Sholem Aleichem – nostalgia with a bite



Ever since it opened on Broadway in the fall of 1964, starring Zero Mostel as Tevya, “Fiddler on the Roof” has been part of Jewish consciousness here in America, throughout the diaspora and in Israel as well. Not wanting to argue with success, the 1971 movie version, with Topel as Tevya, sticks closely to the plotline of the Broadway version. What has maintained “Fiddler’s” popularity for the past 50 years is its warmly nostalgic vision of Eastern European Jewry – more particularly, the vision of shetl life in fictional Anatevka set in Tsarist Russia of 1905.  A memorable musical score, catchy lyrics and energetic dancing serve to reinforce the nostalgia.

The musical comedy is based upon the Yiddish novel by Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich, 1859-1916), “Tevya the Dairyman” (composed 1894-1916); however, as Hillel Halkin asks in the introduction to his brilliant translation, “Can a work of fiction begun with no overall plot, written in installments over a twenty-year period, and ending more than once be called…a novel at all?”

While “Fiddler” follows the narrative arc of “Tevya the Diaryman” – basing the story upon chapters three, four, five and eight of the eight-chapter work – both the play and the film fail to capture Sholem Aleichem’s voice: the bite in his humor, his exuberant verbal inventiveness, his highly nuanced evocation of time and place. I would suggest that “Fiddler on the Roof” is to Sholem Aleichem’s writing as a glass of Manischewitz is to Lafite Rothschild. I am, of course, speaking only metaphorically and not from experience; but, “if I were a rich man,” I might have had the opportunity to actually taste this wine of wines.

“Fiddler” celebrates Jewish “Tradition, Tradition! Tradition,” but it is tradition seen through rose-tinted glasses, a tradition perceived to be overflowing with “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” The musical brings to its audience “the good old days:” the cozy, heimish, authentically Jewish life of the Yiddish-speaking shetl. However, in many ways the good old days were not all that good: grinding poverty, class conflict between “the one percent” of wealthy Jews and everybody else, rigidly enforced boundaries between men and women, parent and children, and the ever-present threat of a catastrophic pogrom. Ultimately, musical comedy is not the best fit for a realistic portrayal of precarious Jewish life in Tsarist Russia.

By way of contrast, Sholem Aleichem is well equipped to tell it like it is, warts and all; he has a pitch-perfect ear for his characters’ speech – a speech at once comic and profoundly bitter. While the writers of “Fiddler” toned down the talk of Tevye’s wife Golde, Sholem Aleichem lets his readers hear her really kvetch: “A lot he needed children – seven of them at that! God punish me for saying so, but my mistake was not to have taken them all and thrown them into the river.” Such sentiments do not play well to a Broadway audience seeking comfort in nostalgia for a world that is no more.

Nor is Tevye a man of constant sunshine; the darkness within him does not run silent. When he encounters two women seeking directions home, he says to them, “If you are looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pangs, a week’s supply of heartache or a head full of scrambled brains.” Further along in the story, Tevya reflects upon the life of his eldest daughter, Tsaytl, her husband Motl the tailor and their brood of children: “He and Tsaytl – you should see what a whiz she is around the house – have a home full of little brats already, touch wood, and are dying from sheer happiness. Ask her about it, and she’ll tell you that life couldn’t be better. In fact, there’s only one slight problem, which is that her children are starving…”

Though Tevye has big dreams, he is weighed down by poverty as well as by his own personal shortcomings: he has no business sense whatsoever and is easily hoodwinked. Despite his obvious love for his seven daughters, he is rigid in demanding obedience to his prerogatives as the one male in the family; the fact that he is continually repeating the mantra, “Tevya is no woman,” suggests a certain underlying, though not immediately obvious, misogyny. 

In his introduction to “Tevye the Dairyman,” Halkin comments that, in addition to its many other achievements, the novel is “one of the most extraordinarily Jewish religious texts of our own, and perhaps of any, time.” He points out that Tevye is part of a long tradition of “God-arguers,” going all the way back to Abraham.

The Tevye of “Fiddler” offers only the merest hint of the religious complexity of the Tevye drawn by Sholem Aleichem. Though Tevye has the wit to confess, “A lot of good it does to complain to God about God,” he nevertheless carries on a Job-like argument with God throughout his life: “…[I] asked God an old question about an old, old story: what did poor Job ever do to You, dear Lord, to make you hound him day and night. Couldn’t you find any other Jews to pick on?” As it turns out, Tevya and his family happen to be those “other Jews” for God to pick on: “Either way, there’s a great, kind, merciful God above. I only wish I had a ruble for every dirty trick He’s played on us.” Tevye carries this God with him to the very last words of his story: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, the old God of Israel still lives…”

 “The old God of Israel still lives…” Does Tevye believe this, or is he being bitterly ironic? Or is he believing and not believing at the same time?  We need to read “Tevye the Dairyman” carefully before trying to answer these questions.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG ( is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington.