By DARA HORN
TEVYE THE DAIRYMAN
And the Railroad Stories
By Sholem Aleichem.
Translated and with an introduction by Hillel Halkin.
310 pages. Schocken. $15.
Spring of 2002 was a challenging time to be a Jewish
student. The war in Israel was intensifying, anti-Israel sentiment was quickly
transforming into outright anti-Semitism. On campus anti-Israel protests and
petitions gathered steam, and you could feel the effects. I was about to start
my first academic job ever, as a teaching assistant in a college course in
modern Jewish literature. The first book on our reading list was Sholem
Aleichem’s Yiddish classic Tevye the
Dairyman, and I was scared to death.
Scared because I knew that no modern Jewish book has ever
been as widely misappropriated as Tevye
the Dairyman. The distortions of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on this work, have led countless
American Jews to think of Tevye as a typical, learned shtetl Jew whose battles
with his modern daughters represent the difficulty of maintaining (cue the
chorus) “Tradition.” As a result, many people with this passing familiarity
think that they know something about the Eastern European Jewish experience, or
about its greatest masterwork—specifically, that it is a sentimental portrayal
of a “shtetl” past.
But the book itself is nothing like its popular image. Most
American Jews would probably be shocked to learn that the original Tevye does
not live in a shtetl at all, but rather in a village so distant from any Jewish
community that in one early edition, we learn that he only goes to the nearest
town once a year to recite kaddish for his parents. Others would be alarmed to
hear that Tevye is no learned man, but a laborer whose rural life has left him
an ignoramus. Although he constantly quotes Jewish sources, he quotes only the
most obvious sources, and usually quotes them wrong.
But the most forgotten aspect of Tevye the Dairyman is also its most relevant for modern Jews, and
that is the way in which Tevye really
confronts “tradition”: not with sentimentalism, but with the power of the
biblical Job who challenges God for his undeserved suffering, even asking God,
“What was it, God, that you saw in old Job that you wouldn’t ever leave him
alone?” Through the book’s twenty years, Tevye endures no end of terrible
events, including, among other tragedies, one son-in-law’s premature death,
another’s imprisonment, a stock-market disaster, a daughter’s conversion to
Christianity, another daughter’s suicide, and the family’s expulsion from their
village. Did I mention that this book is a comedy? It is.
The laughs in the book don’t come from Tevye’s misfortunes,
but from the voice of Tevye himself, who recounts each undeserved catastrophe
with humor that can come only from a certain level of cultural comfort. Tevye
can misquote the Bible because he knows that his audience will get the jokes
(along with the many others he cracks), but he can also argue with God with
such intimacy that he could be joking with a friend—because, despite all his
suffering, Tevye knows that God will not abandon him. Tevye has his share of
bitter humor—after describing how one daughter leaves for Siberia, he famously
says, “You know what, Mr. Sholem Aleichem? Let’s talk about something happier:
what’s the news about the cholera epidemic in Odessa?”—But even when he rails
against God, he knows that “God doesn’t tell a man what He thinks, and a Jew
better believe that He knows what He’s up to.” As Tevye bids Sholem Aleichem
farewell at the end of the final episode, he says, “Tell our fellow Jews not to
worry: our old God lives!”
While Tevye is
entertaining, it is—with its endless reference to Jewish sources—by no means an
“easy read.” Nonetheless, Tevye
emerged as a class favorite. Many found it hilarious; others finished reading
and wanted to cry. Some even told me that they were personally inspired by
Tevye’s unflagging faith and humor, and that they had adopted him as a model as
they faced their own private tragedies.
After the Passover attacks in Israel and Israeli
retaliations, and as campus anti-Israel sentiment became more intense than
ever, many of my students drew more and more upon their reading of Tevye. In their essays, exams and
comments in class, they referred to Tevye as a model for the Jewish
people—because of his talent for “rolling with the punches,” because of his
reservoir of inner strength, and because of his unique ability, woven from
modern irony and sacred text, to forge meaning out of the absurdity that is so
often the Jewish condition. In navigating a new world where being Jewish or
even American can mean being a living target, Tevye, whose world was no less
absurd, became their guide. Quoting the Mishnah, a Rabbinic text, Tevye often
said, “You live regardless of your own
will.” Tevye’s “translation”? “A person’s life is never pointless.”
This is a “usable past”: not the kitsch to which the Eastern
European Jewish experience is reduced to this day, not the songs of
“Tradition!” but the actual content of that tradition—the strength drawn from a
bottomless well of texts that can sate a thirsty soul, and the intimacy with
holiness that allows us to confront God in our darkest moments, unafraid to
remember that our old God lives, and laughs.
Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where
birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.