The BEST: Tevya the Dairyman

Na’amit Sturm Nagel  Featured Articles - Home, Online-only articles

Many pieces of Yiddish literature belong on this list, but the first one is Tevye the Dairyman, written by Solomon Rabinovich, known more widely by his pseudonym, Sholem Aleichem.

Summary: Many have seen “Fiddler on the Roof” and therefore think they know the milkman’s story, but it is an entirely different experience to meet the gregarious original Tevye, his no-nonsense wife, Golde, and their seven complex daughters in this colorful cycle of stories. The Yiddish style of writing, with its unreliable narrators, endless kvetching, and the characters’ intimate relationships with God and tradition, are on full display. The plot seemingly circles around the central question of how Tevye and Golde will marry off their seven daughters, but the real question Sholem Aleichem asks is, “How will this religious family living in a traditional community adapt to the changing times?” Yiddish authors, such as Sholom Aleichem, were sophisticated thinkers living in cities and writing their literature for both the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the shtetl, whose eyes they wanted to open to the world’s changing landscape,  as well as for those who had left the old world values behind  

Why this is The BEST: Sholem Aleichem’s stories manage to paradoxically balance laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy, tzores and simches. When Tevye watches his daughter, Hodl, leave to join her husband, knowing he will never see her again, he turns to the reader, saying, “And now let’s talk about more cheerful things. Tell me, what news is there about the cholera in Odessa?” In even the saddest moments of the story, Sholom Aleichem’s character warmly addresses the readers and challenges them to laugh. When Jews have historically faced struggles, they have built existential grit through laughter. Yiddish literature’s deep layers lie hidden in the underbelly of the jokes. Humor and tragedy are at the heart of so much of Jewish tradition, and Sholem Aleichem balances these two opposing forces beautifully. Tevye’s intimate bantering with God can also remind readers that sometimes the best conversations with God happen when you are fighting. In his writing, God is not distant and removed, but he lives amongst the people of Boyberik and, though he does not have a speaking role, he is one of the central characters of the text.

Perhaps the most precious aspect of reading Sholom Aleichem is the intimate relationship the author creates between the characters, the author, and the reader. When Tevye describes his daughters he says, “Ah, these daughters of mine! They don’t do anything halfway. When they become involved in anything it’s with their hearts and minds, their bodies and souls.” Here the reader sees Tevye’s daughter’s personalities are not so different from his own, or the writing style of the author; these stories were written with so much love and devotion to the characters. The line strategically blurs between the character of Tevye, the character of Sholem Aleichem (who serves as Tevya’s “audience”), and the author, Solomon Rabinovich. Similarly, while reading the book the line between the town of Boyberik and many of the modern American “shtetls” we live in sometimes seems nonexistent.  The stereotypes do not always hold in the 21st century, since so much is differentin our contemporary family and communal structures, and Jewish children do not all choose to abandon pieces of their heritage. Yet, we can still recognize the complex roots of modern Jewish marriage and family life in Sholem Aleichem’s 19th and early 20th century portrayals, and can learn much from the instructive ways Tevye laughs through his tears.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel is an English Teacher at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California, and the Associate Director of The Shalhevet Institute.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on November 5, 2020]

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