Sunday, September 19, 2010

Teaching Tevye


I was bemused by this article by Dara Horn on Teaching Tevye.  I'm not sure where Dara is coming from, but I think she should take a closer look at the stories in question, because Tevye is no "ignoramus," and the quotes he takes from the Bible and Talmud may seem broad and sometimes out of context, but as Hillel Halkin noted in his introduction, were in most cases a propos, as we must remember that Sholem Aleichem is speaking through Tevye as he relates the changing face of Yiddish life in Ukraine.

These stories, ostensibly about the marriages and misfortunes of Tevye and his daughters, serve to tell us about various forces shaping Yiddish life.  One daughter marries a revolutionary, and moves to Siberia to be with him after he serves his jail term.  Another marries an Orthodox boy, with Tevye finding it very difficult to reconcile himself with the loss of his daughter to the local priest, who appears to gloat over this conversion.  Another daughter flirts with a wealthy young Jew, only to pay the ultimate price when his relatives intercede on his behalf.  These are for the most part sad tales that tell of the insufferable conditions many Jews found themselves in the Pale of Settlement.  If Aleichem relates Tevye's tales with a robust sense of humor, it is to conceal the physical pain and emotional hurt suffered during these times.  Tevye is a vehicle for these stories, although Halkin notes that Aleichem may have actually drew his inspiration from someone like Tevye.

According to Halkin, Yiddish humor was a relatively new thing, emerging in the mid 19th century.  Finding themselves second-class citizens, humor became a means of dealing with the injustices and indignities that were being heaped upon Yiddish people in Tsarist Russia.  Aleichem grew to become one of the most beloved story-tellers because of his ability to use humor to convey searing stories that struck the nerve of his audiences.  The Hebrew references often flew over the heads of his audience, Halkin noted, which is why he leaves many of these references in Hebrew in his English translation, with a glossary in the back.  The irony today is that Yiddish has been lost in time, kept alive by Yiddish scholars like Dovid Katz, who teaches Yiddish studies at Vilnius University, and has published a wealth of Litvak culture and literature.

Halkin also notes that the Tevye cycle has been adapted into many stories over the years, not just Fiddler on the Roof, and that Aleichem himself reforged some of these stories himself.  It is unclear how many daughters Tevye actually had.  Aleichem periodically mentions seven, but in the stories he only deals with five, and mentions no more than six by name.  The stories arose over a 20 year period, intermixed with other stories either read or published during this time, and were collected later into the stories of Tevye the Dairyman, or Milkman if you prefer.

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