Study Guide

Tevye the Dairyman

By Sholem Aleichem

Tevye the Dairyman Introduction

Hi. You're a Jew living in the Russian Empire, in what's going to end up being the Ukraine. The year is—oh, let's say 1880. You've got some ideas about modern life and you're pretty sure there's an audience that wants to hear them. You get out your paper, freshen up a pen, and… oopsie. What language are you going to use to pen this masterpiece?

For you, Hebrew is still pretty much an old-fashioned language for praying and studying the Torah. Meaning, it sounded all Biblical and stuff and wasn't especially useful for describing modern life, since "Now cometh the time for thine teeth to be brushed" has a pretty weird ring to it.

Okay, well, what about Russian? Problem is, Russian (or other Slavic languages) are what people speak as they're periodically sweeping through your village to oppress and pillage you. Not to mention that these languages didn't have much in the way of positive vocabulary about Jews and their lives.

Fine. No Slavic languages. How about Yiddish? This seems like a good option. Yiddish, a language brewed out of German, Slavic languages, and Romance languages, is the speech of everyday life. It's definitely going to have ways to talk about brushing your teeth—probably pretty spicy ways, too. But the language has a bad reputation with snooty literary critics, and you're pretty sure that you're not going to win any awards with a book entirely written in vernacular.

Unless you happen to be Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich.

Rabinovich took the pen name Sholem Aleichem, which is the Yiddish version of the standard greeting shalom aleichem, or "peace be with you," so in other words pretty much like calling yourself "Hey, What's Up". In 1894, he began busting out a series of hilarious short stories about modern Jewish life in the little villages and towns in the part of Russia that is now the Ukraine. His writings turned Yiddish into a totally legit medium for art and established himself as the go-to guy for Yiddish literature.

(FYI—he's not the first to grab onto some low vernacular and make it his own. Check out Dante's Inferno for the first serious epic poem written in an actual spoken language—Italian—rather than in the fancy shmancy Latin preferred back in his day. He's also not the last: Alice Walker's The Color Purple is written almost entirely in African American Vernacular English.)

In the stories of Tevye the Dairyman, Tevye sounds just like a dude sitting down at the bar to tell Sholem Aleichem about his life. Just like that dude, Tevye's stories are rambling and episodic. Even though they tell a continuous story, they aren't all one continuous plot, but just kind of come in and out of specific anecdotes along that story. And, just like that that dude, they focus on Tevye's friends and family.

But out of these episodic, personal stories come some Big Questions for Russian Jews living at the turn of the twentieth century: Should Jews try to be wealthy? Stick to tradition or modernize? Try to assimilate? Try their luck in one of the freer places (like America)? Or maybe even join together to create their own country?

It's not that Sholem Aleichem has the answers. These are ongoing questions that a lot of Jews—and people who belong to other minority groups—still struggle with. But he's sure going to make you laugh (and cry) along the way.

What is Tevye the Dairyman About and Why Should I Care?

If you're a parent or have ever had a parent or parent-like figure—basically, if anyone has ever tried to tell you what to do—then you already know what this book is about.

At its heart, Tevye the Dairyman is the story of what happens when parents have children, and those children become young people who want to make their own decisions (probably bad, if Shmoop's parents are to be trusted).

And in Tevye, everything is up for grabs. Should children obey their parents and marry the guy the matchmaker has chosen? Or should they follow their hearts and go out with the cute soldier from the wrong side of the tracks? Should children dutifully take over the family business, or should they run off to the big city to follow their dreams?

If those choices aren't relevant enough for you, how about this: should kids honor (or humor) their parents' old-timey ideas about how it's not polite to text at the dinner table? Or should they roll their eyes and keep their cellphones in their laps on vibrate? Should kids major in something sensible, like accounting; or major in creative writing and wait tables while working on their novel? Should

In other words: should parents force their opinions on their willful kids because they know better? Or should they do their best to let their kids get what they want, valuing happiness in the present over potential future problems?

We're pretty sure that every single one of you has been in a situation like this (we sure have), so you'll understand when Sholem Aleichem doesn't give away any easy answers. But he for sure treats everyone involved with compassion and some humor. And, hey, it looks like your parents are right about one thing: you're not the only one who's ever wanted to rebel.

Tevye the Dairyman Resources

Websites

Bow Ties Optional
A bunch of scholars talking about Sholem Aleichem's works. Always good to see if Shmoop's perspective checks out, nu?

Movie or TV Productions

Fiddler on the Roof
The movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Do not watch this as a substitute because the plot, and the tone, and the point, and everything else about it is way, way different. Really, it's just a movie about people who have similar names. But hey, the music is awesome.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
A totally creepy title for a totally cool biography of Sholem Aleichem, along with some historical context and legacy info.

Historical Documents

In Hindsight, Not the Best Idea
Some translated excerpts of the Russian Constitution of 1906. Check out that thing about the tsar being pretty much God.

Lenin vs. the Pogrom
An article by the main leader of the Russian Revolution about how stupid it was that the government was basically sponsoring the pogrom. Boy, was he an idealist… and boy did he sure stop being one.

Video

It's Almost Like Tevye Quoting the Torah
Quotations from Sholem Aleichem, interspersed with cartoons and random images to make things funny.

Audio

Sholem Aleichem, Live and In Person
A little bit of his voice, and you get a sense of what the original Yiddish sounds like! It's a win-win.

Images

Uncle Aleichem
Sholem Aleichem totally looks like your most fun relative in this famous picture.

The Homeless (a.k.a. After the Pogrom)
Painting by Maurycy Minkowski from 1906.