With the announced closing at the end of 2016 of the current Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye the dairyman has been given the boot once again. Not that an eviction notice, per se, is anything new for a character whose entire religious community is kicked out from its humble village by order of the czar at the conclusion of every performance. Not to forget, either, that in the theater of world history, the Jewish people as a whole have endured many more such scenes of persecution and expulsion, again and again from ancient times until our own.
The good news is that Tevye — also like the Jewish people — endures. Since the musical opened on Broadway in 1964, productions have been fruitful and multiplied throughout the world, not just in North America but on stages in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Australia. Indeed, even if Tevye is not currently appearing on a local stage, he is always present somewhere, perhaps most prominently in our psyches, where we have incorporated Tevye as an Everyman of the shtetl, an elder from the Old Country equally at ease with folksy wisdom as with wise-guy humor.
And he remains with us in another and, these days, almost forgotten way: in the original series of short stories created by the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and collectively known as “Tevye the Dairyman.” Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem Rabinovitch in the Ukraine in 1859. When he died in New York in 1916, his funeral attracted an estimated 100,000 mourners who — along with Yiddish speakers and readers around the world — recognized in the ironic, satiric, tragicomic voice of this prolific author (at the time of his death his work had been collected in 28 volumes) a fellow traveler of the Jewish experience in the still vibrant communities in Eastern Europe and Russia of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Those communities are no more.
We know today that Tevye’s forced eviction from Russia represented only the beginning of a grotesque cultural erasure. We also are all too aware of the worldwide refugee crisis we face today — as well as of ongoing anti-Semitic acts that are making the Jews in France wonder if it is time for them to leave. And it is from the original stories, even more so than from the Broadway musical, that we can derive lessons about faith, life and heritage.
Begin with Tevye’s polyglot language, with its marbled mixture of phrases from the Bible, the Talmud and folkloric superstition. He has a quote (and sometimes a misquote) for everything—none more appropriate than the words lech-lecha. The phrase means “get thee out” (or “go forth” in some translations), Tevye explains. It is God’s command to Abram (whose name was not yet changed to Abraham) in the third chapter of Genesis to leave home and embark on a journey to lands unknown.
Regular synagogue goers today will recognize this phrase immediately as the name of the Torah portion traditionally read at the Shabbat service just a few short weeks after the High Holidays (Nov. 11 this year). Sholem Aleichem makes this a relevant biblical lesson for his time (and any time when Jews are threatened) by employing it as the title of the story in which Tevye is told in no uncertain terms by his non-Jewish neighbors to “get thee out” and never return. He and his fellow Jews are being targeted for a pogrom, he’s told, as a prelude to being expelled altogether from Russia.
Now, most viewers of the musical tend to think of Tevye as a tragicomic bumbler, a character more successful at milking humor from his family travails than at making money from his livelihood. But critic and translator Hillel Halkin makes a powerful argument for “Tevye the Dairyman” as “one of the most extraordinarily Jewish religious texts of our own, and perhaps of any time.” As someone who talks to God, who demands God’s ear, Tevye resides in the same tradition as Abraham and Job.
One example of Tevye the theologian is surely his response to the Christian neighbors who bring him this news, which also owes something to the biblical Abraham, the original God-arguer, who bargained with God to agree to spare the inhabitants of Sodom if 10 innocent men could be found there. (Of course, they could not, and as a result Sodom was destroyed.) Tevye challenges his neighbors to remember that “…there is a higher power than your village council in this world. Mind you, I’m not talking about my God or your God — I’m talking about the God of us all. He who sits in His heaven and sees every low-down trick that we play on each other here on earth.” (From Hillel Halkin’s 1987 translation of “Tevye the Dairyman,” Shocken Books.)
Yet Tevye’s neighbors remain silent. Nor does Tevye hear from God — or, for that matter, from the author Sholem Aleichem, to whom the fictional Tevye addresses his non-stop monologues in story after story. Instead, he resigns himself to fate — to getting himself gone from his home of many generations. Still, he manages the resilience to say farewell to his friend and listener, Sholem Aleichem, bidding him to: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” And so does Tevye, carrying every immigrant’s past in his dairyman’s cart forward into the future.