Wednesday, February 11, 2009

You can't stop loving your children just because they're nothing but trouble - the great Tevye the Dairyman

I want to write about - no, advocate - Tevye the Dairyman (1910, sort of). It's so good I won't be able to do it justice. It's the best Yiddish book I've read as part of my project, and the best I expect to read. At his best, Sholem Aleichem is as good as Isaac Bashevis Singer at his best, and Singer is as good as anyone. So.

Tevye the Dairyman is an enormously likeable book, mostly because Tevye the dairyman is such a likeable character. The book's eight stories are all monologues, just Tevye talking to Sholem Aleichem, catching him up on the latest news. The news mostly involves Tevye's daughters.

Let's have some Tevye, the beginning of the story of daughter #3, "Chava", p. 69:

"Hoydu lashem ki toyv - whatever God does is for the best. That is, it had better be, because try changing it if you don't like it! I was once like that myself; I stuck my nose into this, into that, until I realized I was wasting my time, threw up my hands, and said, Tevye, what a big fool you a re! You're not going to remake the world... The good lord gave us tsa'ar gidul bonim, which means in plain language that you can't stop loving your children just because they're nothing but trouble. If my daughter Tsaytl, for example, went and fell for a tailor named Motl Komzoyl, was that any reason to be upset?... Ask her about it and she'll tell you that life couldn't be better. In fact, there's only one problem, which is that her children are starving."

There's a lot here that's typical. Tevye is always in fine spirits, joking around, even when recounting his sorrows, some of which are actually pretty sad. And he argues with God, as in the very beginning of the passage. Subtly, quietly, maybe. Comically, sure. Much of the heft of the book lies in Tevye's - what would you call it - his skepticism and doubt, the skepticism of a believer.

He also uses Hebrew quotations, incessantly - tsa'ar gidul bonim, for example, means "the sorrows of child raising." Sometimes the quotations are accurate, and other times they're mangled in various meaningful ways. The reader will have to decide how often to check the translations in the endnotes. Occasionally, I recommend. If you become irritated with them, you'll fit right in with the other characters, who are constantly telling him to cut it out.

Here's Tevye with his daughter Chava, who has gotten to know a Russian fellow a little too well:

"'Since when are you and he on such talking terms?' I ask.

'Oh,' she says, 'we've known each other for a while.'

'Congratulations!' I say. 'You've found yourself a fine friend.'

'Do you know him, then?' she says. 'Do you know who he is?'

'Not exactly,' I says, 'because I haven't read up on his family tree yet, but that doesn't keep me from seeing what a blue blood he is. In fact, if his father isn't a drunk, he may even be a swineherd or a handyman.'

Do you know what my Chava says to me? 'I have no idea who his father is. I'm only interested in individuals.'" ("Chava", p. 71)

This is the secret of Tevye's appeal, actually, and part of his tragedy. His daughter is just repeating her father's own beliefs. Tevye is also interested in individuals. The stories of the other daughters also parallel Tevye's own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes this works out well, sometimes not so much.

What a rich character, and all in eight stories, 130 pages. But that's a strength of a good monologue: every joke, every metaphor, every inadvertent revelation tells us something. the time we spend with the character is intensified.

Maybe I should mention that Tevye the Dairyman is the source for Fiddler on the Roof, which uses four of the eight stories. Maybe I should also say that there is no fiddler in the book. That image comes from Marc Chagall's paintings, which certainly fit with Sholem Aleichem's world, so no harm done.

All references to Hillel Halkin's translation, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, which has, on the cover, a picture of a fiddler, on a roof.


  1. Right, so if I mentioned that I've been dying to read this for ages now, this post just made me want to read it even more... I think I have an edition of the book in Yiddish somewhere (probably in a box in the basement), but my Yiddish isn't quite up to that level. Yet. Still, next library stop, this is jumping straight to the top of my list. I'm not a huge fan of Singer (he's good, but I had to study some of his short stories once and my teacher butchered it...) so the comparison isn't thrilling me (the plot is, though!), but if you so heartily recommend I read all about Tevye, I must comply.

  2. Sounds like one I should read---and since I love "wise ol' sayings" it will be especially interesting to me.

  3. C'mon, fight back against the bad teachers! The teacher who does damage to "Gimpel the Fool" or "The Spinoza of Market Street" should hand in his license.