Teaching Tevye


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.