Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son

Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Friday, June 18


For the 150th anniversary of the birth of the "Jewish Mark Twain,"a new translation of his most famous works

Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son are the most celebrated characters in all of Jewish fiction. Tevye is the lovable, Bible-quoting father of seven daughters, a modern Job whose wisdom, humor, and resilience inspired the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof. And Motl is the spirited and mischievous nine-year-old boy who accompanies his family on a journey from their Russian shtetl to New York, and whose comical, poignant, and clear-eyed observations capture with remarkable insight the struggles and hopes and triumphs of Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the twentieth century.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143105602
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/27/2009
Series: Penguin Classics Series
Edition description: New
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 216,577
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sholem Aleichem is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature. Born in Russia, he fled the pogroms and immigrated to New York in 1905.

Aliza Shevrin is the foremost translator of Sholem Aleichem, having translated eight other volumes of his fiction. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page














MOTL THE CANTOR’S SONWritings of an Orphan Boy

PART ONE - Home in Kasrilevka

PART TWO - In America



SHOLEM ALEICHEM is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature and the creator of the famous Tevye character in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. His hundreds of short stories, plays, novels, poems, and feuilletons are still read, studied, produced, and translated all over the world.

Born in a small town in Ukraine, he began writing in Hebrew at an early age and first supported himself as a teacher of Russian. He also worked as a government rabbi, a clerk, and a businessman-speculator. He married the daughter of a wealthy landowner, upon whose death he became the administrator of her family’s large estate in Kiev. He turned to writing Yiddish fiction in 1883 and encouraged a number of Jewish writers, who were writing in Hebrew, to write in Yiddish as well, offering to publish their work as an incentive.

After the 1905 pogrom in Kiev, Sholem Aleichem and his large family left Russia, seeking refuge in Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, and America. He returned to Europe a year later, making personal appearances to great acclaim, but in 1914, at the start of World War I, he settled in New York, where his wit and writings caused some to call him the “Jewish Mark Twain.” He died two years later after a long illness, writing until his last day. His funeral procession was witnessed by one hundred thousand mourners.

ALIZA SHEVRIN is the foremost translator of Sholem Aleichem, having translated eight other volumes of his fiction as well as novels and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and I. L. Peretz. The daughter of a rabbi, she grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Brooklyn and attended Farband Yiddish schools until the age of fifteen. She holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Cornell University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas. The recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to preserve Yiddish works by rendering them into English, she has also been a visiting scholar at the Rockefeller-Bellagio Study Center in Italy, where she translated Sholem Aleichem’s novel In the Storm. She lives with her husband in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

DAN MIRON is William Kay Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of A Traveler Disguised.


Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This translation first published in Penguin Books 2009

All rights reserved

PUBLISHER’S NOTE This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916. [Tevye der milkhiker. English]

Tevye the dairyman : and Motl the cantor’s son / Sholem Aleichem; translated by Aliza Shevrin; introduction by Dan Miron. p. cm.—(Penguin classics)

eISBN : 978-1-101-02214-6

1. Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916—Translations into English. I. Shevrin, Aliza. II. Miron, Dan. III. Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916. Motel Peysi dem hazens. English. IV. Title. V. Title: Motl, the cantor’s son. PJ5129.R2T’.133—dc22 2008028578

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

For my family, with love:


Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), born in the Ukrainian regional center of Peryeslav but raised throughout his childhood in the tiny village of Voronkov (where he was steeped in the ambience of the eastern European Jewish hamlet, the shtetl), first received a traditional Jewish cheder (primary school) education. Then, the family having moved back to Peryeslav, he attended a Russian high school—his father’s partial exposure to modernity (as a follower of the Hebrew Enlightenment) made this possible. Thus he amassed Jewish booklore, was fully proficient as a Hebraist, and was inspired by modern Russian literature and liberal ideals. A scion of the old-style Jewish middle class (the family’s business was the cutting and shipping of timber)—which, under the circumstances of the relatively advanced capitalism in Russia of the late nineteenth century, came down in the world—he was motivated since childhood by two dreams: to become fabulously rich and to become a famous Jewish writer who would elevate Jewish literature to the level of its Russian counterpart. The former dream sent him to the stock exchanges of Kiev and Odessa, where he squandered the considerable wealth of his in-laws, the Loyev family. (That fiasco engendered his first literary masterpiece, an epistolary story based on the correspondence of the misguided speculator and broker Menachem-Mendl and his wife Sheyne-Sheynd, which he started in 1892.) The second dream he managed, to a considerable extent, to realize.

Initially Rabinovitch intended to become either a Russian or a Hebrew writer. (He would try both options with scant success.) But in 1883 he “bumped,” as if by accident, into Yiddish, the spoken language of eastern European Jews, and soon became obsessed with the meshugas, the dizzying idiomatic energy of that language as a writing tool. No one else was to tap the immense resources of Yiddish as he did, while endowing his entire corpus, no matter how varying and uneven the artistic level of its many hundreds of units (the twenty-eight volumes of his official collected edition barely cover half of his output), with unparalleled linguistic élan and unflagging rhythmic drive.

In the 1880s the use of Yiddish did not bestow upon a writer literary status, so the young author, driven by high ambitions, decided to gentrify and elevate it forthwith as the language of a respectable European literature. He proceeded to publish “thick” and very selective literary almanacs in the contemporary Russian format; launched a critical campaign against Yiddish Schund (trash) and for realism in Yiddish writing; and produced a series of realist novels that he dubbed “Jewish novels,” which tried to synthesize romance (considered an essential ingredient of the novel genre) and realities of the Jewish traditional milieu (where romance was not allowed to play an important role). In the process he managed to establish intimate contact with the then rapidly growing Yiddish reading public through the “funny” persona Sholem Aleichem (an absurd appellation meaning “how d’you do”). Comic, folksy personae were rife in Yiddish writing of the time, mediating between the semitraditional, barely educated reading public and modernist, “enlightened” authors. In this respect and in others Sholem Rabinovitch learned much from the practices of his mentor Sh. Y. Abramovitch and his persona Mendele the Book Peddler. However, Sholem Aleichem, crafted as a whimsical, clever, high-spirited, but quite unruly and unpredictable vagabond, caught the imagination of the readers as did no other persona. People fell in love with his jocular causerie and regarded him as a welcome guest. The success of the persona was such that Rabinovitch could not afford to part with it, and its features merged with the core of his literary-performative identity.

This was one reason that novel writing, in spite of the author’s high aspirations, never became his highest level of achievement. As a chatty, omniscient narrator, Sholem Aleichem rarely allowed for a sophisticated novelistic synthesis. Always aware of the limitations of the reading public, he simplified and overexplained his characters and their interactions and insisted on being entertaining even where the narrative hardly justified his intervention. His stories were far more subtle; in them, the characters were allowed to speak for themselves, and Sholem Aleichem was reduced to the role of a silent but omnipresent interlocutor, one whom the characters wished to impress, cajole, or even attack. Informed by this formula, the author created his chief masterpieces, Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman, started in 1894) foremost among them. Here and in a long series of brilliant monologues written between 1900 and 1910, Sholem Aleichem, having “regressed” from the novelistic synthesis to its “primitive” rudiments (monologue, letter), achieved the shimmering brilliance of a world-class master.

Following the failed revolution of 1905 and the subsequent pogroms, he decided to leave forever his Ukrainian homeland. He tried and failed to establish himself as a playwright in New York, then began a life of wandering in western and central Europe. In summer 1908 he collapsed with an attack of open pulmonary tuberculosis, which for some years bound him to sanatoria and southern winter resorts. The pace of his literary production, however, did not slacken. Moreover, his writing gained in depth and scope from an exposure to modernistic trends, particularly those of contemporary Russian “Silver Age” literature. Sholem Aleichem reassessed his views of men, women, and children and felt free to expose undercurrents of egotism, frustrated sexuality, and nihilism in his characters’ behavior. He also reassessed his earlier liberal and Zionist ideals and concluded that Jewish existence depended on making a shift from an idealistic eastern European culture to the materialism and hedonism he detected in the Jewish immigrant community in the United States. Motl Peyse dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son) was the masterpiece he produced during this phase of his development.

The outbreak of World War I caught him in Berlin as the subject of a hostile country; he thereupon managed, with great difficulties, to reach New York, where he attempted to resume his writing career. His health, however, was failing, and the bitter news that his son had succumbed to tuberculosis in Europe overwhelmed him. He died in May 1916 in New York, the most popular Yiddish writer ever. A large part of the eastern European Jewish community of the city came into the streets in a state of mourning comparable to that which would follow the death of Rudolph Valentino, the film star. Sholem Aleichem bequeathed to the Jewish world not only his literary works but also a universal recognition that the new American Jewish community was a resourceful sociopolitical entity with its own culture and a distinct role to play both in American affairs and in those of world Jewry.


I will speak, that I may find relief; I will open my lips and answer.

—JOB 32:20

For over a century Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman) has been universally acknowledged as Sholem Aleichem’s masterpiece. Endowed with a deep humanity, a delicate equilibrium between tragedy and comedy, and a vivacious comic narration, Tevye soars above the author’s other achievements, brilliant as they are. Its vitality is such that it has survived a score of translations of uneven quality and questionable fidelity; various stage adaptations (including one prepared by the author himself), which for ideological or commercial considerations wrenched the story’s heart out of its ribcage, crudely transmuting and obfuscating its meaning; and even a successful stage version as one of Broadway’s schmaltziest musicals, Fiddler on the Roof, which superimposed upon the popular imagination a Tevye figure—a diluted, semi-Judaized Zorba—that tenuously, if not accidentally, resembles Sholem Aleichem’s original creation no more than a beautified postcard resembles the reality of a foreign city. To withstand all this treatment, a work of art has to possess a formidable inner strength. Our task here is to point to the sources of that strength.

In the last century scholars and critics dwelled mainly on Tevye’s social and cultural implications or on the character of Tevye and his symbolic or archetypal significance. Both topics are, of course, of considerable importance, but neither yields a full understanding of the work’s unique qualities.

Its social and cultural significance is far-reaching. A historical panorama, the unfolding of which would normally necessitate the writing of a cycle of voluminous novels, is here squeezed into eight short novellas. The affairs of a provincial dairyman and the fortunes of his daughters become prisms that refract much of what is essential in the history of the Jews in the czarist empire during the last two turbulent decades of its existence. Because the eight tales were written intermittently, in each one the author was in a position to look at a different aspect of progressively endangered Jews living amid a hostile non-Jewish population and under a hostile autocratic regime. Starting with the rustic mock-idyll of Tevye’s “miraculous” deliverance from penury, the tales gradually shed light on wider historical arenas, pointing to realities that loom far beyond the protagonist’s provincial circumference: the revolutionary mood that swept the czarist empire in the first years of the twentieth century; the pogroms triggered by the failed 1905 revolution; the egotistic and hedonistic culture that emerged in the wake of the stillborn revolution, with its emphases on unbridled sexual gratification and the liberation of women from traditional restrictions on the one hand, and its epidemic of suicides on the other; the rise of a new Jewish plutocracy during the Russo-Japanese War; and finally the waves of vicious anti-Semitism that engulfed the Jewish population in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I, finding expression in the famous Beiliss blood-libel trial (1911-13) and the expulsion of Jews from the countryside. Thus the cycle, from its quasi-pastoral beginning to the pandemonium of its ending (where Tevye, once a rooted villager, roams as a homeless refugee by foot, cart, and train throughout Ukraine), is chock-full of historical vistas and sociocultural insights. But the greatness of Tevye does not inhere in this historical panorama. Sholem Aleichem’s narrative art, while making full use of the given milieu, transcends its sheer mimetic presentation. It is not as a historical pseudo-novel that Tevye carries this art to the ultimate realization of its aesthetic potential.

Nor does this realization occur through a presentation of Tevye as an archetypal hero, a folksy philosopher symbolizing Jewish fortitude and tenacity, able to hold on to life due to a well-balanced personality and an unbreakable bitokhn (confidence) in a divine providence. Tevye, as reflected in his monologues (all his tales are written in the form of dramatic monologues recited by himself for the benefit of the literary persona Sholem Aleichem, the silent but solidly present interlocutor), has nothing exemplary about him. In all aspects of his personality but one—his extraordinary talent as a raconteur—he is a deeply conventional, limited, and flawed person of his time and class. His vast respect for money and social status amply illustrates his conventionality, as does his disrespect for women and his nagging need to assert his male superiority. (“Tevye is not a woman” and “a woman remains no more than a woman” are his mantras, and he parades, in the most inappropriate situations, his Jewish “erudition”—book learning being in traditional Jewish society the exclusive prerogative of males.) Hardworking as he is, Tevye lacks faith in his ability to become affluent, leave the village, and join the traditional shtetl society, where he would be respected as a learned and generous philanthropist. Were he to achieve such goals at all, it should have been through the efforts of others; his beautiful daughters, through lucrative matches, were in a position to free their father from hard work, while a millionaire son-in-law might trust him with a well-paid job. But not for the life of him could Tevye understand how these successful others had achieved the power and riches he coveted. To him, self-improvement and will are divorced. Enterprise, acumen, courage, and practical cleverness never count as means of self-elevation, for which only sheer luck or the unfathomable will of God is responsible.

From the very beginning of the first tale, Tevye sticks to the formula: man cannot improve his lot by his own volition or seykhel (cleverness). For all his piety and purported intimacy with God, his religious bitokhn, when examined closely, rarely amounts to more than fatalism or rather a passive acquiescence to “things as they are”; for if things are the way they are, it must be because God wanted them so. Tevye more than once compares his troubles with those of biblical Job, but the comparison is misleading; the Book of Job makes the point that one must question God’s ways and rebel against divine injustice if one is to retain active faith in Him. Tevye’s self-serving need to view himself as a latter-day Job (because he wishes to see himself, like the great biblical sufferer, not at all responsible for the disasters that befall him) is rooted in nothing like Job’s moral courage, let alone readiness for a confrontational (and therefore vital) I-Thou dialogue with God such as the Bible ascribes to such moral paragons as Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and Job. Indeed, Tevye’s position amounts to the very opposite of the courage and risk taking that Abraham displayed as he challenged God: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

The only domain where Tevye can be seen as “great” is that of narrative performance. What he inadvertently tells about himself as a husband and a father is far from appealing or morally acceptable. But the telling itself is nothing less than seductive, and the best proof is the critics’ (and readers’) love for Tevye, which blinds them to his many shortcomings. Tevye’s “greatness” belongs to the realm of the aesthetic rather than the moral or intellectual. The artistic brilliance of his tales emanates neither from his moral presence nor from the social background they unfold but rather from the narrative and rhetorical formula that is repeated from one tale to another, in which a loquacious Tevye endlessly talks to his ubiquitous interlocutor, Sholem Aleichem. Tevye der milkhiker, like many other creations of Sholem Aleichem’s, is above all a story of talking and listening and their complementary dynamics, of a nagging need for verbal self-exposure and the will to absorb what is told. Such verbal interaction rather than the tales’ content defines and prescribes the essence of Tevye’s reality, a rhetorical rather than a mimetic one. Whatever mimetic reality Tevye’s narrative conveys is, of course, interesting—indeed, it is riveting—but it is not half as real or fascinating as the talking itself, its meandering progression and changing rhythms.

Tevye knows how to make the best of a good story and takes great pleasure in doing so. No matter how tragic or even personally humiliating his stories may be, we can count on him to tell them as effectively as he possibly can. His impotence in the face of life’s vicissitudes never contaminates its dexterous and clever narrative articulation. On the contrary, the impotence is counterbalanced, and to a certain extent overcome, by plenipotentiary narration. As good raconteurs often do, Tevye tells the truth but not necessarily the whole or the exact truth, for no genuine storyteller would allow the facts to undermine the dramatic effect of his story. If one succumbs to the charm and warmth of the narration or accepts its confessional tonality at face value, the little discrepancies strewn all over the stories will help in maintaining one’s vigilance. Tevye skillfully manipulates the rhetoric of sincerity, but he is not always in full control of it, and when he momentarily slips, we have our chance to glimpse through the cracks in his mask.

Some discrepancies can be attributed to the fact that the tales were composed at different times and places.1 Others, by far more significant, cannot be explained away. For example: in “Shprintze,” the sixth and most tragic of the tales, Tevye tells of his daughter’s suicide by drowning after being seduced by a rich city boy (to whom she had been introduced by Tevye himself). Starting the woeful tale by describing how the strapping young man and his friends are invited by Tevye to his cottage, Tevye waxes lyrical about the beauty of the village in springtime, the magnificent canopy of the blue sky, and the pleasures of living in the lap of bountiful nature. (Even the cows, he says, smile as they chew their cuds in the meadow.) Yet he has told Sholem Aleichem often enough how distasteful is his life in the countryside and how fervently he wishes to move to a proper Jewish shtetl. “No,” he concludes, refuting an imaginary objection, “say what you will, I wouldn’t trade it for the best job in the town, I would not for the world swap places with you.”2 This, of course, does not hinder him from reverting a few pages later to his original pro-urban position. Once he starts fantasizing about his daughter marrying her affluent lover boy, he sees himself again in town, an important, well-to-do member of the community. What explains this blatant discrepancy? The inherent needs of the story itself. Tevye is about to tell a very painful tale, which he feels he has to organize aesthetically and morally around the binary oppositions of nature/civilization, innocence/moral irresponsibility, naïveté/cunning, village/city if it is to have its full impact. His daughter (and by inference himself as well) represents the virtues of nature, innocence, naïveté, and the village, whereas the seducing young man’s rich relatives stand for the corrupt civilization of city, money, and moral irresponsibility: Tevye and his daughter are the blameless rustic victims of heartless city predators. Ever the expert storyteller, Tevye knows that such a melodrama also minimizes, perhaps even obliterates, his own responsibility for orchestrating the disastrous meeting of the youngsters. (The boy’s uncle justifiably asks him what, as a reasonable man, he could have thought when he had brought the two together.)

Clearly we are permitted to characterize Tevye as an unreliable narrator. He manipulates the truth because he needs to charm his listener and buy his sympathy as a way to avert, or at least soften, the harsh judgment that his listener would otherwise pass on him. Tevye knows he has much to account for. He has never taken good care of his family, and he has let trouble run its full course without doing anything to stop it. More often than not he brings trouble on himself, exhibiting a strange pattern of self-defeating, passive-aggressive behavior, the origins of which he cannot fully gauge. In his second tale Tevye loses his meager savings by bringing home a distant relative, the irresponsible and unrealistic stock-exchange speculator Menachem-Mendl (the protagonist of Sholem Aleichem’s other chef d’oeuvres), and allows himself to be tempted by the charlatan’s wild promises of riches. How could he have made such a fool of himself, Tevye wonders, ascribing his silly behavior, as always, to God’s will: “If God wants to punish a person, he deprives him of his good sense.” This pattern reemerges in some of the other tales, and Tevye, unable to control it, keeps wondering, “What was at the root of this? Perhaps my innate gullibility, which makes me trust everybody?—But what am I to do, I ask you, if, in spite of everything, such is my nature?” Of course this behavior, which becomes progressively more self-destructive, is caused by more than sheer gullibility. Tevye never faces the fact that each of his mistakes corresponds to a need or desire of his: his craving for riches, the need for self-importance, his yearning for young men who either intellectually or even physically and erotically attract him, allowing him to fantasize about playing the role of father figure to them and unconsciously or semiconsciously transmitting to his daughters, who are very much attuned to their father’s secret wishes, his interest in these men, and when the daughters establish a connection with them, he savors their closeness, which he craves for himself. Tevye cannot know much about the workings of these underground motivations, but he still feels that somehow, by following his desires and fantasies, he has let down those who are closest and dearest to him.

By the same token, Tevye seems aware of the fact that he systematically evades people, particularly family members, when they urgently need his attention or help. Shprintze, realizing that she is about to bring shame on the heads of her parents, starts her downward slide toward lethal depression that will end in her self-destruction. By refusing to talk to her, Tevye reinforces her sense that her out-of-wedlock pregnancy is unacceptable. More commonly he pushes people away by talking to them in a manner that is both irrelevant and offensive. Much has been written about Tevye’s wit, his playful game of quoting and mistranslating the sacred texts.3 What has rarely been noticed, however, is how much of a defense mechanism his clever pseudo-scholarly discourse is, or how much aggression it releases. On the one hand, Tevye intentionally talks above the head of a certain kind of interlocutor (particularly the kind who has a social or financial advantage over him) in order to humiliate him. On the other hand, he is quick to hide behind his quotations and references as soon as a serious issue is to be discussed or a difficult decision made. When his wife, Golde, reminds him that they urgently need to marry off their older daughters, he responds by referring her to a series of midrashim (exegetical, narrative, and homiletic glosses appended to the sacred texts), whereupon Golde, only too familiar with his subterfuges, cuts him short, maintaining that “grown daughters are a good enough midrash in their own right.” After his daughter Chava’s elopement with her Gentile lover (which Tevye could have seen coming and might have prevented), he pounces on poor Golde: how could she, a mother, not have seen what was going on under her nose! And why did she not alert him in time? Once again, Golde’s answer is cutting: how and why would she tell him anything? “When one tells you something, you immediately respond with a biblical quotation. You buzz my head off with quotations and think you have done your share!” For a moment Tevye seems struck by the bitter truth of his wife’s rebuke, then takes shelter behind his habitual disrespect for women. “She has a point,” he thinks; he should not have blamed her, for “what does a woman understand?”

The most blatant example of Tevye’s strategy of shutting off reality with clever words is found in the opening section of the seventh tale, when Tevye tells about Golde’s last days. Golde, depressed, desperately sick, and aware of her impending death, was never properly taken care of. Tevye never thinks of seeking medical help for her. (When he finally does bring in a physician, she is already dead.) Instead he offers her some argument concerning God’s handling of the world’s affairs. Once again Golde stops him short and in a whisper puts to him a simple question, her ultimate response to his intentional obtuseness: “I am dying, Tevye; who will cook your dinner?” Never has our protagonist been so floored by such a direct, authentic, and devastating existential question. Never has the hollowness of his wit been so sweepingly exposed. But Tevye holds on for dear life to his quibbling—his only defense. As much as Golde’s words touch him, his response consists of a proverb, a biblical quotation, a midrash and yet another midrash. Under the circumstances, what is left for him to say? Throughout his life he has wrapped himself with this insulating stuff, and it’s too late to tear open his cocoon. Indeed, by tearing it open he probably would have exposed himself to the same withering radiation that killed Golde. Tevye has to go on talking, narrating, being clever and funny, quoting and playfully mistranslating. This is his hold on life, for what is he if not a Jewish Scheherazade, whose head will be cut off the morning after he loses his ability to charm and please through narrating?

Talking, however, does not altogether assuage his guilt. He divulges his sins halfheartedly, only when he can explain them as resulting from sheer naïveté. Other, graver sins, both of commission and of omission, he cannot afford to admit, but we can glimpse them in the narrative. For example, toward the end of “Shprintze” he suddenly puts to Sholem Aleichem an uncharacteristic question, which, he says, he has intended to ask his learned and worldly friend for some time: Why are the eyes of people who have died by drowning always open, whereas dead people’s eyes are usually shut? But Tevye does not wait for an answer—he cuts the conversation short and bolts. Both the unexpected question and the sudden haste hint at what Tevye was about to divulge, had he not caught himself. Haunted by the wide-open stare of his dead daughter as she was being fished out of the river, he was on the verge of acknowledging his guilt. His question was as clumsy as it was disingenuous: most people do not die with their eyes shut; rather, their eyes are shut to produce the semblance of sleep for the benefit of the mourners. But Tevye had seen his daughter before this could be done, and her horrible stare was burned into his memory.

For all his lighthearted prattling, Tevye is gnawed by guilt. But as a rule, when he talks about blows inflicted on the national collective, his mood immediately improves—indeed, it soars. No matter how many conventional expressions of sorrow he piles one upon the other (“What times we live in! What a miserable time to be a Jew!” etc.) or how many times he mentions the urgent need for the coming of the Messiah, he himself is in high spirits, and his dialogue with God, usually replete with bitterness and self-effacement, is for once spirited and upbeat, refreshingly free of sarcasm as well as servility. This changed tonality dominates “Lekh lekho,” Tevye’s last tale, the main topics of which are pogroms, the Beiliss blood-libel trial, and the expulsion of Jews from the villages. Here Tevye is more than self-controlled; he is actually relaxed and almost happy, even though the expulsion decree has reduced him to beggary and vagrancy.

How is this mood shift to be understood? It is an expression of Tevye’s elation at being relieved, if only temporarily, of his guilt. For once the disaster—of being expelled from one’s home and cut off from one’s source of income—is not one he brought upon himself and his family. Taking care of the nation’s fate is God’s business, and the onus is on Him. Being the victim rather than the culprit feels good; and besides, when hundreds of thousands are afflicted, one’s personal losses are somehow minimized and marginalized. “Tsores rabim khatsi nekhome!” (“The tribulation of the many is half consolation”), Tevye says with obvious satisfaction when he learns that he is not the only local Jew to be expelled, and that the powerful householders of the neighboring shtetl Anetevke will soon follow, since the authorities, in their unfathomable wisdom, are about to redefine small provincial towns as villages and thus apply the decree of expulsion to their Jewish inhabitants. In short, Tevye is happy because for once, with easy conscience, he can shift responsibility for his and his family’s undoing to something bigger than himself. The tale “Lekh lekho” offers a catharsis of sorts, and this immense relief brings the Tevye cycle to closure. In fact, if the Tevye-Job analogy is at all valid, it is not because Tevye resembles Job but because God answers his complaints as He answered Job’s—“out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1), the whirlwind or storm being national holocaust. Only through holocausts does God now speak to his chosen people and silence their complaints. In any case, Tevye, the obsessive talker, can be silenced, as Job was (“I repent in dust and ashes,” Job 42:6), because he has been purged, regaining through devastation a state of innocence.

If silencing Tevye signals the end of his story, then his talking constitutes the center. By obsessively verbalizing, he seeks to release the burden of his guilt and, in his roundabout and perhaps not entirely conscious way, inch toward a confession. Otherwise, why would Tevye seek the company of his “Pani Sholem Aleichem” in the wake of each disastrous event in his life?

Why does Tevye choose Sholem Aleichem as his father-confessor, and why does Sholem Aleichem acquiesce in playing that role, taking upon himself the responsibility of purging Tevye’s guilt and absolving him? The answer to both questions must be that Sholem Aleichem plays the role because he is a writer, a virtuoso storyteller, a man of words, a sublimator of real-life events into works of art. In short, Sholem Aleichem is chosen because he resembles Tevye, duplicating his behavior at a higher and more symbolic level. He can become Tevye’s alter ego—or his superego and as such have the authority to judge and absolve. Absolution is activated particularly through humor, since humor is the strategy (the narcissistic strategy, according to Freud) that the superego employs for the purpose of shrinking or minimizing the ego’s painful feelings of hurt and guilt.4

The foundations of this relationship between Tevye and his alter ego or superego are laid bare in Tevye’s first tale, and even more so in Tevye’s letter, which in the original 1894 version serves as its epilogue or appendix. (In the canonical editions it functions as a prologue to the entire cycle under the biblical title “Kotonti—I Am Unworthy,” a reference to Jacob’s humble acknowledgment of the mercies and goodwill shown to him by the angels in Genesis 32:10.) Ostensibly this is a mere thank-you letter for the author’s intention of putting Tevye in a book, an honor of which the dairyman deems himself unworthy. The letter contains, however, implicit background information as well as explicit statements that belie Tevye’s supposed gratefulness and humility. The most interesting is Tevye’s reference to the fact that his acquaintance with Sholem Aleichem goes back quite a few years. Tevye remembers those earlier contacts, although he’s not sure Sholem Aleichem remembers them, since the writer was a rich person in those years, who could afford a summerhouse in Boiberik (the suburb of Yehupetz-Kiev where most of Tevye’s customers reside and where the present meeting between the dairyman and the writer takes place), and Tevye can hardly expect a rich entrepreneur (who also dabbled in writing) to pay attention to a mere dairyman. Circumstances changed, however, once Sholem Aleichem’s fortunes took a dive (which they did in 1890), reducing him, now a writer eking out a living from his scribbling, to a position not unlike that of Tevye himself. Are they not on par as hardworking producers and suppliers of goods (dairy products, stories) who depend on the market and have to find buyers for their merchandise? Not that Tevye forgets the difference between a published author, who is by definition a learned person, and a rustic dairyman. He never fails to acknowledge this difference, to defer to his interlocutor in all matters pertaining to learning and erudition and to find other ways of giving him the ego-massage at which he is an expert (having practiced for years the art of keeping disgruntled customers pleased). Nevertheless, Tevye does not refrain from discreetly reminding Sholem Aleichem of the shrinkage in the social gap between them. For instance, at the end of the first tale he urges both himself and his interlocutor to go back to work and attend to their respective businesses, since neither is in a position to indulge in pleasant conversation for its own sake. Both have to go back to their means of production: “Ir tsu ayere bikhlekh, ikh tsu mayne teplekh un tsu mayne kriglekh . . .” (“You to your little books, I to my little pots and to my little jugs”). The list of three diminutives (bikhlekh, teplekh, kriglekh) conveys not only Tevye’s understanding of books as mere containers (like pots and jugs) into which one pours one’s verbal merchandise, but also his sense that he and his interlocutor are both small fry, people who, far from playing important roles in the world, offer the public items to which the language of diminution is applicable.

But why should Tevye tell Sholem Aleichem his story? What, under the changing circumstances, could be the purpose of the telling? It could be quasi commercial: Tevye’s story is something valuable that Sholem Aleichem might want to buy, or as he delicately puts it, “It’s worth your while, I swear, to listen to the entire story from beginning to end.” Sholem Aleichem, in his turn, could pay Tevye back with money or advertisement, or even more desirable, he could pay Tevye by listening to his stories, not only because they are fresh merchandise, grist for an author’s mill, but also because as a writer Sholem Aleichem cannot fail to be charmed by them and thus offer Tevye his needed self-exposure.

This need for self-exposure explains, more than anything else, Tevye’s motivation for bonding with the literary persona, a bond that becomes on both sides progressively stronger, more emotionally charged, and more complex. Sholem Aleichem initially presents Tevye as a type, a jolly character, one of the many that he makes fun of and regales his readers with, but he stops doing so by the second tale, moving ever-larger parts of his mental being into alignment with Tevye’s interiority. As the Hebrew writer J. H. Brenner aptly put it, Sholem Aleichem becomes “Tevye’s bard,” even his “stenographer de gracia dei,”5 taking dictation and adding to his protagonist’s flow of speech the amenities of felicitous écriture.

This symbiosis between two such different entities—a traditional, half-educated, provincial dairyman and the literary persona of a modern writer—may seem strange, but it actually is inevitable, at least as far as Tevye and his needs are concerned. Tevye understands instinctively that only an artist, perhaps a storyteller like himself, can serve as his confessor. What other figure of intellectual or moral authority could he turn to? A rabbi or a Chasidic saint would regard the way he has brought up his daughters as scandalous, for it contradicts the basic tenets of both the Halacha and the tradition. No God-fearing person would permit his unmarried daughters to become friendly with young men of questionable morals, including a Gentile—what can he expect for such a sin other than a terrible retribution? By the same token, blaming God for the consequences of one’s behavior amounts to the worst kind of blasphemy: Tevye should prostrate himself before God and dedicate the rest of his life to repentance—such would probably be the reaction of a traditional sage. Nor could Tevye expect a more positive reaction from a modern secularist or humanist, who would damn him for being passive, unable to fend for himself and protect his family; for evading his moral responsibilities; for shifting the burden of his failings onto an irrelevant God; for being deeply prejudiced against women; for being spiritually swaddled and mummified within an irrelevant textual cocoon; and so on. A moralist would point with derision to his craving for riches achieved through no effort of his own. A socialist would decry his respect for money, power, and social status. A Jewish scholar would laugh at his scholarly pretensions and pronounce him a fake, an ignoramus. In short, everybody but a Sholem Aleichem would regard him as blameworthy. Only a writer can accept him, even look up to him as towering above nondescript humanity through his inspired loquacity and riveting storytelling.

Besides, nobody but Sholem Aleichem would want to listen to Tevye. Even the people who surround him, almost without exception, are sick and tired of him, abhor his incessant talking, and stop listening at the first biblical verse or midrashic gloss. This is why he falls headlong in love with whoever does not immediately recoil from his discourse—like the young revolutionary Fefferl, whom he brings home and who will marry Tevye’s most beloved daughter, Hodl. Tevye will do almost anything for whoever will listen to him. So much more so for Sholem Aleichem, who savors every word he utters, understands the subversive irrelevance of his quotations, and appreciates the wit of his mistranslations. (Of course, almost all of Tevye’s mistakes are intentional and subversive, undermining, for the fun of it, the sacred sources to which he professes loyalty.) Such a listener is to him a heaven-sent boon.

But what is Tevye to Sholem Aleichem? For one thing, Sholem Aleichem does what any writer worth his salt would do: he sticks by his informant, the one who delivers first-rate stories. Sholem Aleichem also identifies with Tevye, with his pain and needs—he is himself a flawed person who seeks redemption in art, having squandered his in-laws’ estate and doomed a large family to a life of permanent financial difficulty. Most important, the persona Sholem Aleichem, as an artist and a thinker (who cogitates through narration, characters, and situations), accepts the impotence of the protagonists, their passivity, and their ability to hold on to life only through sheer endurance, inertia, and garrulity. These are to him the people who experience the human condition authentically. Suspending judgment, eschewing ideological fiats, and allowing his protagonists to advocate for themselves, Sholem Aleichem embraces the kind of people other writers satirize. He is never offended by their lies or self-delusions, which are to him as precious as any truth, being, under the circumstances, the only truths they can afford. Never demanding from them heroics of any kind, he suffers them to bombard their own consciousness and that of everybody around them with words. He accepts their bavardage as their talisman, their sole means of avoiding mental breakdown, and he makes brilliant artistic use of it—nowhere more brilliantly than in Tevye der milkhiker, where he first discovers this winning formula.

And what about us, the readers? We, too, in our capacity as consumers of the aesthetic, embrace Tevye, suspending our judgment and abiding by artistic rather than moral or practical criteria. Were we to live with a Tevye-like person, we would reject him as impossible. Had he tried, as he must, to impress us with his stories and clever quibbling, we would flee him as a pest. Who would want to listen to a Tevye? Fortunately, we do not have to endure Tevye in real life. That’s why we can love and look up to him—he is safely ensconced in a book. The same loquacity that in real life would turn us off acquires in the book the enticing quality of flowing honey, of which we cannot have enough. We are even willing to be hoodwinked by Tevye and say and write rather unwise things about the qualities he does not possess, for most of us still refuse to see where the greatness of Sholem Aleichem’s chief creation lies.

In Tevye der milkhiker Sholem Aleichem wrote the most audacious critique of the heroic humanist ethos that dominated modern, secular, and particularly nationalist Jewish culture—and that he himself, as a run-of-the-mill Jewish intellectual (and Zionist) of the turn of the nineteenth century, swore by in his many moments of mediocrity. But once he emerged as the genial artist who blazed paths into a new kind of Jewish culture, he started undermining this ethos, burrowing underneath it. Modern secular Jewish culture reprimanded traditional Jews; criticized them for being weak, passive, unrealistic, and tardy; and urged them both by positive exhortation and by biting satirical jabs to wake up, seize history by its horns, and replace texts and words with deeds and actions. Sholem Aleichem, however, in his moments of true greatness embraced passivity, weakness, wordiness, inertia, and minority—everything that almost everybody else rejected. In depth, originality, and authenticity, his acceptance of Jewish passivity was equal to that of S. J. Agnon and was surpassed only by that of Franz Kafka. In fact, the best introduction to Tevye der milkhiker can be found not in the misguided interpretations of the work as the epitome of Jewish spiritual fortitude, but rather in Agnon’s stories about passive Jews and even more in Kafka’s haunting explorations of Jewish weakness, texts such as Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Where Sholem Aleichem approximated the depth of Kafka’s parables, there the modern Jewish literary imagination celebrated, by exercising a negative capability, its greatest triumphs.


Motl Peyse dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son) is one of the two major works that Sholem Aleichem wrote in the last decade of his life (1906-16), the other being his exquisite Railway Stories (1909-10). Working throughout this hectic decade on many large-scale projects—long, panoramic novels, a multivolume autobiography—he nevertheless broke new ground and approximated the artistic level of his earlier masterpieces in these two somewhat less ambitious works. Conceived and started in 1906, during the author’s disappointing—indeed, humiliating—stay in the United States, Motl was written intermittently in 1907 (the “European” part) and then in 1915-16 (the unfinished “American” part). It represents a revolutionary breakthrough and is perhaps the most subversive and unconventional of Sholem Aleichem’s extended fictions, although cloaked in the innocent comic narration of a lively child protagonist.

Initially the Motl tales were not perceived as innovative, either thematically or technically. On the contrary, at a time when novelty in Yiddish fiction meant individualism, these stories seemed to move in an opposite direction, toward collectivism (as a further treatment of the shtetl theme, which contemporary Yiddish fiction had already sucked dry) and social tragicomedy. In Motl Sholem Aleichem seemed to be projecting through a comic perspective—that of a child who hardly grasped what was taking place before his eyes—a dark panorama of eastern European Jewish traditional society as it succumbed to unstoppable historical forces. The author, it seemed, was up to his usual tricks.

But Motl was innovative neither in its social content nor in its method of narration. The two interconnected themes of Motl—the rapid disintegration of traditional eastern European shtetl society due to economic dysfunction, cultural irrelevance, and sheer physical vulnerability, and the resulting mass emigration to the West, which at the time assumed the dimensions of a veritable Völkerwanderung—were among the most prominent in Yiddish fiction of the time. That the author chose to present this theme through the perspective of the shtetl’s middle class and its culture agents (the so-called kli-koydesh, or holy vessels: rabbis, ritual slaughterers, cantors), rather than that of the poorer and less educated members of the community, was also reflective of the era. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was mainly the poorer members of traditional Jewish society who were affected by the decline of shtetl life, but as conditions worsened at the beginning of the twentieth, even the more stable and culturally entrenched members found reason to emigrate. As for themes of proletarianization; industrial exploitation; loss of human dignity (through numbing, underpaid labor, prostitution, labor-caused sickness, penury, and devastation); and the advent of Jewish trade unionism, socialist and anarchist agitation, and the like, which were to be treated in the “American” part of the story, they too were hardly new; this entire complex had been explored for almost two decades by both the poets and fiction writers of the so-called American Yiddish “shop” literature, from the first wave of eastern European Jewish influx into the United States.

Nor was there much novelty in child narrators. Sholem Aleichem, among many others, had repeatedly employed them since the publication in 1886 of his short story “Dos messerl” (The Penknife). In the tradition of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Mark Twain, he focused on children as the most vulnerable and oppressed, but also the most rebellious, members of the traditional Jewish community. He saw in the lives of Jewish children, exposed to the traditional educational system, the clash between the “natural” man, still relatively untamed, and the broken-in, “socialized” Jew. In the many stories he wrote about children, instinctual, libidinal, and aesthetic urges are pitted against a harsh and restrictive social and educational order, whose members, embittered by weakness, poverty, and harassment, scapegoat those who are even weaker than themselves. Encounters between children and adults offered many opportunities for comic, even hilarious narration. They would usually make for stories constructed as episodes replete with pranks—the satisfying of sinful appetites and wishes—but ending with a comic catastrophe, which started children in the process of internalizing the norms of their civilization and the limitations of the world they lived in. The same structural principle controls many of the Motl stories, rendering them stories of socialization and growth, albeit under the special circumstances of emigration and acculturation. In this way some critics saw Motl as father of the man. He would become, one said, a latter-day Tevye .6

The narration of the Motl tales seems to follow the rules set in Sholem Aleichem’s earlier stories narrated by children. In most if not all of those tales of childish crime and punishment, the narrators are the children-culprits themselves. Since the mind of a child, not to mention a child’s linguistic abilities, cannot articulate all the insights that the stories are supposed to convey, the child narrator—in Motl as well as other stories narrated by children—is actually a kind of hybrid, in which the voices of a child and an adult complement each other. The attentive reader of Motl will detect this on the first page of the first episode, in the description of the child and his “friend,” the calf Meni, expressing their “dankbarkeyt tsu der natur” (gratitude to nature) through a wild dance and a “singing,” which is “a song without words, without notes, with no motifs, a kind of a nature-song of a waterfall, of racing waves.” Obviously, while the child and the calf are dancing and shrieking and bellowing, it is an adult narrator, well versed in the conventions of romantic hyperbole, who does much of the telling.

This artificial arrangement extends to the incredible subtitle of the Motl cycle: “ksovim fun a yingl a yosem,” writings of an orphan boy. How could a mere nine-year-old boy with no education produce ksovim, literary works? The implausibility of the subtitle has the effect of drawing attention to the author’s role, and of undermining the status of Motl as a realistic, three-dimensional fictional character. (None of Sholem Aleichem’s child protagonists would ever attain the realistic solidity and subtlety of Tevye.) The author aimed to create a child narrator who could nevertheless convey adult truth.

Motl is trusted with an extraordinary artistic mission: to say a truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth that could be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child—as in Hans Christian Andersen’s satirical parable of the child who pronounces the king naked. Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European Jewish civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome; that it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and healthy; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened with a moribund ancestry.


Excerpted from "Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Sholem Aleichem.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews