(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like the collection of Menachem-Mendl’s letters, the stories in Tevye the Dairyman were originally published separately and then collected and published in book form. The stories are all monologues, in which Tevye is supposedly addressing Sholom Aleichem himself, and in them Tevye presents himself as a folksy philosopher, frequently quoting the Bible and other religious texts, although his references are always connected to the concerns of everyday life.

The first Tevye episode is the sunniest, as indicated by its title, “Dos groyse Gevins” (“Tevye Strikes It Rich”; also translated as “The Jackpot”), in which an impoverished Tevye goes into the dairy business by pure happenstance. He offers a ride to two women lost in the forest and as a reward receives money and a cow. This almost magical encounter makes Tevye and his wife, Golde, happy, and when he speaks about it eight or nine years later, Tevye is able to be philosophical about his earlier poverty. It is all up to God, he says; the main thing is to work hard, have confidence, and leave things to God. Throughout the stories, Tevye talks about God in a familiar way; he even seems to be mocking Him at times, as when he says that in his days of poverty his family went hungry three times a day with God’s help.

Still, in this first episode Tevye seems happy in his faith, something that will change in the later episodes, in which Tevye suffers tragedy after tragedy and begins to compare himself to the biblical Job. Like Job, he demands an explanation from God and also seems to lose his faith. However, in the earlier episodes he is still cheerful, even when he loses money through a foolish partnership with Menachem-Mendl. Man plans and God laughs, says Tevye, but not bitterly, more philosophically.


(The entire section is 739 words.)