Study Guide

Tevye the Dairyman Language and Communication

By Sholem Aleichem

Language and Communication

It was around Shevuos, or maybe, I don't want you to think I'm lying, even a week or two before Shevuos and…wait a minute, perhaps a few weeks after Shevuos…Hold on a bit, it was, let me think a minute…It was exactly nine or ten years ago and maybe a little bit more. (2.2)

You have to love how the more he tries to narrow down the exact timeframe, the less and less exact it gets. Seriously, "exactly" nine or ten years? That's a pretty big chunk of time to be calling exact, no?

"[…] put a price on it? As much as you want to give, that's what you should pay. How do they say, 'One coin more or less won't make me much poorer than I already am.'"

"No," they said, "we want to hear what you want, Reb Tevye! Don't be afraid. No one will chop your head off, heaven forbid." (2.74-75)

This is a good example of the two main rhetorical tics this book uses. So, you know how a tic is a small uncontrollable movement? Well, a rhetorical tic is the same thing, only with a word or style that gets constantly repeated and thus marks the person's speech as being unique to them. (It's basically how people who do impressions capture the speech of their… um… victims?) First, there's Tevye's constant use of proverbs or Torah catchphrases—it's like he can't express himself without finding some appropriate reference first. And second, there's the hyperbole—constant, wildly exaggerated description—for example, "no one will cut your head off" instead of "don't be shy."

I don't know if you believe my story—you're the first one I've told it to, how and what and when, but now I think I've gone on too long. Don't be offended, but one must tend to one's business. Or as they say, "Each to his own"—you to your books, I to my pots and my jugs. I would like to ask one think of you, Pani. Don't write about me in any of your books, and if you do, don't mention my name. (2.116)

Is Tevye for real with this request? Or is he pretty pointedly trying to get his listener (Sholem Aleichem) to go "to his books" and write already?

"And Tzeitl herself," I said, "has to be asked. As it is said: All the relatives came to the wedding and they left the bridegroom at home."

"Nonsense," he said, "why do you need to ask? You tell her, Reb Tevye. You go home and tell her this is the way it is and put up the wedding canopy. One word from you, and it's done!" (4.42-43)

So yeah, obviously this whole daughters-don't-get-a-say-in-their-husbands thing is culturally standard for this village, but it's still kind of shocking to hear Lazer-Wolf casually dismiss the idea that Tzeitl could have any say at all.

"Then tell me, since you know who I am, tell me who you are."

"Who am I? I am a person."

"I see you're not a horse. I mean whose are you?"

"Whose should I be? I am God's."

"I know," I said, "you are God's. It is written: All creatures and all cattle. I mean where do you come from? Are you one of ours or maybe from Lithuania?"

"I come from Adam, the first man," he said, "but am from around here. You know me." […]

"Tell me, my young rascal, what do you live on?"

"I live on what I eat."

"Aha, that's good. But what," I said, "do you eat?"

"Everything," he said, "that they give me." (5.18-33)

Is this a battle of wits, or is it some kind of friendship mating dance?

"Is it a fault in your eyes," [Chava] said, "that a person works with his hands? Don't you yourself work? And don't we work?"

"Yes, yes, you're right. We have a special verse in the Bible: For thou shall eat the labor of thy hands—if you don't work, you won't eat. But still and all […] you mustn't forget whence you come and whither you go—who you are and who he is."

"God created all people equal," she said to me.

"Yes, yes, God created Adam in His own image," I said. "But you mustn't forget that everyone must seek his own, as it says, To every man as he is able."

"Amazing!" she said. "You have a quotation for everything! Maybe you can find about how people separated themselves into Jews and Gentiles, into masters and slaves, into landowners and beggars?"

[…] I gave her to understand that the world had been that way since the Creation.

"Why should the world be like that? […] Why did He create it like that? […] That's why God gave us reason, so we could ask questions."

"We have a custom that when a hen begins to crow like a rooster, you should take it immediately to the slaughterer." (6.23-34)

Check it out: Tevye and Chava are using an aspect of religion to boost the argument, but in really different ways. Tevye is all trees and no forest—he's plucking out phrases here and there, and some of them don't even have anything to do with what he's talking about (um, "to every man as he is able" is about fairness, not us-vs.-them mentality). Meanwhile, Chava can't quote, but she's using the big-picture themes of the Torah to buttress her argument. And then when Tevye's had enough, and she's talked him into a corner, he shuts it down with a pretty brutally sexist image—a female that talks the talk of a male getting killed. Nice one, dad.

And you must know how much I wanted to turn and look back at the spot where [Chava] was standing. But no, Tevye is not a woman. Tevye knows how to conduct himself before Satan the Tempter. (6.105)

A cruel bit of compartmentalizing here. Check out how Tevye uses his Biblical language to transform the pleading Chava into the devil (with one fell swoop she goes from female to male, family to stranger, flesh and blood to supernatural, powerless to superpower), as a way of justifying his horrific behavior.

Then Ivan Poperilo the mayor said, rather seriously, "You must understand, Tevel, that we have been arguing over whether we should beat you up or not. Since everywhere else people are getting beaten up, why should we let you get away without it? So the village council has decided we should beat you up. […] We have nothing against you, Tevel. It's true you are," he said, "a Jew, and you are not a bad person. But one thing has nothing to do with the other. We must beat you up. The council decided it, and that's the way it has to be! We will break out your windows. That we must do, because if some official passes through, they must see that you've been punished. Otherwise we might be the ones who get punished." (9.18-21)

The shock of how matter-of-factly the mayor tells Tevye that the whole Gentile part of the village has come to some state-mandated violence to him and his house… well, at least it helps explain why Tevye reacted as he did when Chava decided to marry one of these very same guys.

"You should know, Ivan, my friend, I am leaving," I told [Ivan Poperilo].

He asked me why.

I said, "I am moving to the city. I want to be among Jews. I am no longer a young man, and I might die at any time. […] I will go die among my own. Buy my house and garden from me. I wouldn't sell it to anyone but you." (9.46-50)

With a little bit of excellent reframing, Tevye kind of doesn't tell lies about why he's leaving, but also doesn't reveal that he really, really has to sell immediately. Also, check out how the story sets up this little bit of deception as a well-earned bit of vengeance by first describing how Ivan and the gang came to beat Tevye up and destroy his house earlier.

"I will flip through the pages of the Book of Psalms, and as soon as my eyes catch the first word, I will say to you, 'Be so kind and pious as to repeat it.' And if any one of you can repeat it after me, it will be a sign that commands that you do with Tevye what you will. And if not, that will be a sign that God says no. […] Can you repeat the word vachalaklokos?"


The group thought it over and got down to work, each in his own way. One said, "Haidamaki," another said, "Lomaki," and a third actually came out with "Chaykolia." […]

"We must make a wreck of things here. The council has decided and it's over. We will," he said, "at least break a few windows, and if you wish, you can knock out a few panes yourself." (10.13-23)

A little re-telling of the Ivan Poperilo story, this time featuring Tevye trying to get the Gentile villagers off his back with a word game. His words are for sure cleverer and stronger than theirs, but, unfortunately, it really doesn't matter. No matter how learned he is, and how much he can verbally hold them back, and even how much the mayor dude likes Tevye personally, the mob will still overwhelm him and drive him from his house like all the other Jews. In the end, his verbal specialness turns to not be all that special in the face of power.