Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In his short stories, Sholom Aleichem examines the life of Russian Jews, forced to live in the shtetls, from several different angles. Menachem-Mendl seeks to escape from traditional shtetl life by throwing himself into the pursuit of money, but this leads him nowhere. Menachem-Mendl’s wife, Sheine-Sheindl, remains in the shtetl, demanding that Menachem-Mendl return. Her life seems to be one long litany of woes. In the Menachem-Mendl letters, therefore, Aleichem seems to suggest that neither staying in the shtetl nor rejecting it for a life spent pursuing wealth will offer happiness.
The sympathetically presented Tevye offers another approach to the problem. He tries to balance traditional shtetl life with the forces of modernity represented by his independent-minded daughters. This approach does not work either, ending in death, separation, and expulsion.
Then there is Mottel, who exuberantly flees to America, embracing freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. Mottel, along with Pinye, reaches for more than just money in the manner of Menachem-Mendl; they seek a whole new way of life, and this approach seems to work. For Aleichem, it seems that the way out of the dilemma posed by the clash of tradition and modernity is to immigrate to America, where the Eastern European Jews can begin life anew.