Tevye the Dairyman is a collection of eight stories published by the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem between 1894 and 1914. The first Tevye story appeared in the Warsaw yearbook Der Hoyzfraynt. A fragment titled “Vekhalaklakoys,” written in 1914 and published shortly before the author’s death in 1916, deals with Tevye but is generally not included in the list of the Tevye stories. The collection Tevye’s Daughters was published in 1949; it contains the eight Tevye stories. Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad Stories was published in 1987. Tevye the Dairyman is considered by some to be a loose, episodic novel about the changes that were overwhelming Eastern European Jewish life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Tevye recounts his gradual loss of control over his family, his continued questioning of God’s motives, and the appropriation of his community and livelihood by forces beyond his control. The stories are the basis for the popular stage musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964; the title comes not from Sholom Aleichem but from a Marc Chagall painting). While many are familiar with Tevye through the theatrical version, Tevye the Dairyman is of greater depth.
The stories are purportedly verbatim reportage of personal anecdotes and reflections that Tevye shares with the author in occasional meetings through the years. The tone is conversational and familiar, and Tevye often refers to the place, time, and circumstances of meeting. In an ironic twist, Tevye often pleads with Sholom Aleichem that the intimate details of his life not be published to the world.
The first story, “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” is a genial tale in which a good deed reaps the humble dairyman wealth beyond imagination. Returning to his village of Kasrilevke from a round of deliveries to Boiberik, where the rich Jews from Yehupetz summer in their dachas, Tevye meets two wealthy Jewish women who engage him to drive them home. Once arrived, the women and their families thank Tevye with a generous tip and a cartload of food. He rushes home to his wife Golde and they ponder how to enjoy their newfound riches.
The story introduces many of the elements that mark the entire collection. Tevye’s mode of expression is painstakingly circuitous; he constantly digresses to philosophize or to quote, and in many cases misquote, Jewish scripture and wisdom. He is a master of oxymoron and paradox, as when he says, “He’s only human too, don’t you think, or why else would God have made him a horse?” He is also adept at hyperbole, as in “The shadows of the trees were as long as the exile of the Jews.” Tevye is defined by his spiraling thought process and wry speech.
At each turn, whether dealing with the women or his horse or his wife, Tevye is endearingly skeptical and ornery. His contempt for the upper classes is evident, yet he fawns when there is money to be made; his is an odd mix of acceptance and opportunism. His thoughts never stray long from metaphysics, for Tevye is a traditional Jew, constantly searching for God’s wisdom in the slightest twist of fortune. He is often more apt to curse than to thank his creator, but Tevye’s faith is firm. He knows that there is divine wisdom he cannot understand, and that the best he can do with his miserable lot is to accept it with a modicum of good cheer.
In the second story, “The Bubble Bursts,” Tevye loses the small fortune he gained by foolishly trusting it to the speculating care of his cousin Menachem Mendl. Menachem takes a hundred rubles, promising to turn it into thousands, and then disappears. After being admonished by his wife, “Tevye . . . don’t just stand there doing nothing. Think!” Tevye sets off to Yehupetz in search of Menachem. When Tevye finally finds him, after some small adventures, he learns that his cousin lost all the money. In the end, Tevye interprets his bad luck as a confirmation from God of his place in the great scheme of things.
The first two stories trace equal motions, one forward and one backward. In the next stories, the emotional heart of Tevye the Dairyman comes into focus. Tevye has seven daughters. (In some of the stories, the number is unclear. Scholars speculate that...