Tevye the Dairyman
by Sholem Aleichem
Tevye the Dairyman Identity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Story Number.Paragraph
At that time I wasn't at all the man you see today. Of course, I was the same Tevye but not really the same. How do they say: the same yente but sporting a different hat. In what way was I different? May it not happen to you, but I was a beggar in rags […] compared to that time, today I am a wealthy man [who goes] out every morning to the market, then drive from dacha to dacha in Boiberik. I drop in on this one, on that one, the biggest businessmen from Yehupetz, chat a little with each one like I'm also somebody […] you're looking at me Pani Sholem Aleichem, and probably thinking to yourself, Aha! This Tevye is really some Jew! (2.2)
Two ways to think about identity in this passage. First, a neat little verbal turn here when Tevye wonders whether internal, innate identity is fixed or fluid (is he the same man from back then or isn't he?). And second, identity as totally external, social construct—Tevye's is economically determined by his wealth, so the "beggar" and the "somebody" aren't the same person at all.
[…] even high-up Christians have begged me to sell them my merchandise.
"We hear, Tevel," they say, "that you're an honest man even though you're a filthy Jew." Would you ever hear a compliment like that from a Jew? […] You never hear a kind word from our little Jews. (2.115)
Whoa, there's a lot to unpack in this tiny passage. Okay, so, here we're getting Tevye's identity from (1) the perspective of the majority community (the Christians he sells to), (2) the perspective of his own in-group (the Jews he sells to), and then (3) his views on both of those groups. So: (1) he's living in a time and place where anti-Semitism is all well and good and right out there in the open—check out the Christians who are shocked that he is "honest." There's also a great detail in the fact that they call him a Russified version of his name—Tevel instead of Tevye. (2) To his Jewish customers, he doesn't seem particularly special. And (3) Tevye somehow likes the brutally blunt words of the Christians—just as they are upfront about hating Jews, so are they fine with talking up his integrity. He has some disdain for what he sees as his fellow uptight Jews.
I stopped people along the way and asked them if they had seen or heard of Menachem-Mendl. "If," they said, "his name is Menachem-Mendl, that's not enough. There are lots of Menachem-Mendls around here. What's his last name?"
"I haven't any idea," I said. "At home in Kasrilevka he's known by his mother-in-law's name, Menachem-Mendl Leah-Dvossi's. […]"
"That's still not enough. What is his business? What does he deal in, your Menachem-Mendl?" […]
"He deals in gold imperials," I said, "and options, and he sends off telegrams to Saint Petersburg, to Warsaw."
"Oh?" They began to laugh, then laughed louder and louder. "You mean the crook Menachem-Mendl! Why don't you just go across the street? There you'll find brokers running around like rabbits, and yours is probably one of them." (3.63-67)
Again, there's the tossup between whether a guy gets his identity from himself (here, that doesn't help since there are a ton of dudes like Menachem-Mendl in the big town), or from his family (again, that would only identify him in his little local village Kasrilevka), or from the kind of public figure he cuts as a businessman.