Der Alter Tevye Lebt!: Speech and Communication

Ruth R. Wisse


In this essay, Wisse ana­lyzes the rela­tion­ship between speech and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in Sholem Ale­ichem’s Tevye the Dairy­man. Wisse argues that the rela­tion­ship between Sholem Ale­ichem and Tevye con­sti­tutes a minia­ture Jew­ish ter­ri­to­ry where togeth­er they reassert moral con­trol over every­thing that they endure. Tevye’s humor often reports on mis­un­der­stand­ing and fail­ures of speech— two decades of set­backs involv­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing, con­ceal­ment, sup­pressed infor­ma­tion, fab­ri­ca­tion, dou­ble-enten­dre, threat, and worse. But between the speak­er and his lis­ten­er there is a deep­en­ing inter­de­pen­den­cy. Their durable com­mu­nion pro­vides a kind of secu­ri­ty, hold­ing the cul­ture togeth­er demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly on mid­dle ground, even if it is impos­si­ble to repro­duce gen­er­a­tional­ly and it can­not repel those exter­nal forces that come to destroy it.

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Since Tevye der milkhiker was never meant to stop talking, we need never stop talking about Tevye. One of the most original creations in world literature, a character who leaves and returns nine times in twenty years, he is at once the quintessential Jew and the most universally popular Jewish literary character since the Bible. He is also the most remarkable wordsman of Yiddish language and literature. David Roskies says “speech is what defines him, confounds him, and defends him.” [Roskies, “Call It Jewspeak”: 244] This begs the question: what is the relation of his speech to communication? For whom does he speak?

Tevye was created in the mid-1890s, at a time of great dissatisfaction with Jewish life. Already a milkhiker—which is to say, a softie, or in political terms, a liberal—before he becomes a dairyman, Tevye is the corrective, the remedial alternative to some of the alleged failings of the traditional Jewish men of his time. Here are several ways Tevye defies contemporary criticism of Jewish men by Gentile critics and Jewish enlighteners, including by Sholem Aleichem in some of his other works:

(a) Tevye assumes male responsibility at a time when men’s relation to women was under polemical review. Jewish reformers at the end of the nineteenth century were intent on getting husbands to support their families, and their criticism of scholars being supported by their working wives was not unlike the censure of haredi men today —whether fairly or unfairly.

Three years before Tevye came on the scene, I.L. Peretz gave us the story of Mendl Brayne’s, a Jew whose reputation for piety is achieved at the expense of his wife; Mendl’s Brayne earns the money he disburses, and the burdens she assumes to satisfy his religiosity cause her premature death. By contrast, Tevye supports his family. He rescues a mother and daughter who are lost in the woods and when the head of the household offers him brandy, he quips: “Ver zogt zikh dos op fun a bisl bronfn? Vi shteyt es dortn in posek: Eyze lekhayim ve’eyze lemoves: makht Rashi: got iz got un bronfn iz bronfn.” But once he has had his little drink and little joke he declines to eat, hinting that since his family is hungry at home, he would rather take food back to them. Admittedly manipulative in mentioning his family’s hunger just after this family has feasted, he likewise ensures that his horse has eaten before getting back on the road. He, however, does not eat before he has fed his wife and daughters.

(b) When we are introduced to Tevye, he is supporting a large family. One can hardly exaggerate the importance of this at a time when an estimated 40% of Russian Jewish males were luftmenschen, persons with no steady identifiable form of income. Sholem Aleichem had created such a luftmensch in the irrepressible Menachem Mendl, and less humorously, in his lullaby, “Shlof, mayn kind, mayn treyst mayn sheyner,” the mother rocks her child to sleep with the plaint that his father has gone to America. Inept, irresponsible, exploitative, or simply absent, Jewish men were being charged with failure to protect their society. The philosopher and baptized Jew Otto Weininger said Jewish men were feminized, that they manifested “the extreme of cowardliness.” Thus, the male head of a household of women who brings home the money to set them up in the dairy business and then works to support them is the Jewish Galahad of his age.

(c) Charged with failure to support and protect their families, Jewish men were simultaneously berated for exploiting others. Marxists set out to eradicate the “parasitic” middlemen who brought producer to consumer, seller to buyer, people to market, and markets to people. But Jews were the paradigmatic middlemen, members of a self-defined minority who made their living and proved their worth by negotiating among larger nations. How then can the Jew earn like a man without being condemned as a middleman? Tevye solves that conundrum by producing what he sells and selling only what he produces. He peddles not “paper” (like the narrator of “On Account of a Hat”) or other intangibles, but fresh dairy products straight from his own farmstead. He himself loads his goods onto the wagon and delivers them to his customers. Sholem Aleichem’s genius was to produce in Tevye a middleman the Marxists could not easily discredit.

d) Tevye is not a shtetl Jew at a time when the shtetl was under attack for its parochialism, its dead economy, the worst of rural ignorance and urban blight. Like today’s environmentalists, the Tolstoyans, Rousseauists, Polish romantics, and Zionist agriculturists of an earlier century championed harmony with nature. Tevye is a yishuvnik, a homesteader who lives on good terms with his animals. Here he sits outdoors on Hoshana Rabbah:

[This is] my favorite season. Each day is a gift. The sun’s not as hot as an oven anymore and has a mildness about it that makes being out-of-doors a pleasure. The leaves are still green, the pine trees give off a good tarry smell, and the whole forest is looking its best, as if it were God’s own sukkah, a tabernacle for God. It’s there that He must celebrate the holiday, not in the city, where there’s such a commotion of people running about to earn their next meal and thinking only of money, of how you make more and more of it… 1 1 All translations from the stories by Hillel Halkin, Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories (Schocken, 1987), 65

Contrast this with the original Yiddish literary peddler Mendele Mocher Sforim who suffers from hemorrhoids and mourns during the three weeks before Tisha Ba’av while the whole world around him is in full bloom. In his rural self-sufficiency, Tevye already resembles the settlers in Rishon Letsion more than those in the Russian Pale of Settlement. He is the milk portion of the land of milk and honey and as we will see, Sholem Aleichem would have moved him to Eretz Yisroel if he had been able to carry out his plan of visiting there himself. Tevye is on his way there at the end of the seventh episode (1909) and only the bankruptcy of his fourth son-in-law keeps him in Russia until the expulsion order that comes five years later.

Tevye therefore has something in common with Mordecai Spector’s Yidisher muzhik and the muscular Jews of a younger generation of Yiddish and Hebrew writers who challenged the negative stereotype of the unproductive Jewish scholar. But there was a twist: Yiddish speech required that Sholem Aleichem’s negation of the Jewish stereotype keep speaking from within the culture. Sholem Aleichem’s liberal redemption of the traditional Jewish male had to prove itself in traditional male folk-speech.

e) Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof, said he found the key to the musical production with the opening song, “Tradition!”:

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?

The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

Indeed, Tevye is doubtless traditional. But while he does not neglect to daven mincha alone in the forest, he uses the prayers of divine promise to complain to God about His failure to fulfil them. Tevye quotes so obsessively from the sources that his wife Golde, his daughters, and everyone at some point says, “Enough, already!” Yet unlike those who normally quote to show off or shore up their arguments, Tevye inverts, subverts, puns, and otherwise distorts his quotations. Instead of bekiyes this comical Rashi demonstrates his improvisational skill and comments on the sources from the modern perspective of folk humor.

(f) Finally, Tevye revises the author’s own negative stereotype of the Jew. One could illustrate a textbook of abnormal psychology with the narrators of Sholem Aleichem’s stories—obsessive-aggressive monologists who drive their listeners to faint dead away or contemplate murder; Menachem-Mendl’s psychologically blocked creative energy; uncomprehending Shimen Eli Shma Koleynu who is stuck in a pattern of behavior he repeats to the point of madness; solipsistic monologists identified by Victor Erlich and Dan Miron’s gallery of unreliable speakers. Tevye is by no means perfect but he provides a welcome balanced corrective to such portraits.

This is because Tevye does not just speak; he communicates with Sholem Aleichem. The difference between speech and communication is the running theme of his stories.


Like Sholem Aleichem’s earlier creation Menachem Mendl, Tevye introduces himself in a letter: tsu mayn gelibtn tayern fraynd reb Sholem Aleichem, got zol aykh gebn gezunt un parnose mit ayer vayb un kinder…When Hillel Halkin translated this work into English, he consigned the letter to an explanatory footnote explaining that this scaffolding Sholem Aleichem needed to erect the building no longer had to remain visible once Tevye was launched. Yet the letter establishes the intended transaction between the implied author and his subject and the reciprocal relations between two social non-equals, which supports all that follows. Tevye is no mere speaker but the mainstay of a literary project, a Jew collaborating with another to tell a national story. In a disintegrating world, Tevye and Sholem Aleichem constitute a miniature Jewish territory where together they reassert moral control over everything that they endure.

Tevye introduces himself as kotoynti, from the verse in Vayishlakh when Jacob pronounces himself unworthy of all God’s kindness. Kotoynti acknowledges the many ways in which Tevye is Reb—later Pani—Sholem Aleichem’s inferior and beneficiary. It underscores his intellectual humility and his plight, threatened by the tsar as Jacob is by Esau, confined to the Pale of Settlement whereas Sholem Aleichem has the right to reside in Yehupetz. But who actually benefits whom in this arrangement? Tevye authors the story that Sholem Aleichem merely appropriates. The impresario has found his meal-ticket. Theirs is a mutually beneficial arrangement wherein the author helps to advertise Tevye’s wares while earning his living off this rural dairyman. Without Tevye Sholem Aleichem would starve—for material.

Moral security is established in the Tevye stories by this framework of two Jews talking as equals although the economic, social, demographic, and to some extent cultural disparity between them is clearly established in Tevye’s opening letter. Kotoynti suggests that Sholem Aleichem originally intended to milk that gap as a source of humor but then realized in composing the first episode that he had hit on a better means of self-expression. He endowed Tevye with features of his own personality and talent and ascribed to him some of the problems he was facing. Their parity on the page emerges from their mutual appreciation that is conveyed, in turn, by their common delight in every nuance of their common language. In contrast to other Sholem Aleichem stories where humor arises through misapprehension, Tevye’s humor often reports on misunderstanding, but between the speaker and his listener we feel a deepening interdependency. No dramatization, not even the author’s own, could deliver this essence of the work. Exceptional and durable communion was the only form of security Jews had ever established in unfriendly surroundings.

On this self-enclosed Jewish territory, Tevye tells of the breakup of a once relatively cohesive community. Sugar magnates grow fabulously wealthy as the poor increase in number and see their opportunities shrink. The gap widens between the geographically confined and those free to live in the capital, those squeezing into higher education and those left behind. Ruptures deepen from one episode to the next. Jews find it easier to withstand tsarist repression—shebkhol doyr vadoyr oymdim oleynu lekhaloseynu—than the revolt of the younger generation. Since unraveling rabbinic authority means that national cohesion can no longer be dictated from above, Sholem Aleichem and Tevye must hold the culture together democratically on middle ground. In sum, speaker and scribe are conjoined through two decades of setbacks involving misunderstanding, concealment, suppressed information, fabrication, double-entendre, threat, and worse.

Here is a small sampling of how speech relates to communication:

* Tevye’s original lucky break is forged in the exchange between him and the balebos who is renting the Boiberik dacha. This Jew appreciates Tevye’s wit but his children laugh at the man since they are too Jewishly illiterate to laugh with him.

* Informed by his wife that he is urgently wanted by Leyzer-Volf, Tevye assumes that if the butcher wants an interview with a dairy-farmer it must concern the purchase of his cow. Tevye is damned if he will bring one of his animals to slaughter! One of the best ways to tell a story is at one’s own expense and Tevye tells to perfection his ensuing mismatch with the courting widower. The comedy exposes the commodification of marriage as Tsaytl the eldest daughter has meanwhile been conducting her own romance. Tevye then resorts to intentional fabrication to make the outcome palatable to his wife, who was eager to see their daughter comfortably settled in the butcher’s home. The stammering tailor who brings his own suit adds yet another layer of doubled meaning to a generational skirmish that has much in common with comedy in other cultures.

* By the fourth episode, written in 1904, the year leading up Russia’s first revolution, miscommunication draws attention to much more serious cracks in Jewish society. Telling the story of this revolutionary moment as it is happening, Tevye is almost fatally divided in his sympathies. He is himself a victim of Russian tsarist injustice, and would wish to see it reformed. When he meets young Perchik-Feferl on the road, he is cautiously drawn to the son he might have had, and his greeting to the young man—in the phrase for a bridegroom-to-be being called up to the Torah—telegraphs that he knows just what he is doing when he invites him home and allows him to tutor his second daughter Hodl. Feferl’s ideas about income inequality closely resemble ones he himself has been protesting in his prayers. Their exchange is the liveliest in the Tevye series and demonstrates that they still “speak the same language” enough to enjoy one another—although we also see its limitations since Feferl has no sense of humor, and Tevye is slow to grasp that the younger man’s radical ideology substitutes enforced egalitarianism for Jewish interdependency.

Feferl intends to ensure that the estates of the rich “will be yours, and mine, and everyone’s someday.” He radicalizes Hodl, Tevye’s second daughter, and the two conspire to join the revolution. “Papa, you don’t understand” is the refrain of this story that is heavy with dramatic irony as the reader recognizes the political implications that the father does not. Whereas the first couple, Tsaytl and Motl, know they must explain themselves to Tevye to receive his blessing, this pair intends to keep their secret from Tevye to the last. The presumed need for secrecy in Perchik’s activities translates into a strategy of deliberate concealment.

In writing this episode, Sholem Aleichem must have realized that he was moving into tragedy, and that he must enter that territory for Tevye to survive. We note that he has not split the difference by making Feferl a member of the Jewish Bund, the movement that thought it could find a middle ground between being Jewish and joining the Revolution. Through Tevye, Sholem Aleichem demonstrates that there could be no such compromise—a conclusion many of his readers refuse to accept to the present day. The author does not yet show these Jewish revolutionaries at their most murderous, preferring to leave them in the soft glow of Hodl’s idealism, but by making her choice she is lost to him forever. In marrying Perchik, she marries the Communist Revolution, and we understand that they will not be communicating in Yiddish.

Hence Hodl’s departure triggers the most famous of Tevye’s tag-lines, Veyst ir vos, pani Sholem Aleichem? Lomir beser redn fun epes freylekhers: vos hert zikh epes mikoyakh der kholyere in odes? No one better or earlier than Sholem Aleichem foresaw the infectious consequences of Communism’s attraction for the Jews. He finds the cholera epidemic in Odessa a jollier topic because it will claim far fewer victims than Marxism, and do far less damage to Jewish life. Besides, tsores rabim are half a comfort; universal pandemics are easier to cope with than the loss of a child. You see how ungainly this gets when one tries to explain the genius of Tevye’s humor.

* The theme of failing communication continues, as the third daughter Chava’s defection overshadows Hodl’s. Communication in this chapter is shut down first from one side and then from the other, but not before Chava gets the better of her father. With the proposition that “God created us all equal” she challenges him to explain why “human beings have to be divided into Jews and Christians, masters and slaves, beggars and millionaires.” How cleverly she compares the division between Jew and Gentile with the negative ones of slavery and economic disparity, knowing that her father shares her liberal sympathies! Tevye admits her superior powers of persuasion and fails to offer counter-arguments that might persuade her to remain a Jew. If it comes down to defending Judaism against a liberal universalist, Sholem Aleichem seems to concede that Judaism doesn’t stand a chance.

Yet Chava is not engaging in abstract discussion; she is defending her decision to convert to Christianity in order to marry the Ukrainian Chvedka Galagan. However superior her theoretical argument, it is disingenuous since the priest who isolates her in his house has political power on his side. That she must turn Christian to marry Chvedka invalidates her argument, since her benign universalism is contradicted by her actions. Indeed, though Tevye out-argues the priest just as Chava gets the better of her father, neither of these verbal triumphs makes any difference, given the right of the Church to set the terms of interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Speech is not synonymous with communication, and obstacles to communication are independent of the effectiveness of speech. The powers of Jewish speech may be the eighth wonder of the world, but the powers of the Christian state are greater.

Until this point, within a Jewish context, Tevye’s speech has been the instrument of his sanity. Whatever he cannot control in action he absorbs through creative reaction, turning defeat into verbal victory, humiliation into verbal triumph, loss into psychological gain. Interpretation is his key to creative survival. Sholem Aleichem created Tevye in the liberal image of his age, to show how far a traditional Jew could bend to accommodate modernity in all its variety. But just when you think the Jew may be a shmate of a man blowing in the wind, he steels himself and says no to his dearest daughter. He will not accept her conversion and her marriage to a Ukrainian Christian. He yields neither to the power of the state nor to the appeal of affection. He does not stop for her on the road when she wants to make up with him and hold on to him as a father. This is one of the most remarkable passages in modern Jewish fiction precisely because Tevye is so accommodating in his instincts. Here he confronts what is for Sholem Aleichem the pivotal issue: how much does staying a Jew really matter? Chava says it doesn’t matter at all; Judaism says it is of primal importance. Remarkably, what Jewish heroism requires of the master of speech is cutting off speech with those who would undo him.

Only when we see how Sholem Aleichem stacks the deck against the Jewish father can we appreciate the potency of Tevye’s act. Chava is his most treasured child. Millennia after Abraham, his descendant is still being asked to sacrifice his child to a demanding discipline. Moreover, Chvedka is described as “a second Gorky,” and knowing how much the author appreciated the original Gorky there can be no higher commendation for the liberal element within the antisemitic regime. Most compelling is Tevye’s internal struggle over several pages as he discards his pride to plead with the priest to be allowed to plead with his daughter, choking back his tears (nor Tevye iz nit keyn yidene, Tevye halt zikh ayn!):

The words kerakheym ov al bonim kept running through my head—could there be anywhere a child so bad that a father still couldn’t love it? What torture to think that I was the only exception…why, a monster like me wasn’t fit to walk the earth!....

I tell you, I had even weirder thoughts than that in the forest. What did being a Jew or not a Jew matter? Why did God have to create both? And if He did, why put such walls between them, so that neither would look at the other even though both were His creatures? It grieved me that I wasn’t a more learned man, because surely there were answers to be found in the holy books….

Tevye wishes he were able to provide the philosophic underpinning for why Judaism matters. He wishes he could do something like the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig did for German Jews or what C.S. Lewis did for Christians: proving religion’s value in modern terms. Tevye’s resistance is the more impressive because, in dialogue with himself, he overcomes all the voices of his doubt. His refusal to speak is the most eloquent moment in this work.

Of course, Tevye also acts for Sholem Aleichem, who knew that he could not move out of the sphere of Yiddish without suffering artistic suicide. This was a cyclical consideration because the author had chosen to be Sholem Aleichem, and being the master of Yiddish speech meant remaining a Jew. Can the Jew merge into the modern world without having to make such a demanding choice? No. But, again, Tevye finds it easier to withstand the antisemite than his own children.

From this point on, as Tevye’s losses reverse the sunnier atmosphere of earlier episodes, communication grows ever more problematic. The story of Shprintse is a mirror inversion of the opening episode, where instead of helping Tevye and his family to economic self-sufficiency the wealthy Jew accuses Tevye of pimping and creates the conditions for Shprintse’s suicide. Next, Beylke’s motto, “the age of Beylke is not the age of Hodl,” warns that by 1909 cynicism and material calculations had overtaken the pre-revolutionary idealism of 1904. Beylke’s intention of helping her father by marrying wealthy backfires and leaves Tevye less rather than more secure. All he can do is to match his son-in-law Podhutzer insult for insult, humiliation for humiliation. He tries to do the same with the Ukrainian neighbors who come to drive him off his homestead, but if ever a text accurately foretells historical events, Tevye’s political impotence records the fate of Ukrainian Jews.

That was not the way the Tevye series was intended to conclude. A Zionist before the creation of the Zionist movement, Sholem Rabinovitch intended to travel to Palestine and in preparation for his journey was about to move Tevye there at the conclusion of the Beylke chapter, whose title is “Tevye Goes to Eretz Yisroel.” He himself had already gone to and returned from America, having failed to score big in its Yiddish theater, and Podhutzer (think putz) was the author’s revenge on the society that had not responded to his work. Its Jews were shedding Yiddish as fast as they could acquire English in a bid for a version of success that he himself had wished for. Beylke’s marriage for money skewers the American-style materialist and ignorant Jew who had no use for Tevye—namely, for Sholem Aleichem. Nearing the completion of his work, the author planned to bring Tevye to his ancestral home.

It was not meant to be. Calamities struck. On the personal front, Sholem Aleichem’s collapse from tuberculosis required extended convalescence; nationally, deteriorating conditions of Jews in Russia created one set of problems, the manifest difficulties of pioneering in Eretz Yisroel constituted another, and travel was difficult. Neither Sholem Aleichem nor Tevye ever reached Palestine, though the title “Lekh lekho” of the eighth episode points Abraham in that direction.

Tevye’s interlinear commentary on this chapter of Genesis corresponds exactly to his dialectic recital of afternoon prayers in the opening episode, the national motif of return to the Land of Israel having overtaken the religious emphasis in the priorities of the Jewish people. Here Tevye’s irony reaches its tragic climax. The imperative: Go “el ha’orets asher arekho,” to the land I will show you, becomes “vuhin di oygn veln dikh trogn,” wherever your eyes will lead you. God may have promised a land of milk and honey but “the Land is there and I am in khuts l’orets”—outside it. If there is such a thing as Jewish history, the author and his character were in perfect sync with the direction in which it was moving, but impediments in their way likewise reflected the obstacles facing the nation. 2 2 Doing this chapter justice would require our own interlinear commentary. If I cannot here undertake it, I wholeheartedly recommend it to the keen reader.

The dramatic resolution of the arc of Tevye stories is a version of the familiar literary reconciliation scene. Here, coinciding as it does with Tevye’s expulsion, the Jewish victory compensates for that defeat. Chava leaves her husband and is reunited with her father at the point that he is forced to leave their home. Tevye’s speech is more allusive than ever: he is talkative to the point of garrulousness, yet after describing Chava’s cry of “Ta-te,” he falls as silent as when he passed her on the forest road. Though Sholem Aleichem had mocked I.L. Peretz’s habitual use of ellipses, he indicates this failure of words by four whole lines of dots in the text. In 1906, at the end of the Chava chapter, knowing how he had let down his readers, Tevye (Sholem Aleichem) tries to escape from the story he felt compelled to tell. Here, the character and his author cannot pretend that the family has healed. Tevye does not describe the reconciliation; instead, he feels obliged to justify his capitulation to the liberal side of his character, without pretending that this is a happy ending.

Being a Jew mattered to Tevye and his Yiddish readers. It did not matter to those who later transposed him to the musical stage. They were so pleased with the intermarriage that they had Chava’s Ukrainian husband give Tevye moral instruction and compare him invidiously to the tsar: “Some drive away with edicts, others with silence.” This violates the ultimate meaning of the Tevye stories where Tevye’s refusal to accept Chava’s defection—his silence in 1906—is the heroic fortitude that allows for her return eight years later.


Sholem Aleichem’s later added chapter is so strange that once again Hillel Halkin omitted it in his translation, this time by combining it with the preceding chapter. The author obviously wanted to return to his beloved Tevye, but it was too late to bring him along to America where he and his wife had settled in 1914. Their son Misha died in Europe before he was able to join his parents. So Sholem Aleichem wrote a second version of Tevye’s expulsion, this time as part of a mass exodus of Jews from Russia.

The chapter’s funny-sounding title, Vekhalaklakoys, signals its aim of extracting some retribution from those who think they can do whatever they want with the Jews. The word appears but once in the Bible in the very aggressive thirty-sixth psalm: “O Lord, strive with my adversaries. Give battle to my foes…” and “Let their path be dark and slipperyvekhalaklakoys—with the Lord’s angel in pursuit.” God is called upon to take vengeance on those whom the Jews cannot defeat on our own, the slippery term signifying their slithering end. Tevye challenges the villagers who come to stage a pogrom to pronounce this word and when they fail, they forfeit the right to harm him. They only break some windows to show that they have done their duty. But his cleverness cannot save him from eviction.

The man who introduced himself as kotoynti now spends two pages acknowledging that in all humility, he knows more of the Jewish sources than his fellow Jews. The intervening decades have brought about such a change in Yiddish readership that they are no likelier to get the joke of vekhaklakoys than the Gentile peasants he is tripping up with the word. His fellow insider and interlocutor Sholem Aleichem may be the only one to appreciate his humor. Tevye’s richly textured wit has gone from being the main source of his appeal to a potential liability in what Sholem Aleichem has to sell.

As well, the man who once complained to God of being poor while his fellow Jews waxed rich, now reverses himself and asks why his fate should be different from that of his fellow Jews: “mit vos bin ikh dos mer ben-yokhid bay dem rebonoy-shel-oylem fun ale andere akheynu bney yisroel—how am I any more favored by God than all our other fellow Jews whom soldiers are forcing out of their sacred villages, sweeping and cleansing and uprooting every last trace of a Jew as we say in the Rosh khodesh prayer, Yaale veyavo…[I will return to this below] so that no sign of them should remain?” Tevye wraps himself in the fate of klal yisroel, the Jewish people in its entirety. The national imperative of survival has overtaken personal suffering.

As for the seesaw of faith and doubt, affirmation and protest that allows Tevye to keep his moral and mental balance, it cannot do the trick against the kind of enmity the Jew confronts. Tevye cannot give up his habit of playing off against the sources because that kind of irony is his very nature. Thus, in describing how thoroughly Jews are being driven from their land he uses the pile-on of phrases Jews use when beseeching God for deliverance, “Ya’ale, ve’yavo, ve’yagiya, ve’yeyroeh, ve’yeyrotseh, ve’yishama, ve’yipokeyd, ve’yizokheyr….” Fulsomely as Jews remind God to care for His people, their enemies seek their destruction. Wit that once signified triumph over adversity now confirms the opposite. Tevye ends this chapter by affirming the essential differences between Jews and Gentiles, but by this time Sholem Aleichem in America knows that the island of cultural security he has created through Tevye and his impresario cannot hold.

Reduced at the end to far less than he was at his sparkling zenith, Tevye takes his leave of Sholem Aleichem uncertain where they will meet again…unless der oybershter looked around and said, “Guess what, children! I’ve decided to send you my Messiah!...Dervayl zayt mir gezunt, fort gezunterheyt un lozt grisn undzere yidelekh un zogt zey dortn, zey zolm zikh nit zorgn: undzer alter got lebt. And in the meantime, be well and have a good trip. Say Hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” Tevye and Sholem Aleichem still constitute a self-sufficient part of the people that has faith in the eternity of Israel under the aegis of the God of Israel, but their marvelous communion does not extend to the next generation and cannot repel those who come to destroy it.

Based on a talk given at the Sholem Aleichem, 1916-2016: Writing Place conference, May 2016

Wisse, Ruth R. “Der Alter Tevye Lebt!: Speech and Communication.” In geveb, June 2020:
Wisse, Ruth R. “Der Alter Tevye Lebt!: Speech and Communication.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Ruth R. Wisse

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature, emerita.