrays Perchik as a communist revolutionary who wants to improve life for all men, the books only allow us to see through Tevye’s eyes, and with his understanding. Or lack of it. And Tevye’s shtetl mindset cannot conceive of the wider world as his children see it. Yet, he likes Perchik because he can have arguments with him, and as in the play, Tevye sees Hodl off when she goes to him in Siberia.

Chava does fall in love with a gentile and marries him. But it Tevye finds out from the priest himself, without Golde’s intermediating. We see that the priest and Tevye have a longstanding relationship in which they discuss theology, and the priest regularly tries to convert Tevye, being somewhat fond of him (even if he is a Jew). When Tevye is informed of Chava’s fate, it seems as if she had been taken away by the gentiles of the village. And later, when Tevye, on his way home from making his dairy run to the neighboring town of Yehuppetz, sees Chava on the road, trying to explain to him, he stops his ears and runs, believing that the Devil was whispering in his ear, trying to play on his natural affection for his daughter.

Shprintze becomes enamored of a local fellow, a wealthy young wastrel, and he falls in love with her. Later on, Tevye is summoned by the boy’s uncle, who tries to buy him off. As it turns out, the boy’s family didn’t want their heir to marry, or be associated with, the daughter of a lowly dairyman. Shprintze drowns herself. And there is even some question, given the situation, as to whether or not she might have been pregnant.

Beilke allows herself to be married off to a wealthy boor, because she wants to be able to help her father and sisters as the wife of a rich man. Eventually, however, the money runs out, and Beilke and her husband flee to America to make a living.

In the end, the pogroms come to Tevye’s village, and he must leave. His wife Golde has already died, and he goes with Tzeitl and her children, and (although it is left unclear) Chava, who returns, because she would share her people’s fate.

The stories are memorable, and charming, and wonderful, as only Sholem Aleichem can write. But the character Tevye is certainly not who we think of nowadays.

I strongly urge you to read the stories and tales of Tevye the Dairyman.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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