Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories Summary

Sholom Rabinowitz

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Over the course of his thirty-three-year writing career, Sholem Aleichem (born Sholem Rabinovich, 1859-1916) was adored by thousands of readers who combed Yiddish journals in search of his tales and crowded into halls to hear him read. Known to many Americans as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” this skilled storyteller wrote insightful, inventive, and entertaining works that continue to interest readers today. Considered individually, his many short stories may be regarded as isolated sketches of Russian-Jewish life at the turn of the century; collectively, his narratives constitute an expansive portrait of life in the Pale of Settlement at a time when the Russian-Jewish community was subject to mounting pressures from both internal and external forces.

Although Tevye the dairyman gives voice to the concerns of many Jews of the era, his character is vividly individualized. Indeed, one of Sholem Aleichem’s many strengths lies in his ability to manipulate first-person narrative; in these stories, Tevye’s frequent allusions to Jewish texts, his heartfelt passions, and his personable manner of storytelling help make him a memorable character whose stories consistently touch the reader. Even those familiar with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF have much to gain from reading these tales, which offer much that was omitted from the Broadway production.

Like the Tevye stories, the twenty Railroad Stories are conveyed through a single narrative voice, in this case that of a commercial salesman who relates stories and experiences “collected” over his many years of riding the rails. The poignant melodramas, acute character studies, and shaggy dog stories in this collection further attest Sholem Aleichem’s wide-ranging narrative gifts.

The first in Schocken Books’ Library of Yiddish Classics, this volume brings together stories which have hitherto been much too difficult to locate. Hillel Halkin’s useful introduction outlines relevant historical information, explains his decisions as translator, and reveals much about the stories to follow; only occasionally do anachronistic phrases or unexplained terms interrupt the flow of his generally well-considered translation.