The Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most famous musicals of all time. It is based on Scholem Alejchem's novel Tewje, der Milchmann. The humorous stories about a Jewish dairyman, told with sensitivity and wit, made Alejchem one of the most important authors of Yiddish-language literature.
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2002
When Sholem Aleichem (or: Scholem Alejchem) was buried in New York in 1916, all Jewish shops in the city were closed. Thousands upon thousands of people attended his funeral procession. His stories of “Tevye the Dairyman” in particular had quickly made him one of the most significant authors of Yiddish literature.
Considering the plot of the stories “Tevye the Dairyman” (1895-1914), which were later published as a novel, one could almost expect them to be fairy tales. They revolve around a good-hearted Jewish milkman, living in the village of Boyberik with his wife Golde and his seven daughters. Most of the eight episodes deal with the possible marriage of his daughters. They are about love marriage, marriage for money, class- and religious distinctions, and other trials and tribulations. Tevye often tricks his wife and the other people in the village and the entire book is accompanied by humour and Tevye’s religious wisdom. But not all stories end happily. One of his daughters commits suicide, while another one it cast out by Tevye, and over the course of time the religious persecution of Jewish people in Eastern Europe becomes more and more apparent. Tevye eventually has to leave his village and the fairy tale-like story makes way for a harsher reality.
Sholem Aleichem (1895-1916) wrote the stories as if Tevye himself was telling them to him in order to give him writing material. This narrative technique makes the text seem quite humorous. Many of the marriage-stories, too, are told in a funny and insightful manner. It is thus not surprising that the appealing material was made into a film several times and was also turned into the comic opera “Fiddler on the Roof”.
However, Aleichem’s depiction of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe is even more interesting. Although his hero Tevye is ‘just’ a milkman, he has a great religious education and leads his life relying on Jewish texts like the Torah, the Talmud and the Midrash. Reading the novel, one will thus realise that Tevye serves as a representative for an entire culture.
Aleichem gradually shows how the Jewish population’s lives in Eastern Europe became increasingly difficult at the turn of the century. Even Tevye, who is well-integrated at the beginning of the story, is eventually excluded and threatened by his peers. The author uses a relatable protagonist to embody the tragedy of a whole culture – his own culture. Aleichem moved to New York in 1914 and stayed there for the rest of his life.
His novel “Tevye the Dairyman” therefore combines a cultural history with autobiographic elements, using a fairy tale style as well as a tragicomic style. It is a unique piece of literature which keeps being republished and newly translated. People still need individual cases like Tevye’s in order to empathise with processes of cultural exclusion – which can be a slow process at times. Just like in Tevye’s village, it seems as though our society often regards cases of discrimination as individual events or exceptions within an otherwise integrated society. But we have to become more aware of these mechanisms in order to prevent worse things from happening later on. Let’s hope that Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” will continue to teach us this lesson in the future.